The Picaresque Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Spanish words picaresque and picaro achieved currency in Spain shortly after 1600. Today they are terms in literary criticism, sometimes misused because of the vague meaning attached to them. The revival of the genre in the twentieth century was accompanied by an increased critical interest in this type of novel, with the result that some critics try to stretch the definition of the picaresque while others attempt to restrict it. Still, some features are generally accepted as distinct characteristics of the picaresque, including a loose, episodic structure; a rogue-hero (the picaro) who is on the move and goes through a series of encounters with representatives of a hostile and corrupt world; a first-person narrative; and a satirical approach to the society in which the adventures occur.

The typical social background of the picaresque involves a disordered, disintegrating world in which traditional values are breaking down. The instability of the social structure permits the emergence of the picaro, a resilient rogue but not a criminal, a person of low birth or uncertain parentage, an outsider whose adventures take him or her from innocence to experience. In this sense, the picaresque novel has affinities with the bildungsroman, but unlike the protagonist of the latter, the picaro is a fixed character. While he (traditionally a “he”) learns survival techniques from his adventures, he does not change inwardly; he remains faithful to his healthy instincts without questioning the larger order of things. Pressured by circumstances to choose between integrity and survival, the picaro makes the pragmatic choice and learns to adjust to the corrupt values of his environment.

Sixteenth century Spain

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The picaresque genre emerged in sixteenth century Spain, an age of turmoil and upheaval when medieval homogeneity and social stability were giving way to Renaissance mobility and a greater emphasis on the importance of the individual. All Spanish picaresque novels present a low-life character passing from master to master in search of some financial stability, thus providing a splendid occasion for the author to give an overall picture of Spain in an age of disintegrating values. The differences between the two first examples of the genre, however, already indicate its protean nature.

Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in 1554 (English translation, 1576), presents a picaro, a victim of tricksters who by necessity becomes a trickster himself. The novel’s anonymous author was the first to employ a realistic first-person narrator, creating a countergenre to the fastidious courtly literature of the period. Some critics suggest that both the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes and Mateo Alemán, the writer of the second Spanish picaresque, were Jews or converted Jews, outsiders to the mainstream of Spanish society; in any case, the picaresque view of life is an outsider’s point of view as far as protagonist and author are concerned.

Fear of starvation and anger are Lazarillo’s true masters. The lesson he draws from his experience of privation and exploitation is not one of resistance or revolt; on the contrary,...

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A different picaro

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

King Charles V was succeeded by Philip II and Philip III; disillusionment followed triumph in the history of the empire. The picaresque novel, from the beginning a protean genre, adjusted to the new demands. Despair and anguish are present already in Lazarillo’s story, but the picaro protagonist in Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604) is first of all a tormented soul. As an investigator of the prison system, Alemán was well acquainted with prison life. In Guzmán he presents a repentant sinner. The confessions reveal a lower-class character whom a dehumanizing society has forced to adjust to its corrupt values; the emphasis is not on Guzmán’s adventures, however, but rather on his tormented soul. He is a kind of psychological picaro, one very much concerned with his soul. Guzmán compares the human predicament to warfare: an existence without any certainty or truth, a life full of hypocrisy and instability.

In spite of the many hilarious tricks played by the rogues on their masters, the Spanish picaresque novels were not intended to be amusing. There is a subtle balance of comedy and seriousness in Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzmán de Alfarache; at the same time, however, through the encounters of the rogue-hero with various masters—all of them representing the hypocritical, materialistic standards of contemporary Spanish society—these picaresque novels give a fragmented but valid and realistic picture of a society in change.

France and Germany

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The protean nature of the picaresque novel made it easy for the genre to spread rapidly through Europe. Adaptations of Lazarillo de Tormes soon appeared in France and England. Guzmán de Alfarache soon appeared in Germany. The Spanish original blended in each country with the native tradition, and the Spanish picaro turned into the English rogue, later a foundling; into the German Schelm; and in France, into a gentilhomme. Despite differences in each of these countries, the picaresque consistently performed the function of a countergenre, making legitimate the serious attention given to low-life characters. With the advance of capitalism, the middle class grew in size and influence, and its members found pleasure in a genre that centered on the plight of a low-life character seeking upward mobility. At the same time, printing techniques improved, and booksellers, in order to boost their profits, encouraged more and more printings of picaresque fiction because of its appeal to the taste of the bourgeoisie. In the following centuries the genre came to be adopted to reflect a bourgeois world view rather than a truly picaresque outlook. With the optimistic attitudes of the Enlightenment, the picaresque novel lost its quality of despair; the former picaro, though in different degrees and in different ways, came to be integrated into the mainstream of society.

In Germany, the Spanish picaresque merged with the native...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In England, the first translation of Lazarillo de Tormes appeared in 1576, the work of David Rowland; the first English Guzmán de Alfarache appeared in 1622. Soon thereafter, the Spanish picaresque merged with the native tradition of anatomies of roguery. The best early English picaresque is Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Guzmán de Alfarache was very popular with translators; Richard Head’s and Frances Kirkman’s The English Rogue (1665, 1668) is the best among English adaptations of the original Guzmán de Alfarache.

In the eighteenth century, a kind of picaresque enjoyed a boom in English literature. Most of Tobias Smollett’s fiction is in the picaresque vein. In his outstanding novel The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), the protagonist, an orphan, foreshadows the English picaro as a foundling. He is a decent young person, and his inherent virtues contrast sharply with the cruelty and viciousness of most of the other characters in the novel. They stand for the attitudes of a dehumanized society that subjects the young protagonist to all kinds of hardships and misfortunes on land and on sea. Resilient, in the true picaresque spirit, Roderick Random bounces back after each misadventure. Although his personal fortunes are straightened out in the end when he finds his father and is happily married, on the whole, Smollett presents a...

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The United States

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The American development of the picaresque followed a radically different course. American dark humor, born on the pioneer frontier, recalls in its mixture of laughter and terror the atmosphere of the early Spanish picaresque. The early American, a lonely figure on a vast, unknown, and possibly hostile continent, is a distant cousin of Lazarillo and Guzmán. It is not surprising, then, that the novel from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all American literature derives, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is an American picaresque story not only in the obvious picaresque pattern of Huck’s adventures but also in the elements of loneliness and terror that fill up the frame.

Huck is an outsider, belonging to the lowest rank of whites in his society; he recognizes that society pays only lip service to ideals and decides to stay true to his own conscience. While the adventures of his trip down the Mississippi match Lazarillo’s experiences of near starvation, the haunting experience with his own conscience over the case of Jim, the runaway black slave, makes Huck a relative of Guzmán, tortured about his soul. Huck, the American picaro, is a rogue with a conscience who chooses to listen to his own heart rather than follow the sham values of society.

The picaro in modern fiction

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Many features of the original Spanish picaresque pattern and of its picaro-rogue hero correspond to trends in modern fiction and to the concept of the modern limited hero or antihero. The episodic, open-ended plot is an appropriate device for the modern writer, who knows “only broken images” for presenting the fragmented reality of a disorderly, chaotic universe. The picaro is not unlike the modern alienated individual, born into a world turned upside down. Many critics, therefore, consider the picaresque mode to be one of the most characteristic in twentieth century fiction, while others speak of a picaresque renaissance.

Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the archetype of modern fiction, shows...

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A picaresque renaissance

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Despite the protests of purists, who felt that the term “picaresque” was being applied too loosely, in the last three decades of the twentieth century novels thus described appeared in ever-increasing numbers, as did scholarly articles about specific works and books in which the genre was discussed more generally. Not surprisingly, much of the scholarship focused on the literature of Spain and Latin America, where the tradition has always flourished, and to a lesser degree on fiction from England and America. Occurrences of the picaresque novel were also found in some unexpected places, such as Morocco and Japan.

If the latter part of the twentieth century did see not only the preservation of the genre but also a...

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The historical picaresque

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Interjected narratives, letters, and diaries have sometimes extended the time frame of picaresque novels a short distance into the past, but as long as one aim of the genre was to satirize a corrupt society, it did not occur to writers to set such works in the distant past. Late in the twentieth century, however, a new form appeared, in which a fictional picaro operates within a historical setting. In his introduction to Flashman (1969), British writer George MacDonald Fraser pretends to have discovered the papers of a minor character in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1858). In Flashman and in the twelve that followed it, including Flashman on the March (2005), Harry Paget Flashman...

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The feminist picaresque

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Another new development in the late twentieth century picaresque renaissance was the novel with a feminist slant. Though picaras had appeared in earlier works, such as Moll Flanders, now picaresque novels written by women and about women began to proliferate. They varied widely in content and in tone. Rita Mae Brown’s semiautobiographical Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) is both a moving description of what it is like to be rejected by society and a defiant celebration of lesbian sexuality, as is Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998), a lighthearted picaresque of lesbian love. Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) features another kind of rebel, one who would be seen more and more frequently in...

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A genre of lasting value

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

One of the reasons for the widespread use of the picaresque form at the end of the twentieth century was obviously its flexibility. It has been utilized by writers from very different cultures, representing a wide range of literary traditions, from the historical novel to Magical Realism and fantasy. Picaresque works can be confessional, autobiographical, philosophical, or savagely satirical, and their protagonists can range from the unfortunate to thoroughgoing scoundrels. Some picaros and picaras even reform. What they all share with their Spanish originals is an exuberant love of life and a determination to survive in order to enjoy it.

The picaresque renaissance can also be attributed to the times themselves. The...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Benito-Vessels, Carmen, and Michael Zappala, eds. The Picaresque: A Symposium on the Rogue’s Tale. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1994. Specific picaresque works are discussed in most of these essays, while others deal with more general topics, such as translation. In their preface, the editors explain the ongoing disagreements about what constitutes picaresque literature.

Bjornson, Richard. The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977. History of the picaresque through the eighteenth century, presented through the examination of major works such as Moll Flanders and...

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