Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Spanish novel began to develop into a modern form. This early novel form—particularly during the sixteenth century, the Spanish Golden Age—evolved into four types. The earliest was the novel of chivalry. Amadís de Gaul, written in about the mid-fourteenth century but not published until 1508, is one of the best known of this type. Next in chronological order was the dramatic novel—a novel in dialogue—of which Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499; Celestina, 1631) is the prime example. The other two types appeared at approximately the same time, the mid-sixteenth century. One was the pastoral novel, the first and greatest being Jorge de Montemayor’s La Diana (1559; Diana of George of Montemayor, 1598). The other was the picaresque novel, exemplified by Lazarillo de Tormes.

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The anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes is generally conceded to be the earliest and the best of the picaresque novels. Episodic in form, the picaresque novel’s narrative is usually told in the first person, the story dealing with the life of a picaro, or rogue, who is narrator and protagonist. In spite of much scholarly investigation, the origins of the terms “picaresque” and “picaro” are still in doubt, and etymological research has so far proved fruitless. “Picaro,” however, is understood to designate a wandering knave, a poor adventurer, who lives by his wits on the fringes of a class-conscious society and who must subordinate the luxury of ethics to the necessities of survival. Since the picaro typically serves several masters sequentially and in the course of his service observes their weaknesses and those of others, the picaresque novel becomes an ideal vehicle for depicting a wide cross section of society and, with its satirical tone, manages to attack broad segments of that society in the process. The picaresque elements of satire, parody, caricature, and the like are not unique to picaresque novels, however. These traits also exist in earlier literature—such as El libro de buen amor (1330; The Book of Good Love, 1933), by Juan Ruiz, the archpriest of Hita, and Rojas’s La Celestina—that influenced the development of the picaresque novel. Still, it is in the picaresque novel that society is held up to most careful scrutiny and receives the most scathing denunciation.

In addition, Lazarillo de Tormes is often thought, by virtue of its form, to be autobiographical. The likelihood that this is the case, however, is slim. The anonymous author refers to Latin authors (improbable for a real-life Lazarillo) and reveals a distinct influence of the philosopher Erasmus (equally improbable for Lazarillo, whose formal education might charitably be described as lacking). The intrinsically fascinating adventures of Lazarillo need no autobiographical buttress. The instant and enduring popularity of the novel—three editions from 1554 alone are extant—is testimony to its compelling qualities as literature. So, too, is the fact of its translation into many languages: French, English, Dutch, German, and Italian versions of Lazarillo de Tormes appeared within less than seventy years of the work’s first publication, and others followed. Imitation is another gauge of the novel’s popularity and influence: In addition to Alain-René Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; The History of Gil Blas of Santillane, 1716, 1735; better known as Gil Blas, 1749, 1962), among many others, two sequels to Lazarillo de Tormes were written. Perhaps the ultimate accolade, however, was that the novel was placed on the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books, the Index librorum prohibitorum, for its anticlericalism, an element of the work that is routinely attributed to the influence of Erasmus.

As a character, Lazarillo is not original, cut from the whole cloth of the author’s imagination. Before becoming the novel’s protagonist, he was a character in folklore, with his name appearing in early proverbs and anecdotes. In fact, a quarter century before Lazarillo de Tormes was published, Lazarillo had a cameo role in Francisco Delicado’s novel La Lozana Andaluza (1528; Portrait of Lozana: The Lusty Andalusian Woman, 1987), which features a pícara, a female rogue after the La Celestina model. Following Lazarillo de Tormes, however, Lazarillo himself became such a staple that the name itself became a generic term for those who guide the blind.

The most important aspect of Lazarillo de Tormes, however, is its satire, and the targets of this satire are lined up like ducks in a shooting gallery. All told, Lazarillo serves seven masters before becoming his own master, so to speak. The story is thus divided into seven tratados (treatises or chapters), each dealing with a particular employer. The first is the blind beggar; the next, a priest; the third, a nobleman; the fourth, a friar; the fifth, a seller of indulgences; the sixth, a chaplain; the last, a constable. After narrating his unconventional background, Lazarillo launches his attack on social stratification, beginning with the blind man and continuing through the penniless nobleman and the constable; his harshest commentary, however, is reserved for the clergy—priest, friar, seller of indulgences, and chaplain—whose duplicity and venality are a constant source of amazement and embarrassment to him. Lazarillo’s implicit and explicit criticism of the clergy constitutes the preponderant thrust of the novel. His observations are astute, and the account accurately reflects contemporary conditions. Nevertheless, in such perceptivity lies a challenge to the status quo, a challenge that those in power were obliged to suppress, as they did by banning the novel.

Above all, Lazarillo de Tormes conveys a mood, a temper, a tenor: a cynical antidote to the idealistic worldviews, secular or religious, that characterized the medieval age of faith. In this sense, the novel is refreshing, breathing clear air into a musty, closed era. It wafts a clarity that should, but does not, make the blind man see, the exploiter turn philanthropist, the self-seeking cleric become true shepherd, and so on. The unalloyed power of this novel in fact stems from its lack of malice: It deplores corruption, but it does not hate.

Although it focuses on the lower levels of society, the novel is not intended to reform. Although it attacks clerical depredations, it is not sacrilegious. Still, Lazarillo de Tormes is, in the last analysis, more than a bitter tale of personal privation. It is a realistic commentary—a foil to the competing idealism of chivalric romances—on life as it is actually lived by common people who have neither privilege nor power. Beyond cynicism and despair, the novel offers hope for better things to come, since Lazarillo ultimately gets his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder to respectable success. As town crier, he has a steady, assured income, even if his wife is a hand-me-down mistress of the archpriest of Salvador. Lazarillo is willing thus to compromise. The reader is inclined to respect Lazarillo’s judgment in this and other matters of the art of survival.

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