Picaresque Literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.