Picaresque Literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Essay - Critical Essays

Picaresque Literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries


Picaresque Literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Predominantly Spanish narrative genre, 1550-1680.

While scholars continue to debate the specifics of the picaresque as a genre, it is commonly accepted that the picaresque narrative originated in Spain in the 1550s. Picaresques are episodic first-person narratives, fictionalized autobiographies of lower-class roguish wanderers. This broad definition of the genre has sparked a considerable amount of controversy among modern critics, many of whom maintain that the form encompasses any work that features an antihero, adventures, and an inversion of traditional value systems, from the anonymously published early picaresque La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (1554) to modern films such as Easy Rider (1969).

Most scholars agree that Lazarillo de Tormes is the seminal work of the genre, though it does not feature all of the elements that came to be viewed as characteristic of this type of fiction. First published in 1554, it was revived towards the end of the sixteenth century, when it was attached to a Spanish translation of Giovanni della Casa's Galateo, an Italian example of Renaissance courtesy literature, which became popular in the Spanish court of Phillip III. This coupling of Lazarillo de Tormes with a courtesy book aimed at an elite audience points to the popularity the picaresque enjoyed among the aristocracy, who found diversion in the adventures and trials of characters belonging to the lower classes, especially those living outside the law.

Picaresque literature focuses on the adventures of a lower-class rogue, known as a picaro, from whose perspective the reader views the action of the story. Picaro is a slang term that appeared in the early sixteenth century and carried connotations of mischief, vagrancy, and low birth. The term also gives the genre its name, and Mateo Alemán's use of the term in Guzmán de Alfarache (1599) first identified the picaro as a literary type. The picaro is often portrayed as a petty criminal, living by his wits outside the law and conventional morality. A true picaro is an antihero; even if he wins the sympathy of his readers—usually as the victim of hypocritical or unjust superiors—he does not right any wrongs or gain any particular wisdom. The picaro sees himself as the clever hero of his narrative, but the events of his story belie this self-perception.

The picaro figure also has a female counterpart in the picara, a character type that scholars generally agree grew out of the female bawd of such earlier works as Alonso Jerónimo de Salas Barbadillo's La hija de Celestina (1499). Some scholars maintain that the picara developed alongside the picaro: the picaresque-like fiction La lozana Andaluza, by Francisco Delicado, was first published in 1528, well before Lazarillo de Tormes, and Francisco Lopez de Ubeda's La pícara Justina (1605) followed shortly after Guzmán de Alfarache. Frank Chandler, one of the pioneering modern scholars on the picaresque, has suggested that the picara—whose physical attractiveness and her trade as a purveyor of sexual services gave her more autonomy as a character and thus more potential as a rogue—played an important role in the evolution of the genre. The picara also appears in many of the earliest picaresque novels in English, including Daniel Defoe's influential Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724).

Critical studies of the picaresque have tended to focus on the placement of picaresque narratives in the overall evolution of the novel as a literary form, and on the qualities that define the picaresque as narrative form in its own right. Scholars argue that picaresque narratives played an important role in the history of the novel; their colorful characters and often exotic subject matter closely relate to the romance, the immediate precursor to the novel, while their use of realistic detail anticipates the novel's emphasis on realistic detail. There is little agreement among scholars regarding which works truly fit the criteria of the picaresque, even when discussion is confined to early Spanish narratives. One of the major scholars of the picaresque, Ulrich Wicks, addresses the task of defining the picaresque by narrowing classifications of picaresque literature into the picaresque myth, picaresque fictions, picaresque-like fictions, and the picaresque as a formal literary genre. Some commentators, including Wicks and Claudio Guillén, maintain that from the publication of Guzmán de Alfarache a general notion of the genre shaped the picareques that followed. Others, such as Daniel Eisenberg, maintain that no such notion existed when early picaresque novels were being written and that the concept of genre was invented largely by literary critics. Scholars have also focused on the ambiguous morality of the picaresque, contextualizing picaresque values in early modern Spanish culture and discussing the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator.

Representative Works

La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades [The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities] (novel) 1554

Mateo Alemán
Guzmán de Alfarache. [The Life and Adventures of Guzman D'Alfarache; 2 vols.] (novel) 1599-1604

Francisco Delicado
La lozana Andaluza [The Lusty Andalusian Woman] (novel) 1528

Vicente Martinez Espinel
Relaciones de la vida y aventuras del escudero Marcos de Obregón (novel) 1618

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen
Simplicius Simplicissimus (novel) 1668

Francisco Gomez de Quevedo
Historia de la vida del buscón [The Sharper] (novel) 1626

Alonso Jerónimo de Salas Barbadillo
La hija de Celestina [The Daughter of Celestina] (novel) 1612

Francisco Lopez de Ubeda
La pícara Justina (novel) 1605

Criticism: Context And Development

Walter L. Reed (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Reed, Walter L. “The Advent of the Spanish Picaresque.” In An Exemplary History of the Novel: the Quixotic Versus the Picaresque, pp. 43-70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

[In this essay, Reed discusses the development of the picaresque as an aspect of the development of the novel.]

He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.

1 Corinthians 1:28

Lazarillo de Tormes, published in three separate editions in 1554, appeared just before the onset of the Counter Reformation in Spain, and it shows some distinctive features as a...

(The entire section is 15037 words.)

Ulrich Wicks (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Wicks, Ulrich. “The Picaresque Genre.” In Picaresque Narratives, Picaresque Fictions: A Theory and Research Guide, pp. 3-16. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wicks outlines the history of the picaresque narrative, and surveys current debates regarding the specific characteristics of the picaresque.]

It has become a critical commonplace in generic theory to make an obligatory acknowledgment of vicious circularity before being forced to proceed within it. The frustration of this part of the hermeneutic task is succinctly put by Paul Hernadi (paraphrasing Günther Müller) in Beyond Genre (1972): “How can I define tragedy (or...

(The entire section is 7255 words.)

Harry Sieber (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Sieber, Harry. “Literary Continuity, Social Order, and the Invention of the Picaresque.” In Cultural Authority in Golden Age Spain, edited by Marina S. Brownlee and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, pp. 143-64. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the essay which follows, Sieber approaches the development of the picaresque tradition from a socio-political perspective, suggesting that this literary genre reflected issues relating to the court of Phillip III.]

In the exploration of various interrelations between literature and history in the second half of the sixteenth century in Spain, my main interests are those points of contact between literature as...

(The entire section is 8924 words.)

Giancarlo Maiorino (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Maiorino, Giancarlo. “Picaresque Econopoetics: At the Watershed of Living Standards.” In The Picaresque: Tradition and Displacement, edited by Giancarlo Maiorino, pp. 1-39. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

[In this essay, Maiorino applies the insights of New Historicist scholarship to the picaresque, focusing on Lazarillo de Tormes.]


At the divide between the waning of feudalism and the birth of capitalism, orations on human dignity, praises of folly, seafaring discoveries, and mercantile adventurism set off outbursts of human ingenuity. Merchants in Florence and elsewhere, Jules Michelet wrote at an early stage...

(The entire section is 15505 words.)

Criticism: Genre

W. M. Frohock with Gregory Fitz Gerald and Eric Steel (interview date 1971)

SOURCE: Frohock, W. M., Gregory Fitz Gerald, and Eric Steel. “Picaresque and Modern Literature: A Conversation with W. H. Frohock.” Edited by Philip L. Gerber and Robert J. Gemmett. Genre 13, no. 2 (1971): 187-97.

[In this interview, Frohock discusses the characteristics of the picaresque novel and the possibility of a modern picaresque.]

[Steel:] Mr. Frohock, you have said that you feel the term picaresque has been used for too loosely in describing modern fiction. At the same time you admit that many modern works contain features that can be legitimately classified as picaresque. Since some modern works of fiction exhibit characteristics of the old...

(The entire section is 3660 words.)

Claudio Guillen (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Guillen, Claudio. “Genre and Countergenre: The Discovery of the Picaresque.” In Literature as System: Essays Toward the Theory of Literary History, pp. 135-58. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

[In the essay below, Guillen reviews the development of the picaresque novel as a model for a theory of genre.]

Bibliographical research, of which the works of Antonio Rodríguez-Moñino offer today an eminent example,1 provides the student of literature with a very substantial problem: that of the relationship between a poem and its readers. As everyone suspects in the most generic way—scripta manent—art can and often does...

(The entire section is 7993 words.)

Daniel Eisenberg (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Eisenberg, Daniel. “Does the Picaresque Novel Exist?” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26, no. 2 (1979): 203-19.

[In the following essay, presented in 1976, Eisenberg argues that “picaresque” as a literary term is so general as to be meaningless and proposes doing away with the classification.]

The concept of the picaresque novel and the definition of this “genre” is a problem concerning which there exists a considerable bibliography;1 it is also the subject of a bitter personal debate.2 According to Fernando Lázaro Carreter, the picaresque novel is “escurridiza” and something which “se resiste enérgicamente a ser...

(The entire section is 8586 words.)

Ulrich Wicks (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Wicks, Ulrich. “The Romance of the Picaresque.” Genre 11, no. 1 (1978): 29-44.

[In the essay below, Wicks defends the notion of a picaresque tradition, while acknowledging the difficulty in defining the characteristics of the genre.]


—Es tan bueno—respondió Ginés—, que mal año para Lazarillo de Tormes y para todos cuantos de aquel género se han escrito o escribieren.

Don Quijote (Part I, Chapter 22)

The awareness of picaresque fiction as a genre begins almost simultaneously with the first (though not universally accepted) prototype,...

(The entire section is 6570 words.)

Criticism: The Picaro

Alexander Parker (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Parker, Alexander. “Zenith and Nadir in Spain.” In Literature and the Delinquent: the Picaresque in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753, pp. 53-74. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Parker focuses on Historia de la vida del buscón and the development of the character Pablo.]

The first conscious attempt to find a middle-way solution to the problem of presenting delinquency in polite literature led the genre in a new direction. The next novel to appear was Marcos de Obregón (1618)1 by the poet and musician Vicente Espinel (1550-1624), who, after an adventurous and peripatetic youth, took orders and became...

(The entire section is 10537 words.)

Barbara A. Babcock (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Babcock, Barbara A. “’Liberty's a Whore’: Inversions, Marginalia, and Picaresque Narrative.” In The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, edited by Barbara A. Babcock, pp. 95-116. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

[In the essay which follows, Babcock discusses the social role of the picaresque hero, focusing on early Spanish picaresques as well as the film Easy Rider.]

In one of the most recent picaresque fictions, my colleague Zulfikar Ghose's The Incredible Brazilian, his picaro-narrator informs his reader in the prologue:

I am aware of the danger of fantasies, of adding spice...

(The entire section is 7416 words.)

Joseph W. Meeker (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Meeker, Joseph W. “The Pastoral and the Picaresque.” In The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic, pp. 50-73. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

[In this essay, Meeker considers the character of the picaro from the vantage point of the pastoral tradition in literature.]

The world has often seemed like a scary place for people. Ours is not the first period in history to notice that there is much corruption in social and political structures, that conventional moralities do not address our real problems, that there are too many people for comfort, that the technologies that promised us ease have also damaged our lives and environments,...

(The entire section is 9659 words.)

Criticism: The Picara

Edward H. Friedman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Friedman, Edward H. “The Voiceless Narrator: The Spanish Feminine Picaresque and Unliberated Discourse.” In The Antiheroine's Voice: Narrative Discourse and Transformation of the Picaresque, pp. 69-94. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

[In the excerpt which follows, Friedman focuses on La lozana andaluza and La pícara Justina as examples of the distinct type of picaresque narrative that features female heroes.]

Men, in determining the “acceptable” values and assumptions (which include the inferior status of women), subject women to experiences that men are not subjected to; but men's language structure does...

(The entire section is 15731 words.)

Anne K. Kaler (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Kaler, Anne K. “Literary Origins of the Picaro and the Picara.” In Picara: From Hera to Fantasy Heroine, pp. 21-41. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1991.

[In this excerpt, Kaler discusses the early picaras in Spanish literature, focusing on their autonomy.]

Imagine that, after all the primary colors that the picaro left us are blended into crude figures, the artist introduces a true blinding white which is laid on top of all the other shades to highlight prominent points.

Autonomy is such a white—a brighter, larger, obtrusive, awkward, unpredictable, crystalline, visible, shattering white. For it is around and...

(The entire section is 12367 words.)

Further Reading


Wicks, Ulrich. “A Picaresque Bibliography.” Genre 5, no. 2 (1972): 193-216.

Lists scholarship in both English and Spanish focusing on genre issues. This bibliography is not annotated.


Alter, Robert. Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 148 p.

Suggests a middle path for defining the picaresque genre as both historically specific and evolving dramatically over time; this study examines picaresque narratives of the eighteenth century and after.

Atkinson, William. “Studies in Literary...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)