Mateo Alemán Essay - Critical Essays

Alemán, Mateo


Mateo Alemán 1547-1615?

Spanish Golden Age novelist.

The fame of the Spanish Golden Age writer Mateo Alemán lies almost entirely with his Guzmán de Alfarache, typically regarded as the greatest and most influential picaresque novel. Published in two parts between 1599 and 1604, Alemán's fictional autobiography of an unscrupulous “pícaro,” or rogue—who cheats and deceives his way through life until his final religious conversion—was the most commercially successful piece of Spanish literature of its day, achieving greater critical acclaim and popular sales than even Cervantes' Don Quixote. Although Alemán's masterpiece is seldom read today, scholars continue to debate the authenticity of protagonist's conversion. Critics agree, however, that the psychological complexity, engaging plot, and literary realism of Guzmán de Alfarache rank it with Don Quixote as one of the two greatest novels of the Spanish Golden Age.

Biographical Information

The exact date of Alemán's birth in Seville is unknown, although it was presumably within weeks of his baptism on September 28, 1547. His father was a medical doctor who, like his son, often struggled with financial difficulties. Despite being professing Christians, the Alemán family was suspected of being of Jewish origin, making its members ineligible for Spanish nobility or immigration to the New World. In 1564 Alemán received a Bachelor's degree in Arts and Philosophy from the University of Maese Rodrigo. For the following three years he studied medicine at the universities of Maese Rodrigo, Salamanca, and Alcalá, leaving school temporarily after his father's death in 1567. In 1568 Alemán ended his medical studies permanently and took several large loans in order to become a businessman. His businesses failed, and unable to repay his debts, Alemán agreed to marry the daughter of one his creditors rather than be thrown into debtor's prison. For the following decade Alemán failed at a series of business ventures before returning to the University of Maese Rodrigo in 1580 to study law. Later that same year Alemán was arrested for unpaid debts and sent to prison, where he spent several months before being bailed out by his wife and a prosperous uncle. Seeking a new life, Alemán applied to immigrate to the New World; however, his application was denied because of his Jewish ancestry. In 1583 Alemán was made a judge, but even this position ended in failure when King Philip II ordered Alemán jailed for overstepping his authority. Circumstances began to improve when Alemán got a government job as an accountant soon after being released from his second jail term; he moved to Madrid, augmenting his small salary by renting houses and making loans. In 1591, while in Cartagena on business, Alemán was nearly killed after being accidentally hit in the head by a cannon shot. Crediting his survival to his prayers to Saint Anthony of Padua, Alemán vowed to write a biography of the saint, a promise he kept over a decade later with the publication of San Antonio de Padua (1604; Saint Anthony of Padua). In 1593 Alemán again served as a judge, this time without complaint, gaining still more experiences which would soon find echo in his fictional autobiography of the rogue Guzmán.

Alemán was fifty before he began his literary career, publishing first translations of two odes by Horace and writing a prologue for a book by a friend, Alonso de Barros, in 1598. In 1599 Alemán published Guzmán de Alfarache, a book so immediately popular that within five years it had been reprinted in over twenty-five editions, many of them pirated. Although the success of the novel made Alemán instantly famous, the pirated versions of his work meant that Alemán gained little financial reward. Three years later, in 1602, Alemán was again imprisoned for failure to pay his debts, although he was soon bailed out by a cousin. That same year an unauthorized Part II of Guzmán was published by an pseudonymous author, sparking Alemán to begin work on an authentic continuation of the adventures of the popular “picaro,” which was published in 1604. Despite the continued success of his work, Alemán remained in debt. In 1607 he applied again to immigrate to Mexico, bribing officials to gain permission. Arriving in Mexico in 1608 with his mistress and several of their illegitimate children, Alemán's financial situation immediately improved, probably in large part due to his friendship with Fray García Guerra, Archbishop and Viceroy of New Spain, whom Alemán had met during his voyage to the New World. In Mexico, Alemán continued to write, publishing the Ortografía castellana (Castilian Orthography) in 1609 and Sucesos de D. Frai García Gera (Happenings of Fray García Guerra) in 1613. Nothing more is known of Alemán after 1615, the year most biographers presume he died.

Major Works

Alemán's literary success can be attributed to his lengthy novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, published in two parts in 1599 and 1604, respectively. Regarded as the second picaresque novel published in Spain (the first being the popular Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 by an unknown author), Guzmán de Alfarache is a fictional autobiography of a “pícaro” or rogue who looks back on his life of deceit and sin after he has been sentenced to life in prison for his wicked deeds. The illegitimate son of a prostitute and an usurer, Guzmán's story begins with a description of his humble origins. After his father dies, Guzmán journeys out into the world and attempts to improve his lot in life. Finding little success in a series of jobs, Guzmán falls in with a group of rogues and beggars from whom he learns how to gain a comfortable living by thievery and fraud. Cheating at cards enables him to pose as a successful merchant, and he soon marries a woman who leaves him penniless before she dies. Next, the rogue decides to become a minister because he considers this occupation easy, but he soon abandons this plan and marries again, this time acting as a pimp and living on the earnings of his wife's prostitution. When this wife finally deserts him, Guzmán once again gains his living from gambling and thievery until he is finally apprehended and sentenced to a life in prison for his many crimes. In prison, the narrator repents of his crimes, promising to lead a virtuous life in the future. The open ending of the second part of the novel has led many critics to believe that Alemán intended to write a third section; however, this remains largely speculative since Alemán did not write further adventures of his most famous character before his death in 1615.

Critical Reception

Not only did the publication of Guzmán de Alfarache gain Alemán instant popular success as an author, his novel was praised by critics of his day for both its highly entertaining plot and its moral teachings. Within fifteen years of the novel's first publication it was translated into French, Italian, and German, and Alemán's prose was widely considered superior to Cervantes' popular 1605 masterpiece, Don Quixote. Modern critics often regard Alemán's picaresque novel as a revolutionary step within the emerging literary genre, and contend that its unsentimental depiction of everyday life fostered the development of the modern realistic novel. Nearly all twentieth-century criticism of the novel focuses on the interpretation of Guzmán's religious conversion. Some critics conclude that the narrator's turn to religion is yet another example of a scoundrel who seizes the opportunity to turn to piety only in order to save his life, while others regard the conversion as authentic, teaching the lesson that all men are cursed with Original Sin but can be saved through repentance and divine grace. The psychological complexity of Guzmán's narration, mixing burlesque humor and satire with moral digressions chastising a degenerate society, has opened a wide spectrum of conjecture on the relationship between the character Guzmán and the author Alemán, a Christian of Jewish origins who may have wished to prove his devotion to Christian tenets. Whatever its interpretation, critics are unanimous in their praise of Guzmán de Alfarache as one of the seminal novels of the Spanish Golden Age.

Principal Works

Guzmán de Alfarache [Guzmán; or The Adventures of Gusman d'Alfarache (novel) 1599

San Antonio de Padua [Saint Anthony of Padua] (novel) 1604

*Atalaya de la vida humana [Watch-Tower of Man's Life; or Guzmán de Alfarache, Part 2] (novel) 1604

Ortografía castellana [Castilian Orthography] (novel) 1609

Sucesos de D. Frai García Gera [Happenings of Fray García Guerra] (novel) 1613

*Sometimes combined with the 1599 Guzmán de Alfarache and titled Guzmán de Alfarache.


Sherman Eoff (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Eoff, Sherman. “The Picaresque Psychology of Guzmán de Alfarache.” Hispanic Review 21, no. 2 (April 1953): 107-19.

[In the following essay, Eoff examines the psychology of the protagonist of Guzmán de Alfarache, dividing the story into sections which portray the protagonist's increasing shamelessness, deceit, and buffoonery.]

What is the psychology of a pícaro? Can we profit by study the varieties of this literary type as we would individual human beings enmeshed in their environment? There is general agreement that the Spanish picaresque novel of the seventeenth century, more than a special kind of narrative form growing out of literary...

(The entire section is 5502 words.)

J. V. Ricapito (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Ricapito, J. V. “Love and Marriage in Guzmán de Alfarache: An Essay on Literary and Artistic Unity.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1968): 123-38.

[In the following essay, Ricapito examines themes of love and marriage in Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, concentrating on the affair of Guzmán's mother as a pivotal episode in Guzmán's own unhappy love life.]

Critics, in evaluating the concept of love in the picaresque genre, have uniformly noted its absence or decreased importance as a literary theme. In one of the first modern critical commentaries on the picaresque, F. W. Chandler underscores the absence of sentiment in the picaresque...

(The entire section is 6661 words.)

R. J. Oakley (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Oakley, R. J. “The Problematic Unity of Guzmán de Alfarache.” In Hispanic Studies in Honour of Joseph Manson, edited by Dorothy M. Atkinson and Anthony H. Clarke, pp. 185-206. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Co. Ltd., 1972.

[In the following essay, Oakley examines themes of honor and necessity in Guzmán de Alfarache, concluding that Alemán's work centers on the moral weakness of humanity and its need for divine help in obtaining salvation.]

In his recent biography of Mateo Alemán, Donald McGrady provided a summary of recent trends in criticism of Guzmán de Alfarache, remarking that although, on the whole, the twentieth century critics...

(The entire section is 9720 words.)

Vivian Folkenflik (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Folkenflik, Vivian. “Vision and Truth: Baroque Art Metaphors in Guzmán de Alfarache.Modern Language Notes 88, no. 2 (March 1973): 347-55.

[In the following essay, Folkenflik discusses Alemán's references to painting in Guzmán de Alfarache, many of which show the author's insistence that the visual world is an illusion.]

Towards the end of his description of his Italian travels, the narrator of Guzmán de Alfarache has occasion to lament that nowadays men judge only according to what they see:

Cuando fueres alquimia, eso que reluciere de ti, eso será venerado. Ya no se juzgan almas ni más de...

(The entire section is 4301 words.)

M. N. Norval (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Norval, M. N. “Original Sin and the ‘Conversion’ in the Guzmán de Alfarache.Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 51, no. 4 (October 1974): 346-64.

[In the following essay, Norval argues against critics such as Alexander Parker and Moreno Báez who claim that Guzmán's final conversion is real, charging instead that Guzmán de Alfarache is a pessimistic story about man's inability to gain salvation without God's grace.]

The Guzmán de Alfarache is a pseudo-autobiography in which a pícaro tells the story of his evil life and his supposed conversion.1 More critics than not have dismissed the conversion as hypocritical, as...

(The entire section is 9275 words.)

Hilary S. D. Smith (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Smith, Hilary S. D. “The Pícaro Turns Preacher: Guzmán's de Alfarache's Missed Vocation.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 14, no. 4 (October 1978): 387-97.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the sermons in Guzmán de Alfarache, concentrating on Guzmán's role as a preacher.]

It must become apparent to even the most casual reader of Mateo Alemán's picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache that the work is full of sermons; that not only the digressive discursos (a favourite term applied to contemporary printed sermons) but also complete chapters are cast in a homiletic mould.1 Whereas Unamuno expressed his dislike for...

(The entire section is 5794 words.)

Carroll Johnson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Johnson, Carroll. Introduction to Inside Guzmán de Alfarache, pp. 1-9. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines some of the many competing interpretations of Guzmán de Alfarache, himself concentrating on the discrepancies between Guzmán's adventures and Alemán's sermonizing.]

The preeminence of Don Quijote in the history of the modern novel, while demonstrating a facet of the general debt of Western literature to the Hispanic tradition, has been largely responsible for the widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of the other great prose narration that stands together with the...

(The entire section is 3959 words.)

Carroll Johnson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Johnson, Carroll. “D. Álvaro de Luna and the Problem of Impotence in Guzmán de Alfarache.Journal of Hispanic Philology 8, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 33-47.

[In the following essay, Johnson discusses themes of impotence in Guzmán de Alfarache.]

It is customary to consider the interpolated novelettes in Guzmán de Alfarache either as more or less light-hearted entertainment and demonstrations of the author's virtuosity in several narrative conventions, or on the other hand as proof of Alemán's inability to free himself from his pessimistic world view, his preoccupation with frustration and deceit. In the first instance the critic finds himself...

(The entire section is 6135 words.)

Linda M. Willem (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Willem, Linda M. “Variations on Engaño and Honra in the Interpolated Novelettes of Guzmán de Alfarache.Hispanic Journal 8, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 7-20.

[In the following essay, Willem discusses how Alemán inserts several novelettes into Guzmán de Alfarache to accentuate his overarching themes concerning honor and deceit.]

In general, critical opinion concerning the role of the interpolated novelettes in Guzmán de Alfarache falls into two camps: those who consider them to be significantly linked to the main narrative; and those who see them as extraneous stories which serve the essentially decorative function of...

(The entire section is 6594 words.)

C. A. Longhurst (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Longhurst, C. A. “The Problem of Conversion and Repentance in Guzmán de Alfarache.” In A Face Not Turned to the Wall: Essays on Hispanic Themes for Gareth Alban Davies, pp. 85-110. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1987.

[In the following essay, Longhurst surveys critical reactions regarding Guzmán's authentic conversion.]

Interpretations of Guzmán de Alfarache have undergone a drastic change of direction over the last ten years or so, thanks largely to the efforts of American scholars. I am thinking mainly, though not exclusively, of the recent books of Joan Arias, Carroll Johnson and Benito Brancaforte.1

What these...

(The entire section is 12180 words.)

Nina Cox Davis (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Davis, Nina Cox. “Indigestion and Edification in the Guzmán de Alfarache.Modern Language Notes: Hispanic Issue 104, no. 2 (March 1989): 304-14.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses motifs of eating and digestion in Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache to explore themes of literary deception.]

The tendency of Guzmán criticism in recent decades has been to focus on the conclusion of Part II, the account of the narrator's alleged repentence and religious conversion while serving life sentence as a galley slave.1 By reading the nearly one-thousand page fictive autobiography solely in terms of its closing chapters, as an example...

(The entire section is 4320 words.)

Nina Cox Davis (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Davis, Nina Cox. “Guzmán('s) Swindles.” Symposium 43, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 194-208.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that the stories of how Guzmán swindles a silversmith, a merchant, and his uncle offer clues to the Guzmán's greatest deception of all—deceiving readers into believing his final conversion is authentic.]

Since its publication in 1599, Guzmán de Alfarache has been the subject of controversy, and its critics remain divided today. They debate Alemán's message, agreeing only that the novel is structured on a complex and problematic narrative. The fictive author Guzmán is made to relate his past and comment on it for the readers'...

(The entire section is 7063 words.)

Judith A. Whitenack (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Whitenack, Judith A. “‘Bonifacio y Dorotea’ and the Merchandising of Love.” Hispanic Review 58, no. 1 (winter 1990): 57-71.

[In the following essay, Whitenack examines the tale Bonifacio y Dorotea in Guzmán de Alfarache, concluding that mercantile interests are of far greater importance to themes in the narration than Guzmán's sexual deviancy.]

It is no news for readers of Guzmán de Alfarache that Guzmán's wife, mother and grandmother were all prostitutes. We also know that Guzmán, following the pattern set by the man who was probably his father, lived for a time on his wife Gracia's earnings and even acted as her...

(The entire section is 5887 words.)

Further Reading


Arias, Joan. Guzmán de Alfarache: The Unrepentant Narrator. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1977, 106 p.

Full-length study of Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache which argues that Guzmán's final conversion serves to demonstrate the Christian doctrine of original sin.

Cascardi, Anthony J. “The Rhetoric of Defense in the Guzmán de Alfarache.Neophilologus 63, no. 3 (July 1979): 380-88.

Concentrates on elements of social and moral defense by the narrator of Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache.

Davis, Nina Cox. Autobiography as Burla in the Guzmán de Alfarache....

(The entire section is 360 words.)