Picaresque novel

Picaresque novel

The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresca," from "pícaro," for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in sixteenth century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.



The word picaro starts to first appear in Spain with the current meaning in 1545.[1] The word picaro does not appear in Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the novella credited with founding the genre.[citation needed] The expression picaresque novel was coined in 1810.[2][3]


Sources, influences and precursors of Lazarillo

The character type of Lazarillo, which determines the story and the so-called picaresque novel genre, has been shaped from characterization elements already present in Roman. With Petronius's Satyricon, Lazarillo takes some of the traits of the central figure of Encolpius, a former gladiator,[4][5] but it's unlikely that the author had access to Petronius's work;[6] from the comedies of Plautus, it borrows from the figure of the parasite and the supple slave; other traits are taken from Apuleius's The Golden Ass.[4] The Golden Ass and Satyricon were particularly revived and widely read in renaissance Europe, and are rare surviving samples of a mostly lost genre, which was highly popular in the classical world, known as "Milesian tales."

Arabic literature, which was read widely in Spain in the time of Al-Andalus and also possessed a literary tradition with similar themes, is another possible formative 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.[7] Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque novels.[8]

While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and are likely to have contributed to the style, the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes,[citation needed] which was published anonymously in Antwerp and Spain in 1554. It is variously considered either the first picaresque novel or at least the antecedent of the genre. The title character, Lazarillo, is a pícaro who must live by his wits in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy.

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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.

Francisco de Quevedo[disambiguation needed ]'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 sixteenth and seventeenth 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.[9]

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,[10] which in France had declined into an aristocratic adventure.[citation needed] In England, 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.

Influence on modern fiction: 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. 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), but, as Fielding himself wrote,[11][Need quotation to verify] these novels were written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, not in imitation of the picaresque novel; Cervantes himself wrote a short picaresque novel, Rinconete y Cortadillo part of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels).[citation needed]

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 nineteenth 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. Other novels with elements of the picaresque include the Canadian Solomon Gursky Was Here and the English The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844).

Some modern[Need quotation to verify] novelists have used some picaresque techniques, as Gogol in Dead Souls (1842–52).[citation needed] 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. The illustrated The Magic Pudding (1918), by Australian author Norman Lindsay, is an example of the picaresque adapted for children's literature.

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) was the first example of the picaresque technique in Central Europe. J.B. Priestley made excellent[Need quotation to verify] use of the form in his enormously successful[citation needed] The Good Companions (1929) and 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). Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a picaresque novel with bildungsroman traits. George MacDonald Fraser's novels about Harry Flashman (1969) combine the picaresque with historical fiction. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959).

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

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 are Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965), Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), Isabel Allende's Eva Luna (1987), Edward Abbey's The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel (1988), Robert Clark Young's One of the Guys (1999), Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend (1991), C. D. Payne's Youth in Revolt (1993), Christian Kracht's Faserland (1995), Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (2003) and Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" (Booker Prize 2008).[12]

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, 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]


A Lazarillo or picaro character is an alienated outsider, whose ablility to expose and ridicule individuals compromised with society gives him a revolutionary stance.[13] Lazarillo states that the motivation for his writing is to communicate his experiences of overcoming deception, hypocrisy and falsehood (desengaño).[14]

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal


  1. ^ Best, O. F. Para la etimología de pícaro, in Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, Vol. 17, No. 3/4 (1963/1964), pp. 352-357
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary By Merriam-Webster, Inc p.936
  3. ^ Spanish loanwords in the English language: a tendency towards hegemony reversal By Félix Rodríguez González p.36
  4. ^ a b Chaytor, Henry John (1922)La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes p.vii
  5. ^ The life of Lazarillo de Tormes: his fortunes and adversities (1962) p.18
  6. ^ Martin, René (1999) Le Satyricon: Pétrone p.105
  7. ^ James T. Monroe, The art of Badi'u 'l-Zaman al-Hamadhani as picaresque narrative (American University of Beirut c1983).
  8. ^ 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).
  9. ^ For an overview of scholarship on the role of conversos in the development of the picaresque novel in 16th-17th C 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)
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ See title page of Joseph Andrews
  12. ^ Sanderson, Mark (4 November 2003). "The picaresque, in detail". Telegraph (UK). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3605787/The-picaresque-in-detail.html. Retrieved March 16, 2010. 
  13. '^ Cruz, Anne J. (2008) Approaches to teaching Lazarillo de Tormes and the picaresque tradition p.19, quotation:

    The picaros revolutionary stance, as an alienated outsider who nevertheless constructs his own self and his world, [...]

  14. ^ Textual confrontations: comparative readings in Latin American literature By Alfred J. Mac Adam p.138


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

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  • novel — novel1 novellike, adj. /nov euhl/, n. 1. a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. 2. (formerly) novella (def. 1). [1560 70; <… …   Universalium

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  • novel — Synonyms and related words: Bildungsroman, Gothic novel, authentic, avant garde, bauble, best seller, bibelot, blockbuster, book, bound book, classic, coloring book, comic novel, creative, curio, definitive work, detective novel, different, dime… …   Moby Thesaurus

  • novel —    The establishment of the Franco regime at the end of the Civil War had negative consequences for all cultural activity, not least the novel. Those pre war novelists who were not dead or exiled found themselves, for the most part, reduced to… …   Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture

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  • picaresque — I. adjective Etymology: Spanish picaresco, from pícaro Date: 1810 of or relating to rogues or rascals; also of, relating to, suggesting, or being a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist < a… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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