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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207

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Pedro Sarmiento is born to upper-middle-class parents in Mexico City between 1771 and 1773; of the actual date, he is not sure. As a child he is willful, and his mother’s excessive devotion only makes him worse. He becomes such a scamp that at last his father sends him off to school. At school, he is nicknamed Parrot. A little later, when he contracts the itch, his schoolmates nickname him the Itching Parrot, or Poll for short, and the name sticks to him through most of his life.

In addition to his nickname, Poll acquires many vicious habits from his school fellows. Poll’s father resolves to put Poll out as an apprentice in a trade, but Poll’s mother, not wishing her son to disgrace her family by becoming a vulgar tradesman, insists that the boy be sent to college. Against his better judgment, the father agrees, and so Poll is sent off to study for a college degree. After learning some Latin, some Aristotle, some logic, and some physics, Poll is awarded a baccalaureate degree by the College of San Ildefonso. Shortly after receiving his degree, Poll goes into the countryside to visit a hacienda owned by the father of a former schoolmate. At the hacienda, he earns the hatred of his schoolmate, Januario, by making advances to the latter’s cousin, with whom Januario is infatuated. Januario takes his revenge by tempting Poll into a bullfight. Poll, who loses both the fight and his trousers, becomes the laughingstock of the hacienda. Still unsatisfied, Januario tricks Poll into trying to sleep with the girl cousin. Through Januario, the girl’s mother discovers the attempt, beats Poll with her shoe, and sends him back to Mexico City in disgrace.

Upon his return to the city, Poll is told by his father that he must find some means of earning a livelihood. Poll, searching for the easiest way, decides he will study theology and enter the Church. Theology quickly proves uninteresting, and Poll gives up that idea. Trying to escape his father’s insistence that he learn a trade, Poll then decides to enter a Franciscan monastery. There he soon finds that he cannot stand the life of a monk; he is glad when his father’s death gives him an excuse to leave the monastery. After a short period of mourning, Poll rapidly exhausts his small inheritance through his fondness for gambling, parties, and women. The sorrow he causes his mother sends her, also, to an early death. After his mother dies, Poll is left alone. None of his relatives, who know him for a rogue, will have anything to do with him.

In his despair, Poll falls in with another schoolmate, who supports himself by gambling and trickery. Poll takes up a similar career in his schoolmate’s company. A man Poll gulls discovers his treachery and beats him severely. After his release from the hospital, Poll goes back to his gambling partner, and they decide to turn thieves. On their first attempt, however, they are unsuccessful. Poll is caught and thrown into prison.

Poll has no family or friends to call upon, so he languishes in jail for several months. He makes one friend in jail who helps him; that friend is Don Antonio, a man of good reputation who was unjustly imprisoned. Don Antonio tries to keep Poll away from bad company but is not entirely successful. When Don Antonio is freed, Poll falls in with a mulatto who gets him into all kinds of scrapes. By chance, Poll is taken up by a scrivener who is in need of an apprentice and is pleased with Poll’s handwriting. The scrivener has Poll released from prison to become his apprentice. Poll’s career as a scrivener’s apprentice is short, for he makes love to the man’s mistress, is discovered, and is driven from the house. The next step in Poll’s adventures is service as a barber’s apprentice. He then leaves that work to become a clerk in a pharmacy. After getting into trouble by carelessly mixing a prescription, Poll leaves the pharmacy for the employ of a doctor.

Having picked up some jargon and a few cures from his doctor-employer, Poll sets out to be a physician. Everything goes well until he causes a number of deaths and is forced to leave the profession.

Trying to recoup his fortunes once more, Poll returns to gambling. In a game, he wins a lottery ticket which, in its turn, wins for him a small fortune. For a time, Poll lives well: He even marries a woman who thinks he has a great deal of money. The life the couple leads soon exhausts the lottery money, however, and they are almost penniless again. After his wife dies in childbirth, Poll sets out once again in search of his fortune. His work as a sacristan ends when he robs a corpse. Poll then joins a group of beggars. Finding that they are fakes, he reports them to the authorities. One of the officials, pleased with Poll, secures him a place in government service. For a time all goes well, but Poll, who is left in charge of the district when his superior is absent, abuses his authority so much that he is arrested and sent in chains to Mexico City. There he is tried, found guilty of many crimes, and sent to the army for eight years.

Through his good conduct and pleasing appearance, Poll is made clerk to the colonel of the regiment. The colonel places a great deal of trust in Poll. When the regiment goes to Manila, the colonel sees to it that Poll is given an opportunity to do some trading and save up a small fortune. Poll completes his sentence and prepares to return to Mexico as a fairly rich man. All his dreams and fortune vanish, however, when the ship sinks and he is cast away upon an island. On the island, he makes friends with a Chinese chieftain, in whose company Poll, pretending all the while to be a nobleman, returns to Mexico. When they reach Mexico, the lie is discovered, but the Chinese man continues to be Poll’s friend and patron.

Poll stays with the Chinese man for some time, but he finally leaves in disgrace after having introduced prostitutes into the house. Leaving Mexico City, Poll meets the mulatto who was his companion in jail. Along with the mulatto and some other men, Poll turns highwayman but barely escapes with his life from their first holdup. Frightened, Poll goes into retreat at a church, where he discovers his confessor to be a boy he knew years before in school. The kind confessor finds honest employment for Poll as an agent for a rich man. Poll becomes an honest, hardworking citizen, even being known as Don Pedro rather than Poll. Years pass quickly. Then one day, Don Pedro, befriending some destitute people, finds one to be his old benefactor of prison days, Don Antonio. The others are Don Antonio’s wife and daughter. Don Pedro marries the daughter, thus completing his respectability. He lives out the rest of his days in honesty, industry, and respect.