Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Spain oscillated between the two poles of saintly mysticism and the picaresque novel, or romance of roguery, in the sixteenth century. Germs of protopicaresque fiction had first appeared in medieval Europe, in the Dance of Death of France and the jest books of Germany. The world’s first genuine picaresque novel was Spain’s LAZARILLO DE TORMES in 1553. Much later came a second major picaresque work, Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán DE ALFARACHE, which was about ten times as long as the earlier work.

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Mateo Alemán was born in the same year as Miguel de Cervantes (1547), and his life matches and contrasts with that of DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA’s author in odd ways. The son of a Seville prison doctor, Alemán led a riotous student life and then careened into a life of wanderlust, penury, and wild sprees, interspersed with terms in debtor’s prison. He was once in a Seville dungeon at the same time as Cervantes. Calamity had opposite effects on the two novelists—the noble Cervantes wrote a spiritual novel of the struggle between good and evil, while Alemán wrote one of world literature’s most pessimistic novels, laced with human corruption.

To readers of Alemán’s own day, VIDA Y HECHOS DEL PICARO Guzmán DE ALFARACHE ATALAYA DE LA VIDA HUMANA (THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF Guzmán DE ALFARACHE) was a book much more popular than Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA, its contemporary. Thirty editions of the novel appeared within six years of its publication; its vogue quickly spread to France and England, where in 1622 James Mabbe translated it into English under the appropriate title of THE SPANISH ROGUE. Alemán’s novel, published in two parts in 1599 and 1604, is typically Spanish: realistic, comic, often coarse.

Guzmán DE ALFARACHE views human nature dimly and is much more bitter than LAZARILLO DE TORMES. Women are cunning vixens who fleece dullard men, the latter being selfish louts. The poor are coarse, greedy, and unlovable. Humans have appetites but not ideals, while color and humor are scarce. Thieves, scamps, and false friends festoon the novel’s pages, along with cynicism (the Spanish word cinico is more negative than the English “cynical,” implying total unscrupulousness). Guzmán, the protagonist, cheats and betrays and wanders the rural roads and urban alleys of Spain and Italy. He is finally condemned to the ultimate horror of rogues—service as a galley slave. The novel’s episodes are morbidly interesting and ripple casually on for hundreds of pages. Life is seamy to the core, honor can be bought like garlic at a fair, and dreams are fake. The novel follows the same autobiographical form as LAZARILLO DE TORMES , but stitches short stories, fables, allegories, satirical polemics, and long moralizations into its fabric. Unity is supplied by Guzmán’s narration of his miserable life, and the novel alternates geographically between city and country, a technique that was to be followed by subsequent Spanish novelists, including...

(The entire section contains 773 words.)

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