Picaresque novel

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Picaresque novel

Picaresque novel: From the Spanish pícaro, meaning “rogue,” a novel that realistically recounts the adventures of a carefree but engaging rascal who always manages to escape by the skin of his or her teeth. The picaresque novel is episodic in structure, its unity resulting from the near-constant presence of the central character, who comes from a low social class and generally lives by his or her wits rather than by honest, hard work. Pícaros, though adept at trickery, generally do not engage in serious criminal behavior; furthermore, they do not change, evolve, develop, or grow in the way that more conventional novelistic protagonists do. In general, picaresque novels are told from the first-person point of view and have satiric intent (often toward the class structure). True-to-life settings and details — many of which are coarse and bawdy — give the genre a realistic texture. Influenced by the Satyricon (c. A.D. 50) of the ancient Roman writer Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter), the picaresque novel emerged as a genre in sixteenth-century Spain with the publication of the anonymous La vida de Lazorillo de Tormes (The Life of Lazorillo de Tormes) (c. 1555) and played an important role in the development of the novel through its rejection of the romantic, idealized depictions so popular in medieval romances, which featured chivalrous knights as heroes.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594) is the first English example of the genre. The French writer Alain-René Lesage’s Gil Blas (1715—35), Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) are other classic examples. Twentieth-century works in which picaresque heroes and antiheroes appear, respectively, include Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959) and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980); the works in which these heroes appear are more tightly structured than picaresque novels, strictly defined.

Television series, monthly comic books, and daily comic strips provide a continuing episodic structure hospitable to the picaresque genre. Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl (1988—95) features a comic-book picaresque heroine who roams a bizarre postapocalyptic world accompanied by a genetically altered kangaroo.

Computer game designer and cyberfiction writer Neal Stephenson introduced a picaresque hero and heroine into his historical novel King of Vagabonds (2006; first published as part of Quicksilver [2003]), in which “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe, a London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer, rescues a young woman known simply as Eliza from a Turkish harem in Vienna. Together, they crisscross the European continent, with Eliza eventually becoming a French countess as well as a spy.