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"Picaresque" redirects here. For the album by the Decemberists, see Picaresque (album).

The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresca," from "pícaro," for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which might sometimes be 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.

According to the traditional view of Thrall and Hibbard (first published in 1936), which has been questioned by scholars interested in how genre functions, rather than how it looks on the surface, 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 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]


The word picaro starts to first appear in Spain with the current meaning in 1545.[2] The word picaro does not appear in Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the novella credited with founding the genre. The expression picaresque novel was coined in 1810.[3][4]


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 literature. With Petronius' Satyricon, Lazarillo takes some of the traits of the central figure of Encolpius, a former gladiator,[5][6] but it is unlikely that the author had access to Petronius' work;[7] 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.[5] 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 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.[8] Ibn al-Astarkuwi or al-Ashtarkuni (d.1134) also wrote in the genre maqamat, comparable to later European picaresque novels.[9]

The curious presence of Russian loan-words in the text of the Lazarillo de Tormes 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.[10]

While elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio have a picaresque feel and may have contributed to the style,[11] the modern picaresque begins with Lazarillo de Tormes,[12] which was published anonymously in 1554 in Burgos, Medina del Campo, and Alcalá de Henares in Spain, and also in Antwerp. It is variously considered either the first picaresque novel or at least the antecedent of the genre. Its principal episodes are based on Arabic folktales that were well-known to the Moorish inhabitants of Spain. This is also the reason for its negative portrayal of priests and other church officials.[13] The protagonist, Lázaro, lives by his wits in an effort to survive and succeed in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy. 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 seventeenth 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.[14]

16th and 17th 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. 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 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.[15]

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,[16] which in France had declined into an aristocratic adventure. In Britain, 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. Thomas Nashe's novel The Unfortunate Traveller is often cited as one of the earliest examples of an English picaresque novel. 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 wrote,[17][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 wrote a short picaresque novel, Rinconete y Cortadillo part of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels).[18]

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. 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).[19] Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was consciously written as a picaresque novel.

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) is an example of the picaresque technique from Central Europe. 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)..

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 Adventures of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (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.

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,[20] Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965), Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964), 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), Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend (1991), C. D. Payne's Youth in Revolt (1993), Christian Kracht's Faserland (1995), Umberto Eco's Baudolino (2000),[21] Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (2003), and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (Booker Prize 2008)[22]

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. 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. More recently, Scott Lynch's The Gentleman Bastard Sequence fantasy novels have been described as fine examples of the sub-genre.[23]


A Lazarillo or picaro character is an alienated outsider, whose ability to expose and ridicule individuals compromised with society gives him a revolutionary stance.[24] Lazarillo states that the motivation for his writing is to communicate his experiences of overcoming deception, hypocrisy, and falsehood (desengaño).[25]

See also

Novels portal



  • Alexander A. Parker: Literature and the delinquent: The picaresque novel in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753.
  • Cruz, Anne J. (2008)

Further reading

  • 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

  • El Género Picaresco: La Novela Picaresca Española y Su Influencia (Spanish)
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