Picaresque Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Picaresque Novel

Alok Yadav

Picaresque is a critical construct used since the nineteenth century to refer to both a specific novelistic genre and a wider fictional mode. In its narrower usage, the term refers to a genre of fiction centered on the life of a pícaro or pícara. Scholars have built up a normative conception of this genre, according to which the picaresque novel consists of a retrospective first-person narrator writing an episodic and open-ended narrative about his or her life as a rogue, one who hails from a low or dishonorable background and travels from place to place in a struggle for survival (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE). The pícaro seeks a secure toehold while living by his or her wits in an exploitative, corrupt, urban world.

The picaresque novel flourished in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Spain, and was transformed as it spread during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to other European countries, especially England, France, and Germany. Since the nineteenth century, the picaresque is also evident in Russia, the U.S., and Latin America, but by this point it is easier to talk of a picaresque mode manifest in a wide range of novels than it is of the picaresque novel as a distinct genre. After its initial emergence, the history of the picaresque novel is both one of generic disintegration and of modal consolidation, a complex dynamic addressed below in two parts: (1) Spanish origins and (2) generic transformations.

Spanish Origins

The picaresque novel is generally seen as an early modern innovation, a new cultural form that emerged in Golden Age Spain and which played a significant role in the subsequent development of the novel. However, the genre draws on many antecedents, ranging from such Spanish works as La Lozana andaluza (ca. 1528—30, Lozana, the Lusty Andalusian Woman) by Francisco Delicado, La Celestina (1499) by Fernando de Rojas, and the Libro de buen Amor (1330, Book of Good Love); to medieval buffoon literature, the Arabic genre of the maqImagema, and folk materials such as trickster tales; to narratives from antiquity, including Apuleius's The Golden Ass (ca. 100—200 CE) and Homer's Odyssey.

Generally considered the first picaresque novel, the anonymous La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (1554, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes) was followed, after a forty-year gap, by the immensely successful La vida de Guzmán de Alfarache (1599—1604, The Life of Guzman de Alfarache) by Mateo Alemán, and then by other novels that participated in the picaresque vogue, such as Francisco López de Ubeda's La pícara Justina (1605, The Rogue Justina), Alonso Jerónimo de Salas Barbadillos's La hija de Celestina (1612, Celestina's Daughter), Vicente Martínez Espinel's Marcos de Obregón (1618), and El buscón (1626, The Swindler) by Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas. Many of these works have a complicated relation to the generic construct of the picaresque novel. Marcos de Obregón and El buscón, for example, have been described as subverting the genre, but they all exploit and respond to the new kind of fiction popularized by Guzmán de Alfarache, contributing to the development of a generic tradition even as they modify it.

Much modern criticism investigates the relationship between social reality and cultural form in the emergence of the picaresque novel. The form is understood as engaging in a social critique of the caste society of Golden Age Spain—especially the marginalization of conversos, or “new Christians,” deriving from Jewish or Muslim families—and offering a critical response to the emergence of commercial modernity and the subsequent hollowing-out of traditional systems of value. According to José Antonio Maravall, the identity of literary pícaros is constituted not simply by their low condition but by their rejection of the notion that the social status into which one is born constitutes one's destiny for life.

Scholars emphasize the fact that picaresque novels have been written from different ideological perspectives and that they offer a range of views on the making of a pícaro and the legitimacy of his or her social ambitions. Some picaresque novels blame the pícaros' heredity or intrinsic nature, while others view them as products of their degraded environments and closed social opportunities. Some picaresque fictions blame the pícaros' social ambition as the impulse behind their knavery, while others validate their ambition to escape miserable circumstances.

Attention to the ideological diversity of picaresque novels has not prevented scholars from positing a generic construct of the genre in terms of a constellation of supposedly characteristic features across three dimensions: the character of the protagonist, the formal structure of the narrative, and the typical storyworld inhabited by the characters. Although it is difficult to confine the actual diversity of picaresque novels within this generic construct, it nonetheless informs scholarly discussion of the topic and provides a useful lens for examining individual works (Dunn).

The protagonist of a picaresque novel typically hails from a low, dubious, or disgraced family background and is quickly orphaned or expelled from the family home. From this point on, the pícaro exists as a lone individual burdened with the shame of his or her family background and engaged in a struggle for survival. The protagonist exists in a world of fraud, deceit, theft, and exploitation, and experiences physical hardship in the form of hunger, filth, and violence. He or she survives more through tricks and stratagems than penurious labor. Purveyors of fictions and narrators of their own stories, pícaros might be said to have at least as much affinity with actors and writers as with the criminals and delinquents whose kin they become.

Picaresque novels are as interested in the social world inhabited by the protagonist as they are in the figure of the pícaro or pícara. Although they hail from a low milieu, they move among the respectable as servants, apprentices, or beggars, and harbor aspirations to join this world. As a result, picaresque novels shine a spotlight on this other world as well. Indeed the encounter between the pícaro and respectable society forms a central part of the narrative interest of the picaresque novel and gives it much of its satiric edge by revealing the respectable world as operating under a more organized form of the exploitation, theft, and fraud that characterizes the pícaro's low milieu.

In picaresque novels, the characteristics of the pícaro and his or her world are also typically accompanied by certain narrative structures. Lacking any secure place in the world, pícaros are itinerant figures, moving from place to place and from master to master. The vagrancy of the pícaro's life results in the episodic and open-ended plot structure. It is a life lived at hazard, and the episodic plot embodies this chanciness by not offering the reassurances of a providential order or comic plot.

Moreover, the pícaro is not only the protagonist but also the retrospective narrator of the action. The distance between the persona of the narrator and the younger self whose actions he or she narrates serves as the basis for an important dynamic in picaresque novels. From the narrator's relationship with the protagonist it may not be entirely clear whether it is the pícaro or the pícaro's society which is being held up for the reader's critical examination. The pícaro's experiences as protagonist may be harsh, but they are rarely inflected as tragic; rather, they are often presented in the mode of coarse comedy, grotesque or scatological humor, or as farce.

Interpretation of picaresque novels is inherently tricky due to the narrative's status as the testimony of a liar. The reader is left to assess the ways in which the narrative might be unreliable, ironic, or elliptical (see NARRATIVE STRUCTURE). Moreover, picaresque novels often make use of self-conscious, multilayered narration with an intrusive narrator, a present narratee, direct address to the reader, extensive commentary, self-reflexive references, and allusions to other literary works. Older criticism tends to emphasize the “realistic” texture of picaresque novels and their engagement with the quotidian, even as it makes assumptions about the “simple” and “primitive” nature of these narratives. Recent criticism emphasizes the discursive complexity of the genre.

Generic Transformations

The immense popularity of Guzmán de Alfarache, and the concomitant revival of interest in Lazarillo de Tormes, served to establish the picaresque, but almost immediately the genre began to be appropriated or elaborated in diverse ways. Peter Dunn argues that “after Guzmán there is no unified, coherent picaresque genre” (265). This is in part because the picaresque novel does not develop in isolation from but as a counter-genre to other genres and discourses. These include the chivalric romances, sentimental novels, Moorish novels, pastoral novels, Counter-Reformation religious discourse, popular mystic literature, autobiography, confessional writings, Renaissance humanist discourses about the dignity of man, and the quixotic mode inaugurated by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

The relational identity of picaresque novels has a double effect. Their oppositional, counter-generic stance gives them certain similarities of outlook and method, despite the variety of genres and discourses they engage, but at the same time this very diversity of counter-generic engagements has the effect of pulling the genre in various directions and transmuting it into a variety of successor forms. This latter process was exacerbated as the picaresque novel was translated and adapted in other European countries. The general effect elevated the social identity of the pícaro and turned the protagonist, in this respect, “into an ’anti-pícaro’” (Sieber, 59).

In Spain, as elsewhere, the genre was transformed along several different lines. In one direction, the adventure element came to the fore and the picaresque novel shifted into “the picaresque adventure stories of Salas Barbadillo and Castillo Solórzano” (Bjornson, 70). Indeed, the major picaresque fiction in Germany, Der abentheuerliche Simplicissimus (1668, Simplicius Simplicissimus) by Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen, is seen as both an example of the Schelmenroman (picaresque novel) and the Abenteuerroman (adventure novel). Where the element of itinerant travel became most prominent and expansive, the picaresque novel modulated into the peripatetic novel, often in exotic settings (e.g., James Moirer's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, 1824). In a third direction, the focus on pícaras led to works like Daniel Defoe's The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722).

Along another trajectory, the picaresque novel modulated into the bildungsroman (novel of formation). The social aspirations of the pícaro are more successfully realized in later adaptations as the picaresque novel grows into the novel of social ascension, as in the major French picaresque novel, L'Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715—35, The Story of Gil Blas de Santillane) by René Lesage, and in British works like Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). The picaresque itinerary through different scenes in a given society leads directly to the object narratives of the eighteenth century, in which a nonhuman protagonist functions as a window onto various social milieus in a given society (Aldridge). In the nineteenth century the panoramic dimension of the picaresque novel gave rise to the survey of customs and manners in the costumbrismo genre in Latin America, while the itinerant plot of the picaresque novel fed into the road-trip fiction of the twentieth century.

There has been a neo-picaresque revival in the twentieth century, anticipated by Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and continuing with such works as Thomas Mann's Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (1911—54, The Confessions of Felix Krull), José Rubén Romero's La vida inútil de Pito Pérez (1938, The Futile Life of Pito Perez), Camilo José Cela's Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (1944, New Fortunes and Misfortunes of Lazarillo de Tormes), and Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (1959, The Tin Drum).

The Spanish picaresque flourished in the transitional space between the breakdown of traditional paternalistic notions of honor, including the social obligations of patron and client, and the reconceptualization of “selfishness” into the utilitarian social ethic of the bourgeois era. Eighteenth-century European adaptations of the picaresque novel function as part of this transformation of materialism and egotism into a kind of social ethic. Thus the picaresque drama of exclusion and social contempt was transformed, among other ways, into a narrative of social ascension. But the renewal of the picaresque novel since the late nineteenth century resonates powerfully with earlier picaresque social contexts. The proletarian narratives of the 1930s and the situations evoked in some contemporary postcolonial novels revive a picaresque sensibility in response to conditions of social exclusion and degradation. In works such as Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation (2005) and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), modern picaresque returns us to a world in which society functions not as an enabling structure for human life and livelihood, but as an oppressive structure or an anarchic chaos that reduces people to the condition of homeless and vicious pícaros.

The difficulties of a generic conception of the picaresque, combined with the literary-historical complexity of the neo-picaresque revival in the twentieth century, have given rise to attempts at a modal conception of the picaresque that is much sparser and more malleable. It addresses characteristics of the protagonist and his or her fictional world “in which disharmony, disintegration, and chaos prevail” (Wicks, 45), but it does not imply any of the conventional assumptions about narration or plot (e.g., first-person narration, episodic plot). As a result, a modal conception of the picaresque applies to a much wider range of novels than the generic conception. The modal conception of the picaresque helps secure its status as an addition to what André Jolles calls the “permanent inventory” of fictional possibilities (quoted in Wicks, 41).

SEE ALSO: Character, Class, Genre Theory, History of the Novel, Intertextuality, Life Writing, Modernism, Plot.


1. Aldridge, A.O. (1972), “ Fenimore Cooper and the Picaresque Tradition,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 27: 283—92.

2. Alter, R. (1964), Rogue's Progress.

3. Bjornson, R. (1977), Picaresque Hero in European Fiction.

4. Dunn, P. (1993), Spanish Picaresque Fiction.

5. Eisenberg, D. (1979), “ Does the Picaresque Novel Exist?” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26: 203—19.

6. Guillén, C. (1971), Literature as System.

7. Maiorino, G., ed. (1996), Picaresque.

8. Maravall, J.A. (1986), Literatura picaresca desde la historia social.

9. Parker, A.A. (1967), Literature and the Delinquent.

10. Rico, F. (1984), Spanish Picaresque Novel and the Point of View.

11. Sieber, H. (1977), Picaresque.

12. Wicks, U. (1989), Picaresque Narrative, Picaresque Fictions.