Picaresque novel

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The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresca," from "pícaro," for "rogue" or "rascal") is a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.

According to the traditional view of Thrall and Hibbard (first published in 1936), seven qualities distinguish the picaresque novel or narrative form, all or some of which may be employed for effect by the author. (1) A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account. (2) The main character is often of low character or social class. He or she gets by with wit and rarely deigns to hold a job. (3) There is no plot. The story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes. (4) There is little if any character development in the main character. Once a picaro, always a picaro. His or her circumstances may change but they rarely result in a change of heart. (5) The picaro's story is told with a plainness of language or realism. (6) Satire might sometimes be a prominent element. (7) The behavior of a picaresque hero or heroine stops just short of criminality. Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.[1] However, Trall and Hibbert's thesis has been questioned by scholars[specify] interested in how genre functions, rather than how it looks on the surface.


The word picaro first starts to appear in Spain with the current meaning in 1545, though at the time it had no association with literature.[2] The word picaro does not appear in Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the novella credited by modern scholars with founding the genre. The expression picaresque novel was coined in 1810.[3][4] Whether it has any validity at all as a generic label in the Spanish sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - and Cervantes certainly used "picaresque" with a different meaning than it has today - has been called into question. There is an unending campaign within Hispanic studies about what the term means, or meant, and which works were, or should be, so called. The only work clearly called "picaresque" by its contemporaries was Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), which to them was the Libro del pícaro (The Book of the Picaro).[5]


Lazarillo de Tormes and its sources

While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and may have contributed to the style,[6] the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes,[7] which was published anonymously in 1554 in Burgos, Medina del Campo, and Alcalá de Henares in Spain, and also in Antwerp, which at the time was under Spanish rule as a major city in the Spanish Netherlands. It is variously considered either the first picaresque novel or at least the antecedent of the genre.

The protagonist, Lázaro, lives by his wits in an effort to survive and succeed in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy. As a picaro character, he is an alienated outsider, whose ability to expose and ridicule individuals compromised with society gives him a revolutionary stance.[8] Lázaro states that the motivation for his writing is to communicate his experiences of overcoming deception, hypocrisy, and falsehood (desengaño).[9]

The character type draws on elements of characterization already present in Roman literature, especially Petronius' Satyricon. Lázaro shares some of the traits of the central figure of Encolpius, a former gladiator,[10][11] though it is unlikely that the author had access to Petronius' work.[12] From the comedies of Plautus, Lazarillo borrows the figure of the parasite and the supple slave. Other traits are taken from Apuleius's The Golden Ass.[10] The Golden Ass and Satyricon are rare surviving samples of the "Milesian tale", a popular genre in the classical world, and were revived and widely read in renaissance Europe.

The principal episodes of Lazarillo are based on Arabic folktales that were well-known to the Moorish inhabitants of Spain. The Arabic influence may account for the negative portrayal of priests and other church officials in Lazarillo.[13] Arabic literature, which was read widely in Spain in the time of Al-Andalus and possessed a literary tradition with similar themes, is thus another possible influence on the picaresque style. Al-Hamadhani (d.1008) of Hamadhan (Iran) is credited with inventing the literary genre of maqamat in which a wandering vagabond makes his living on the gifts his listeners give him following his extemporaneous displays of rhetoric, erudition, or verse, often done with a trickster's touch.[14] Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque.[15]

The curious presence of Russian loan-words in the text of the Lazarillo also suggests the influence of medieval Slavic tales of tricksters, thieves, itinerant prostitutes, and brigands, who were common figures in the impoverished areas bordering on Germany to the west. When diplomatic ties to Germany and Spain were established under the emperor Charles V, these tales began to be read in Italian translations in the Iberian Peninsula.[16]

As narrator of his own adventures, Lázaro seeks to portray himself as the victim of both his ancestry and his circumstance. This means of appealing to the compassion of the reader would be directly challenged by later picaresque novels such as Guzmán de Alfarache (1599/1604) and the Buscón (composed in the first decade of the 17th century and first published in 1626) because the idea of determinism used to cast the picaro as a victim clashed with the Counter-Reformation doctrine of free will.[17]

16th and 17th centuries

Title page of the book Guzmán de Alfarache (1599)

The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque. Another early example is Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), characterized by religiosity. Guzmán de Alfrache is a fictional character who lived in San Juan de Aznalfarache, Seville, Spain.

Francisco de Quevedo's El buscón (1604 according to Francisco Rico; the exact date is uncertain, yet it was certainly a very early work) is considered the masterpiece of the subgenre by A. A. Parker, because of his baroque style and the study of the delinquent psychology. However, a more recent school of thought, led by Francisco Rico, rejects Parker's view, contending instead that the protagonist, Pablos, is a highly unrealistic character, simply a means for Quevedo to launch classist, racist and sexist attacks. Moreover, argues Rico, the structure of the novel is radically different from previous works of the picaresque genre: Quevedo uses the conventions of the picaresque as a mere vehicle to show off his abilities with conceit and rhetoric, rather than to construct a satirical critique of Spanish Golden Age society.

Indeed, in order to understand the historical context that led to the development of these paradigmatic picaresque novels in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is essential to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the lives of conversos, whose ancestors had been Jewish, and whose New Christian faith was subjected to close scrutiny and mistrust.[18]

In other European countries, these Spanish novels were read and imitated. In Germany, Grimmelshausen wrote Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669), the most important of non-Spanish picaresque novels. It describes the devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War. In Le Sage's Gil Blas (1715) is a classic example of the genre,[19] which in France had declined into an aristocratic adventure.[citation needed] In Britain, the first example is Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) in which a court page, Jack Wilson, exposes the underclass life in a string of European cities through lively, often brutal descriptions.[20] The body of Tobias Smollett's work, and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) are considered picaresque, but they lack the sense of religious redemption of delinquency that was very important in Spanish and German novels. The triumph of Moll Flanders is more economic than moral.

The classic Chinese novel Journey to the West is considered to have considerable picaresque elements. Having been written in 1590, it is contemporary with much of the above — but is unlikely to have been directly influenced by the European genre.

18th and 19th centuries

In the English-speaking world, the term "picaresque" has referred more to a literary technique or model than to the precise genre that the Spanish call picaresco.

The English-language term can simply refer to an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road. Thomas Nashe's novel The Unfortunate Traveller is often cited as one of the earliest examples of an English picaresque novel.[citation needed] Henry Fielding proved his mastery of the form in Joseph Andrews (1742), The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), though Fielding attributed his style to an "imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote," rather than of any particular picaresque novel;[21] Cervantes wrote a short picaresque novel, Rinconete y Cortadillo part of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels).[22]

Voltaire's French novel Candide (1759) contains elements of the picaresque. An interesting variation on the tradition of the picaresque is The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824), a satirical view on early 19th-century Persia, written by a British diplomat, James Morier.

Charles Dickens, who was influenced by Fielding, wrote his first six novels in the picaresque form, with Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) being the transitional novel to his later more serious and mature works. Another novel with elements of the picaresque is the English The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Some modern[need quotation to verify] novelists have used some picaresque techniques, as Gogol in Dead Souls (1842–52).[23] Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was consciously written as a picaresque novel.[citation needed]

20th and 21st centuries

Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) combined the influence of the picaresque novel with the modern spy novel. Pío Baroja's novel Zalacain the Adventurer, published in 1909, used the picaresque format in the context of the Carlist Wars. The illustrated book The Magic Pudding (1918), by Australian author Norman Lindsay, is an example of the picaresque adapted for children's literature.

Statue of Ostap Bender in Elista

The Enormous Room is E. E. Cummings' 1922 autobiographical novel about his imprisonment in France during World War I on unfounded charges of "espionage", and it includes many picaresque depictions of his adventures as "an American in a French prison". Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk (1923) is an example of the picaresque technique from Central Europe.

Kvachi Kvachantiradze is a novel written by Mikheil Javakhishvili in 1924.This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp.

The Twelve Chairs (1928) and its sequel, The Little Golden Calf (1931), by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov became classics of the 20th century Russian satire and basis for numerous film adaptations. J.B. Priestley made use of the form in his The Good Companions (1929) which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Many other novels of vagabond life were consciously written as picaresque novels, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934).[citation needed].

Camilo José Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942). John A. Lee's Shining with the Shiner (1944) tells amusing tales about New Zealand folk hero Ned Slattery (1840–1927) surviving by his wits and beating the Protestant work ethic. Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a picaresque novel with bildungsroman traits. So too is Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull (1954), which like many novels emphasizes the theme of a charmingly roguish ascent in the social order. George MacDonald Fraser's novels about Harry Flashman (1969) combine the picaresque with historical fiction. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959) is a German picaresque novel.

Sergio Leone identified his spaghetti westerns, more specifically his Dollars trilogy (1964), as being in the picaresque style.

One might characterize the novels and stories of Dashiell Hammett and other hardboiled and noir fiction as picaresque, with some qualifications (e.g., the novels of Hammett are very tightly plotted).

Hunter S. Thompson's "gonzo journalism" (1970) can be seen as a hybrid of fictional picaresque with memoir and traditional reporting. The picaresque elements are especially prominent in Thompson's less journalistic, more literary and psychotropically themed works, such as, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and The Great Shark Hunt (1979).

Recent examples include Under the Net (1954) by Iris Murdoch,[24] Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964), Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965), Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969), Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984), Isabel Allende's Eva Luna (1987), Edward Abbey's The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel (1988), Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend (1991), C. D. Payne's Youth in Revolt (1993), Christian Kracht's Faserland (1995), Umberto Eco's Baudolino (2000),[25] Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (2003), and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (Booker Prize 2008).[26]

Some science fiction and fantasy books also show a clear picaresque influence, transported to a variety of invented worlds—for example, The Dying Earth series of Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat series, James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres, and L. Sprague de Camp's Novarian series.[citation needed] The genre-bending fiction of Gene Wolfe combines strong elements of the picaresque with a catalog of other forms of fiction—bildungsroman, memoir, mythic poem, classical drama, modernist fiction, and others. This is the case particularly in his Book of the New Sun, the tale of Severian the Torturer's rise to the monarchy in a remote future world that is probably Earth.[citation needed] More recently, Scott Lynch's The Gentleman Bastard Sequence fantasy novels have been described as fine examples of the subgenre.[27]

See also


  1. Thrall, William and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. The Odyssey Press, New York. 1960.
  2. Best, O. F. Para la etimología de pícaro, in Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, Vol. 17, No. 3/4 (1963/1964), pp. 352-357
  3. Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary By Merriam-Webster, Inc p.936
  4. Spanish loanwords in the English language: a tendency towards hegemony reversal By Félix Rodríguez González p.36
  5. Daniel Eisenberg, "Does the Picaresque Novel Exist?", Kentucky Romance Quarterly, 26, 1979, pp. 203-219, http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/deisenbe/Other_Hispanic_Topics/does_the_picaresque.pdf, retrieved 2014-08-30
  6. Seán Ó Neachtain (2000). The History of Éamon O'Clery. Clo Iar-Chonnacht. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-902420-35-6. Retrieved 30 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Harriet Turner; Adelaida L Pez De Mart Nez (11 September 2003). The Cambridge Companion to the Spanish Novel: From 1600 to the Present. Cambridge University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-521-77815-2. Retrieved 30 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Cruz, Anne J. (2008). Approaches to teaching Lazarillo de Tormes and the picaresque tradition. p.19 ("The picaro's revolutionary stance, as an alienated outsider who nevertheless constructs his own self and his world").
  9. Textual confrontations: comparative readings in Latin American literature by Alfred J. Mac Adam, p.138
  10. 10.0 10.1 Chaytor, Henry John (1922)La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes p.vii
  11. The life of Lazarillo de Tormes: his fortunes and adversities (1962) p.18
  12. Martin, René (1999) Le Satyricon: Pétrone p.105
  13. Fouad Al-Mounir, "The Muslim Heritage of Lazarillo de Tormes," The Maghreb Review vol. 8, no. 2 (1983), pp. 16-17.
  14. James T. Monroe, The art of Badi'u 'l-Zaman al-Hamadhani as picaresque narrative (American University of Beirut c1983).
  15. James T. Monroe, translator, Al-Maqamat al-luzumiyah, by Abu-l-Tahir Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Tamimi al-Saraqus'i ibn al-Astarkuwi (Leiden: Brill 2002).
  16. S. Rodzevich, "K istorii russkogo romantizma", Russky Filologichesky Vestnik, 77 (1917), 194-237 (in Russian).
  17. Boruchoff, David A: “Free Will, the Picaresque, and the Exemplarity of Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares,” M L N [Modern Language Notes] 124, 2 (2009), pp. 372-403.
  18. For an overview of scholarship on the role of conversos in the development of the picaresque novel in 16th- and 17th-century Spain, see Yael Halevi-Wise, “The Life and Times of the Picaro Converso from Spain to Latin America” in Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History in the Modern Literary Imagination (Stanford UP, 2011)
  19. Paulson, Ronald Reviewed work(s): Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel by Robert Alter, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Apr., 1965), p.303
  20. Schmidt, Michael. The Novel: A Biography'. Cambridge:Belknap Press. 2014.'
  21. The title page of the first edition of Joseph Andrews lists its full title as: The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote.
  22. Rinconete y Cortadillo y la Novela Picarseca. José García López. Publisher: http://www.h-net.org/ 1999 Available online: http://www.h-net.org/~cervant/csa/articf99/garcia.pdf
  23. Striedter, Jurij. Der Schelmenroman in Russland: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Russischen Romans vor Gogol, Berlin 1961
  24. Chosen by Time magazine and Modern Library editors as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century. See Under the Net.
  25. As expressed by the author "With Baudolino, Eco Returns to Romance Writing". The Modern News. 11 September 2000.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Sanderson, Mark (4 November 2003). "The picaresque, in detail". Telegraph (UK). Retrieved March 16, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Krake, Kate (23 January 2012). "The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch(2006)- Book Review". Pop Cultured. Retrieved March 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Further reading

  • Robert Alter (1965) Rogue's progress: studies in the picaresque novel
  • Garrido Ardila, Juan Antonio El género picaresco en la crítica literaria, Madrid, Biblioteca Nueva, 2008.
  • Garrido Ardila, Juan Antonio La novela picaresca en Europa, Madrid, Visor libros, 2009.
  • Meyer-Minnemann, Klaus and Schlickers, Sabine (eds) La novela picaresca: Concepto genérico y evolución del género (siglos XVI y XVII), Madrid, Iberoamericana, 2008.

External links