The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for "rogue" or "rascal") is a genre of prose fiction. It depicts the adventures of a roguish, but "appealing hero", usually of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style. There are often some elements of comedy and satire. While the term "picaresque novel" was only coined in 1810, the picaresque novel originated in Spain during the Spanish Golden Age in 1554. Early contributors included Mateo Alemán and Francisco de Quevedo and flourished throughout Europe for more than 200 years. 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 an author may employ for effect:
- A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account.
- The main character is often of low character or social class. He or she gets by with wits and rarely deigns to hold a job.
- There is little or no plot. The story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.
- There is little if any character development in the main character. Once a pícaro, always a pícaro. His or her circumstances may change but these rarely result in a change of heart.
- The pícaro's story is told with a plainness of language or realism.
- Satire is sometimes a prominent element.
- 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.
In the English-speaking world, the term "picaresque" is often used loosely to refer to novels that contain some elements of this genre; e.g. an episodic recounting of adventures on the road. The term is also sometimes used to describe works which only contain some of the genre's elements, such as Cervantes' Don Quixote, or Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers.
The word pícaro first starts to appear in Spain with the current meaning in 1545, though at the time it had no association with literature. The word pícaro 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. Whether it has any validity at all as a generic label in the Spanish sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—Cervantes certainly used "picaresque" with a different meaning than it has today—has been called into question. There is unresolved debate 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 Pícaro).
Lazarillo de Tormes and its sources
While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and may have contributed to the style, the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes, 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 pícaro character, he is an alienated outsider, whose ability to expose and ridicule individuals compromised with society gives him a revolutionary stance. Lázaro states that the motivation for his writing is to communicate his experiences of overcoming deception, hypocrisy, and falsehood (engaño).
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, though it is unlikely that the author had access to Petronius' work. From the comedies of Plautus, Lazarillo borrows the figure of the parasite and the supple slave. Other traits are taken from Apuleius' The Golden Ass. 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. 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. Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque.
The curious presence of Russian loanwords 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.
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 pícaro as a victim clashed with the Counter-Reformation doctrine of free will.
Other initial works
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.
Miguel de Cervantes wrote several works "in the picaresque manner, notably Rinconete y Cortadillo (1613) and El coloquio de los perros (1613; “Colloquy of the Dogs”)". "Cervantes also incorporated elements of the picaresque into his greatest novel, Don Quixote (1605, 1615)", the "single most important progenitor of the modern novel", that M. H. Abrams has described as a "quasi-picaresque narrative". Here the hero is not a rogue but a foolish knight.
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.
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. Lesage's Gil Blas (1715) is a classic example of the genre, which in France had declined into an aristocratic adventure. 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. 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. While the mores of the early 18th century wouldn't permit Moll to be a heroine per se, Defoe hardly disguises his admiration for her resilience and resourcefulness.
Works with some picaresque elements
The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque.
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
Henry Fielding proved his mastery of the form in Joseph Andrews (1742), The Life and Death 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".
William Makepeace Thackeray is the master of the 19th-century English picaresque. Like Moll Flanders, Thackeray's best-known work, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-1848)—a title ironically derived from John Bunyan's Puritan allegory of redemption The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)—follows the career of fortune-hunting adventuress Becky Sharp. His earlier novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) recounts the rise and fall of an Irish arriviste conniving his way into the 18th-century English aristocracy.
Aleko Konstantinov wrote the novel Bay Ganyo (1895) about a Bulgarian rogue of that name who does business and swindles around Europe, and returns home and gets into politics and newspaper publishing. Bay Ganyo is a well-known stereotype in Bulgaria.
Works influenced by the picaresque
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.
Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1761-1767) and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) each have strong picaresque elements. 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.
Elements of the picaresque novel are found in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers (1836–37). Gogol occasionally used the technique, as in Dead Souls (1842–52). Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) also has some elements of the picaresque novel.
20th and 21st centuries
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 20th-century Russian satire and the basis for numerous film adaptations.
Camilo José Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953) were also among mid-twentieth-century picaresque literature. 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', 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. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959) is a German picaresque novel.
John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, eleven years after the author's suicide, and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It follows the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a well-educated but lazy and obese slob, as he attempts to find stable employment in New Orleans and meets many colorful characters along the way.
Recent examples include Under the Net (1954) by Iris Murdoch, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965), Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969), Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare (1975), Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984), Umberto Eco's Baudolino (2000), and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (Booker Prize 2008).
William S. Burroughs was a devoted fan of picaresque novels, and gave a series of lectures involving the topic in 1979 at Naropa University in Colorado. In these he says it is impossible to separate the anti-hero from the Picaresque novel, that most of these are funny, and they all have protagonist who are outsiders by their nature. His list of picaresque novels includes Petronius' novel Satyricon (54–68 AD), The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) by Thomas Nashe, (1911), both Maiden Voyage (1943) and A Voice Through a Cloud (1950) by Denton Welch, Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles, Death on Credit (1936) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and even himself. He also relates a series of real life newspaper stories that Burroughs himself had collected, in which people abandoned their jobs in order to save their own skin, leaving numbers of people to die.
Works influenced by the picaresque
Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk (1923) is an example of a work from Central Europe that has picaresque elements.
J. B. Priestley made use of the form in his The Good Companions (1929), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.
Hannah Tinti's novel The Good Thief (2008) features a young, one-handed orphan who craves a family, and finds one in a group of rogues and misfits.
In 1987 an Italian comedy film written and directed by Mario Monicelli was released under the Italian title I picari. It was co-produced with Spain, where it was released as Los alegres pícaros, and internationally as The Rogues. Starring Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Enrico Montesano, Giuliana De Sio and Giancarlo Giannini, the film is freely inspired by the Spanish novels Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzman de Alfarache.
- Adventure novel
- Becky Sharp (character)
- Fool's literature
- Milesian tale
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