Updated June 29, 2022
The Picaresque Novels are a genre of prose fiction, that revolves around the adventures of a roguish, but appealing hero, belonging to low social order. Typically, a Picaresque novel has a realistic outlook but, also includes comedy and satire in their loose plot. Usual, narration of the Picaresque genre is in first person and an autobiography style.
Picaresque has a Spanish picaresca (picaro) root meaning “rogue” or “rascal”. Genre of picaresque novel originated in Spain during the Spanish Golden Age in 1554 under pioneering work of Mateo Alemán and Francisco de Quevedo. The genre kept thriving and continues influencing modern literature.
Picaro- The Main Character of Picaresque Novels
The roguish Picaro is a low-class character who prefers living by his wits to honourable work. Picaro keeps wandering from place to place and from one social milieu to another in his efforts to survive. This rogue has adventures among the people from across classes and professions, just to escape punishment of his misdeeds that include lying, cheating, and stealing.
Precisely, the rascal Picaro is a casteless outsider who doesn’t feel any obligations to prevailing social codes and mores. Strangely, however, sometimes he conforms outwardly to the social orders but only if it serves his purpose.
How Do Picaresque Novels Characterize?
The traditional views of Thrall and Hibbard, mark seven characteristics of the Picaresque Novels that make them outstand from the other narratives. (source)
- A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account.
- Main character is often of low character or social class. He/she gets by with wits and rarely deigns to hold a job.
- 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.
- There is little or no plot and the story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.
- The Pícaro’s story comes with a plainness of language or realism.
- Satire is sometimes a prominent element.
- The behaviour 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.
Edwin Muir says, “The Picaresque novel is a very striking class in English fiction”. The word “Picaresque” owes derivation from the Spanish word “Picaro” which means ‘a rogue’ or ‘a Knave’.
The genre deals with a typical story that concerns the escapades of an unworried rascal who lives by his wits and shows little or no alteration of character through a long succession of adventures. The Picaro might be a spoilt younger son of a good family. More likely, he is a bastard, or might be nobody or a hanger on.
Genre of Picaresque Novel Explained at Length
Literature in general are reflection of society and the Picaresque Novels are no different. The genre owes genesis in the prevailing society of the time which the writers also used to convey certain message as well. Let us try to have a comprehensive look into how, why and when of the Picaresque Novel.
A Primer on Picaresque Novels
The picaresque novel is the life story of a Rogue or Picaro. He is a clever and amusing adventure of low social class character who earns his livelihood by tricks and Roguery rather than by honorable industry. In a picaresque novel, the Picaro himself narrates the the story in an autobiographical style.
The novel is usually episodic in nature. The plot consists of series of thrilling incidents only slightly connected and strung together without organic relationship. The incidents are loosely connected and they are without pattern. Such novels usually have a beginning but they have no end.
Publishing of these novels happened in parts and the main aim of the novel was to introduce adventure after adventure in the life of the Picaro. The hero wanders from place to place as well as from job to job.
His adventures and wanderings allow him to meet the people of different social settings and class. Thus he gets an opportunity of satirizing the corruption and hypocrisy of the whole society and epoch. The picaresque novel in this way is a study of manners.
The Life Element of Picaresque Novel
The picaresque novelists are concerned with a curiosity about life. Their interest was more into exciting business of living and making a life. Life presented by them was faithful and realistic for satirical, humour or critical purposes. They are less concerned with the moral significance of life.
Such novels are anti-romantic novels and attack indirectly the romance of chivalry which was very popular in the Medieval Europe. The coming of Renaissance spirit caused upheaval in the society. The Elizabethan London and Spain were in a state of crumble. The picaresque novelists tried to present the anarchy and the disturbance of the time.
Parallel Evolution of the Novel
The picaresque novel made a beginning in Spain as a reaction to excessively romantic and chivalrous fiction which was quite popular there. “Lazarillo de Tormes” is the first Spanish novel which gave a new term “Picaresque” to literature. It is the autobiography of a Picaro. Then, we had novels by Aleman and others.
Further, “Don Quixote” (1605) by Cervantes is a famous picaresque novel. In fact, It was the single most important instigator of the modern novel. This novel deals with an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of chivalric romance in the everyday world aiming to explore the relationship of allusion and reality in human life. It is an indirect attack upon the “Romance of Chivalry”.
The Genre in England Was an Spanish Inspiration
The Picaresque novels of England owe a great deal of inspiration of the Spanish picaresque novels. Thomas Nashe was the first English novelist who presented the picaresque spirit in his work “The Unfortunate Traveller” in 1954.
Precisely, it is the most remarkable work in picaresque fictions in English before Daniel Defoe. The tradition was kept alive by Richard Head and Francis Kirkman in “The English Roque”. In the first half of the 18th century, the picaresque novel gained popularity in England with efforts of Daniel Defoe and Smollett.
Defoe’s “Mall Flanders” is a pure picaresque novel. Plot wise, it is the story of an easy to seduce picaresque heroine whose fortunes rise and fall on her amorous experiences until she reaches old age. Strangely, she gets a slight pricking by conscience for a wicked life.
The Popular Picaresque Novels
Smollett wrote a number of picaresque novels “Roderick Random”, “Humphrey Clinker” and “Pregrine Pickle”. His tradition was kept alive by Henry Fielding in his novel “Tom Jones”. Subsequently, some of the Novels of Dickens such as the “The Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” are picaresque in character.
The modern novelists like Maugham, Mark Twain and some others also wrote novels on the line of picaresque tradition. We recognize the survival of the picaresque type in many later novels such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953), and Thomas Mann’s “The Confessions of Felix Krull” (1954).
In conclusion, the picaresque novels became popular because they gave a realistic picture of their age. The broad social canvas used by the novelists enriched the literature immensely.
Frequently Asked Questions On Picaresque Novels- FAQ
Ans- Picaresque novel is an early form of novel, usually a first-person narrative, relating to the adventures of a rogue or lowborn adventurer. The word “Picaresque” has been derived from the Spanish word “Picaro” which means ‘a rogue’ or ‘a Knave’. Typically, it deals with the escapades of an unworried rascal who lives by his wits and shows little to no alteration of character through a long succession of adventures.
Ans- (i) The picaresque novel is the life story of a Rogue or Picaro. (ii) The plot consists of series of thrilling incidents only slightly connected (iii) The novel is episodic in nature and has thrilling or sensational insider. (iv) The hero wanders from place to place as well as from job to job. (v) A picture of contemporary society presented realistically and completely. (vi) The Picaresque novel satirizes the corruption and hypocrisy of the whole society and epoch.
Ans- There are many famous picaresque novelists. Among them are Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver Travels) etc.
Ans- Lazarillo de Tormes” is the first Spanish novel which gave a new term “Picaresque” to literature.
Yes, Pamela is a Picaresque novel. This novel is written by Samuel Richardson.
Ans- Yes, Don Quixote is a picaresque novel written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
Ans- In Oliver Twist, we find the environment which was surely capable to replace the kind-hearted spirit with more rougish spirit. So, it can be put into the category of picaresque novel.
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