Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

The Itching Parrot is José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s masterpiece and is canonized as the first Spanish American novel. It is a picaresque novel, describing the misadventures of a young man driven by hunger and poverty to make his way in the world, in which he must, he says, cheat...

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The Itching Parrot is José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s masterpiece and is canonized as the first Spanish American novel. It is a picaresque novel, describing the misadventures of a young man driven by hunger and poverty to make his way in the world, in which he must, he says, cheat to survive. The book also has a liberal amount of slapstick humor (good examples of which occur during Poll’s spell as a doctor’s assistant and the episode in which he attempts to steal jewelry from a corpse). Like the protagonist of the early picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), Poll experiences a series of apprenticeships (in a ranch, a monastery, a barber’s shop, a pharmacy), learning a variety of trades that range from the socially prestigious (doctor’s assistant, sacristan’s assistant) to the dubious (croupier, cardsman) to the illegal (thief). The important part of these learning experiences is that all the occupations are based on deception. Those elements that The Itching Parrot shares with the great Spanish classic are effective. Unlike Lazarillo de Tormes, however, Fernández de Lizardi’s novel inserts long, moralizing passages that describe the moral meaning of events in the plot and, for the modern reader at least, reduce their impact.

The society that The Itching Parrot describes is in flux. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Spain’s colonies saw a displacement of power from the hands of the Church, the monarchy, and the landowning elite to a new, professional class of doctors, lawyers, and merchants. The Itching Parrot is sensitive to this social change and gives a vivid picture of a society that gradually was becoming more politically independent from Spain. An indication of this change of ambience is evident in the opening pages of the novel. The novel’s prologue describes an imaginary conversation between the author and a friend, who advises the author against dedicating his work to a wealthy patron, instead saying that the author should dedicate the book to his readers, since they are “the ones who will pay for the printing.” It is not by chance that the first Spanish American novel should refer to a new mode of production (capital-based book production) and, by implication, to the new class from which it sprang.

Most critics agree that the main aim of The Itching Parrot is to identify the abuse of power in the professions in colonial New Spain. In Spanish America, as elsewhere, the growth of the new professional classes, including doctors, lawyers, merchants, suppliers, and printers, was accompanied by the growth of a parasitic group of unqualified and dishonest professionals; it is these latter that The Itching Parrot sets out to satirize. The protagonist is used not so much as a means whereby the hypocrisy and corruption of others is exposed; rather, he becomes himself the object of scorn and ridicule. In part 1, chapter 1, for example, Poll takes great pains to list the circumstances of his upbringing as a way of explaining his wayward ways. He assigns blame to his parents’ lack of education, their lack of concern for his upbringing and, in particular, their frequent recourse to wet nurses. The irony underlying these details becomes clear when the narrator refers to the way in which old wives’ tales affected him as a young child, and the narrative begins to creak under its self-imposed burden of moralism. It could be argued that the moralistic intention of this passage (which is typical of many others) is too transparent, and that Pedro’s credibility as a narrator is diminished as a result.

The rationale behind the many episodes of Pedro’s life emerges at the end of the novel. In book 3, chapter 3, the narrator is shipwrecked on an unidentified island in the Pacific Ocean. He finds himself obliged to justify the laws and customs of his native land to a skeptical Chinese chieftain (who may be Fernández de Lizardi’s spokesman). In describing his society’s customs (such as the idea that nobles cannot work, work being beneath them), Pedro manages to make the customs sound absurd. Pedro’s stupidity is revealed when, in the same chapter, he not only fails to recognize a plant but diagnoses its medicinal function in precisely the wrong way. Events finally run against Pedro, and he is humiliated by the Chinese chieftain. When readers ask to what or to whom is the satire being directed, the answer must surely be Spanish American society.

There are some scenes in the novel that show Fernández de Lizardi’s consummate skill in allowing irony to emerge from events rather than from commentary. A good example is the frequently anthologized scene in part 2, chapter 6, in which Poll decides to become a doctor, takes on André as his assistant and, with the luck of the devil, manages to revive a tax collector who is on his deathbed. Poll’s use of Latin to hoodwink his audience and hide his ignorance, when faced with medical symptoms, is effectively done. In this vignette Fernández de Lizardi offers a convincing picture of a society in which half-learned Latin tags are used to confound the populace and fleece the poor.

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