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
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, it is one of conformity. His is a kind of success story because, at the end of the novel, he finds a secure job as a town crier, but this is qualified success, since he pays for it with his honor, marrying the archpriest’s mistress. He accepts the archpriest’s advice to concern himself only with his own advantage. The advice, of course, reflects the hypocritical standards of Spanish society. Lazarillo is more than ready to heed the counsel; his bitter adventures have taught him to be content with low expectations. The feeling of being defenseless and unprotected against the wickedness of the world lends a tragic note to the story of his childhood and adolescence. Though most of his adventures make the reader laugh, anguish and despair prevail throughout the novel. The comic and the serious exist side by side, adding a note of ambiguity. Lazarillo de Tormes is a mixture of childish immaturity, innocence, and bitter cynicism; it excels in a fusion of modes and attitudes. At the end, Lazarillo compares his rising fortunes to Spain’s rising political power; consequently, the unknown author not only puts his picaro’s story in an ambiguous light but also extends that ambiguity to the whole empire of Charles V.
A Different Picaro
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
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 tradition of tales about false beggars. The most significant German novel of the picaresque type is Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1912). The background of the book fits the requirements of the picaresque atmosphere: The Thirty Years’ War was certainly a period of disorder and disintegration in German history. Simplicius Simplicissimus, as his name implies, is a naïve, simple, ignorant boy; his peasant background emphasizes this feature. He is almost another Parzival, a “pure fool,” but the war destroys his pastoral life. His picaresque wanderings eventually lead him to live the life of a hermit. Compared to what is considered normal and sane in the gambling, warring, drinking, whoring society of contemporary Germany, the seemingly foolish idealism of the hermit is perhaps the only truly sane attitude amid universal madness. While society may consider Simplicissimus mad, his madness makes more sense than the reality created by the so-called respectable people. The German picaro, by tearing off the masks, shows the real face of society behind the facade.
In France, the Spanish picaresque merged with the tradition of criminal biographies and books on vagabonds; in the seventeenth century the genre came to be exploited by writers such as Charles Sorel and Paul Scarron, whose comic, realistic novels functioned as a countergenre to the improbable romances that flooded the market. The French picaro, born into the middle class, uses his tricks to unmask the society to which he belongs by birth; in consequence, the social criticism always implicit in the genre becomes more obvious. By far the most famous French picaresque novel is Alain-René Lesage’s Gil Blas (1715). Though the adventures of this son of humble parents take place in Spain, Gil Blas is different from the original Spanish picaro. Influenced by Molière and La Bruyère, satirists of morals and manners, Lesage turned his Gil Blas into an observer of rogues rather than a participant in roguery. Indeed, Gil Blas is a noble-hearted adventurer who, in view of his virtuous behavior, deserves the success he achieves in the end.
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 rather gloomy view of the human condition.
Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums (1722) is an episodic fictional autobiography of a picara, a female rogue. She is a true criminal whose crimes are rooted in capitalistic attitudes. Indeed, Moll is a bourgeois picara; inspired by the spirit of profit and investment, she acquires the fortune necessary for investment in the New World by the only means available to her: thievery and prostitution. Her behavior and standards reflect on the materialistic values of the society to which she wants to conform.
Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) illustrates better than any other novel of the eighteenth century the transformation of the picaro from a roguish outsider to a belonger. Tom Jones is a foundling and thus an outsider—as a true picaro is expected to be—and in the course of the novel he must take to the road, where he undergoes various adventures. There is no doubt, however, that by the end of his journey he will be integrated into society. As a matter of fact, Tom Jones is a kind of vanishing picaro on his way to becoming the traditional English fictional hero. This hero always ultimately conforms to accepted norms. Tom Jones’s place in the world of Allworthy is only being questioned in order to provide adventures for the amusement of the reader. The element of economic necessity is entirely lacking; in consequence, ambiguity and despair vanish and the adventures provoke wholehearted, easy laughter.
The next step on the path of the vanishing English picaro falls in the nineteenth century. In Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book), the picaresque structure is nothing more than a form of convenience. The rogue is Jingle, yet the hero of the adventure-series is the most respectable Mr. Pickwick. He is the picaro turned respectable, in an age when respectability, exemplified by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, dominated British society. Mr. Pickwick goes through a series of hilariously comic adventures, gains experience, and even goes to prison, but in the end he returns to society. Integration, so important in British fiction, is achieved at the end of the adventures.
The United States
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
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 striking similarities with the picaresque. Joyce’s “joco-serious” recalls the unbalanced Spanish picaresque atmosphere of half-comical and half-serious attitudes. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, is an outsider in society; as a betrayed husband, he also is an outsider in his family. Both Ulysses and the Spanish picaresque present a series of experiences rather than a coherent narrative. They present a roguelike hero, who is no criminal but still less than an example of virtue and whose life is a hard-luck story.
Bloom experiences a despair and anxiety which was alien to the more respectable picaros of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which recalls the mood of Lazarillo de Tormes.
The English writer Joyce Cary also used the picaresque genre for his first trilogy, which concerns the life of the artist Gulley Jimson, a rascally but appealing picaro. Interestingly, only the first and third volumes can qualify as picaresque novels, for the narrator of the second book, To Be a Pilgrim (1942), is Thomas Wilcher, who does not fit the definition of a picaro. Wilcher is a member of the establishment, a rich, respectable lawyer who believes himself to be on the way to the Heavenly City. However, the first novel in the trilogy, Herself Surprised (1941), is narrated by a picara worthy to be classed with Moll Flanders; she not only habitually disregards the moral laws but also has no difficulty justifying even the most flagrant betrayal of trust—for instance, systematically stealing from Mr. Wilcher while she pretends to be the perfect housekeeper. Like Moll, Sara is eventually caught; Herself Surprised is written from prison. Gulley, who was probably the most important man in Sara’s life, also falls victim to the law. The Horse’s Mouth (1944, 1957), which he narrates, begins with his release from prison, an old man, but still adept at lying, cheating, stealing, and justifying his sins as necessitated by his art. Nevertheless, Gulley’s zest for life and his ability to laugh both at the world and at himself make him a particularly appealing picaro.
The picaresque pattern also emerged in the novels of Britain’s Angry Young Men in the 1950’s. The angry picaresque novel of postwar Great Britain resulted from serious discontent with the welfare state. The decade found England in unsettled conditions, with the empire falling to pieces and the class system only slowly weakening in its traditional rigidity. Just as the Spanish picaresque novel arose in part as an expression of the social resentment of the underdog against the privileged classes, so Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), John Wain’s Hurry on Down (1953), and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) reject the values of the phony middle class. Yet their protagonists share Lazarillo’s dream of belonging; in consequence, the angry picaresque stays within the pattern of integration characteristic of British fiction.
The American picaresque novel of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries may describe a restless small-town youth, as in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), or a wild drive across the continent, as in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). The present-day American rogues display an old American attitude; they try to recapture the heroic spirit of the frontier and confront the nature of humanity, of the self. The modern American picaro is an outsider; he may be a sensitive adolescent shunning the phony world, like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), or a man fighting the military in order to survive, like Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961); he may be a member of a minority group—African American, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in his novel Invisible Man (1952); Irish, like Ken Kesey’s McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962); or Jewish, like Saul Bellow’s Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).
Augie March is the product of the Chicago ghetto, the son of Jewish immigrants forced by his dehumanizing environment into a picaro attitude. A servant to many masters, resilient and ready to adjust, Augie ultimately refuses any attempt to be adopted and preserves his outsider status. Practical and pragmatic, he is able to do almost anything. While he is open to any new experience, he remains faithful to his own self, considering all his adventures as means to find his true identity. The Invisible Man, who is black, learns to accept his invisibility in white America; his picaresque experiences take him through a series of rejections at the end of which he emerges as a truly protean individual and even a trickster.
A Picaresque Renaissance
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 very real picaresque renaissance, it can be explained by the fact that the form is so adaptable. Danny Deck, the successful writer-protagonist in Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), has little in common with the drug-dependent drifter in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), which is one of the few picaresque novels written in the second person. In All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Danny travels from Texas to California and back to Texas, sometimes stopping for a time but always moving on, until at the end of the book he comes to a halt in the borderland between Texas and Mexico, his future uncertain. By contrast, all the adventures of McInerney’s picaro take place in Manhattan over the course of one week, with frequent flashbacks into the past, and his story ends with his realizing that he must reclaim the values he was taught in childhood.
The quest of the picaro-narrator in Paul Auster’s Moon Palace (1989) is also successful, though it takes some time for the aptly named Marco Stanley Fogg to realize that his own lack of purpose is rooted in his knowing nothing about his father and little about his mother, who is now dead. The scope of the novel is broadened geographically, temporally, and thematically by an interpolated narrative, a story told by the elderly man for whom Fogg works, which with the customary picaresque dependence upon happy coincidence enables the hero to identify his father and propels the hero westward across the continent to his own rebirth. The American Western novel, long a genre that easily accommodated the picaresque, reached what may be considered its literary pinnacle with the work of Cormac McCarthy, whose teenage runaway protagonist known only as “the kid” animated Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (1985). In McCarthy’s Western trilogy—the National Book Award winner All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998)—each novel is a picaresque story of a young man on the move, facing tests and facing challenges from other men.
The Historical Picaresque
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 exposes himself as an unprincipled rogue, a lecher, and a coward who not only seduces every woman who catches his eye but also survives such episodes as the Indian Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, China’s Taiping Rebellion, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and Little Big Horn, winning a reputation as a hero and eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. Fraser’s plots are exciting, but the secret of his popularity is the character of Flashman, perhaps because no matter how much he deceives others, he is always honest with himself.
In other picaresque novels, however, the picaro is very different from Lazarillo de Tormes or Flashman. A first-person narrator with a need to survive, the picaro candidly relates his adventures, while also serving as an observer. Having attached himself to a historical figure, the picaro talks with and observes him or her, thus presenting the author’s interpretation of history. In E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate (1989), for example, the title character is involved with the Depression-era gangster Dutch Schultz, and in Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy (1988), the inept train robber Ben Sippy develops a real affection for Billy Bone, or Billy the Kid, the legendary outlaw of the Old West. The primary goal of both narrators is to survive, Billy by finding a way out of the slums, Ben by fleeing from a household of females and the stifling life of a Philadelphia gentleman. However, they also have a boundless curiosity, and they knowingly risk their lives in order to satisfy it. The protagonist in Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution (2008), by Jerome Charyn, is a double agent who encounters historical figures on both sides of the conflict: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Lord Admiral Richard Howe, and Benedict Arnold. Like the other picaresque heroes, he is a close observer of the world around him, and he describes everything in detail as he moves through the war and through the island of Manhattan looking for the identity of his father.
The Feminist Picaresque
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 semi-autobiographical 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 fiction during the years that followed: a mature woman who becomes a runaway. Atwood’s heroine, Joan Foster, a writer, is so tired of her marriage, her ongoing affair, and her fans that she decides to fake her own death and run off to Italy. By the time she is found out and forced to return, this picaresque heroine has made some important decisions about the direction her life will take. Bella, the protagonist of Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend (1991), is on the run from a neighbor who has molested her, and in her flight she meets and kills seven abusive men.
Picaresque novels by women have taken many different shapes. There are dozens of fantasies by writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jo Clayton, Sharon Green, Tanith Lee, Anne Maxwell, Anne McCaffrey, and Janet Morris, all of which are feminist in philosophy and picaresque in form. The picaresque is also allied with Magical Realism, as in Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna (1988), in which the title character survives one crisis after another with the aid of unseen powers and the force of her own imagination. Erica Jong’s Fanny: Being the True History of Fanny Hackabout-Jones (1980) is much more like the picaresque novels of the eighteenth century, the period in which it is set. The author uses not only the language, capitalization, and punctuation of novels written in that era but also a huge cast of characters and a plot dependent on mistaken identities, chance meetings, and improbable coincidences. As in the historical novels already mentioned, the fictional Fanny meets and comments on real people; among her customers in a brothel are Dean Swift, William Hogarth, and John Cleland, whose Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-1749) Jong insists is an inaccurate account of Fanny Hill’s life. Fanny could well have been written in the eighteenth century, as it appears to be, were it not for the fact that the author’s twentieth century sensibility and, specifically, her feminism are evident in every one of Fanny’s pronouncements.
A Genre of Lasting Value
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 disorder, instability, and chaotic nature of the age may remind one of the transitional character of the sixteenth century. Modern men and women, dwarfed by an awareness of their lack of control over events in the outside world as well as over their own behavior, cannot hope for heroism; the best they can achieve is a kind of picaro status—an unwilling conformist, a rebel-victim, a picaresque saint. In the protean genre of the picaresque, sixteenth century Spanish writers created a fictional form appropriate for presenting the human predicament in an age of turmoil and instability.
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