Picaresque Novel: Definition and Example

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      The term picaresque derives from the Spanish word picaresca, from picaro, meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’. Picaresque novel is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish protagonist of low social status who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This genre originated in 16th century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The requirements for this type of novel are apparently length, loosely linked episodes almost complete in themselves, intrigue, fights, amorous adventure, and such optional items as stories within the main narrative, songs, poems, or moral homilies. Defoe’s The Fortunate Mistress (1724) can be regarded as picaresque in the etymological sense. Fielding’s Tom Jones, whose hero is amoral and very nearly gallows-meat, has been called picaresque. Pickwick Papers of Dickens, whose eponym is a respectable and even childishly ingenious scholar, can be accommodated in the category.

      In its episodic structure, the picaresque novel resembles the long, rambling romances of medieval chivalry, to which it provided the first realistic counterpart. Unlike the idealistic knight-errant hero, however, the picaro is a cynical and amoral rascal who, if given half a chance, would rather live by his wits than by honorable work. The picaro wanders about and has adventures among people from all social classes and professions, often just barely escaping punishment for his lying, cheating, and stealing. He is a casteless outsider who feels inwardly unrestrained by prevailing social codes and mores, and he conforms outwardly to them only when it serves his own ends. The picaro’s narrative becomes in effect an ironic or satirical survey of the hypocrisies and corruptions of society, while also offering the reader a rich mine of observations concerning people in low or humble walks of life.

      The first picaresque novel in England was Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jacke Wilton (1594). The female picaro was revived in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), and many picaresque elements can be found in Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1725), Joseph Andrews (1742), and Tom Jones (1749) and in Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), Peregrine Pickle (1751), and Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753). The outstanding French example is Alain-Rene Lesage’s Gil Blas (1715-35), which preserves a Spanish setting and borrows incidents from forgotten Spanish novels but portrays a gentler, more humanized picaro.

      In the mid-18th century the growth of the realistic novel with its tighter, more-elaborated plot and its greater development of character led to the final decline of the picaresque novel, which came to be considered somewhat inferior in artistry. But the opportunities for satire provided by the picaresque novel’s mingling of characters from all walks of life, its vivid descriptions of industries and professions, its realistic language and detail, and above all its ironic and detached survey of manners and morals helped to enrich the realistic novel and contributed to that form’s development in the 18th and 19th centuries. Elements of the picaresque novel proper reappeared in such mature realistic novels as Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Nikolay Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842-52), Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull (1954).

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