A picaresque novel is a genre of prose fiction that depicts a roughish hero who experiences episodic adventures.
This picaresque hero has rough qualities and is usually from a low social class. Despite this, the hero is also appealing. Traditionally male, he has to navigate society with his wits. These novels also usually include satiric and/or comedic elements. Often, novels that include one or only a few of these elements will also be referred to as picaresque novels.
The first picaresque novel is though to be Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 and perhaps written by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, although some scholars have expressed doubt in regard to that attribution. The book details a poor boy, Lázaro, who works under seven lay and clerical masters each of whom has something secretive in their personality. The novel is considered to be one of the most widely-read books of all time.
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Definition and Explanation of a Picaresque Novel
The picaresque novel originated in Spain in the mid-1500s and was incredibly popular throughout Europe for the next two centuries. Despite this, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the name “picaresque novel” was coined. Although this type of literature began centuries ago, it is still influential on novels, films, and television series today. The main character’s story is usually not cohesive. This person will drift from place to place, getting into trouble and trying to survive.
In the mid-1700s, the picaresque novel declined due to the growth of new realistic novels with more elaborate and intensive plots. At the time, it was considered a lesser form of literature compared to the newer novels being created that were less episodic and conformed instead to a plot that would be more recognizable today. Despite this, readers can find elements of picaresque novels in other works of fiction like the following:
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann
- Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol
Elements of a Picaresque Novel
- Written in the first person.
- Sometimes an autobiographical account.
- The main character is of a low social class.
- The story is told with elements of realism and clear language.
- Satire is often an important element.
- The hero holds some immoral views and goes against society’s rules.
- The plot is loosely defined, held together by related smaller stories (episodic).
- The main character rarely has a real job.
- Includes adventures on a journey.
Examples of Picaresque Novels
Guzmán de Alfarache by Mateo Alemán
Guzmán de Alfarache is widely considered to be the second picaresque novel ever written. It was published in 1599. The book helped to establish the form in Spanish literature and is usually regarded as a prototype for the genre. It novel purports to be the autobiography of the son of a ruined Genoese moneylender. But, the novel is so filled with outrageous events and characters that many have expressed doubt in regard to its reality.
Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jacke Wilton by Thomas Nashe
Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jacke Wilton was the first picaresque novel in England, published in 1594 and set during the reign of Henry VIII. The protagonist, Jack Wilton, travels across Europe, consistently finding himself in trouble. The novel is episodic, jumping from place to place while Jack tells his tale of military encampments, traitors, massacres, and renaissance academia.
Contemporary Picaresque Novels
While picaresque novels are less common than they used to be, writers still use the elements of these works of fiction. It’s fairly easy to find a main character who exhibits the traits of the hero of a picaresque novel. It’s also possible to find novels that use an episodic structure. Some of these include:
Baudolino by Umberto Eco
The story that takes place in the 1300s dung the sacking of Constantinople. A peasant, Baudolino, saves the lives of a historian and a high court official. With this audience, he begins to tell his life story, one that is filled with lies and embellishment. One of the notable features is the difficulty translators have translating the novel into English from Italian. It includes several pages written in a made-up language that combines Italian and Latin, as well as other languages. The novel was published in 2000. Here is an excerpt:
‘There, Master Niketas,’ Baudolino said, ‘when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds. A bit with the help of wine, and a bit with that of the green honey. There is nothing better than imagining other worlds,’ he said, ‘to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
Mason & Dixon is a good example of a novel that contains some, but not all, of the elements of a picaresque novel. In this book, readers follow British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in Saint Helena, Great Britain, the Dutch Cape Colony, and along the Mason-Dixon Line. Their story unfolds with bits of fiction thrown in to make it more entertaining. The novel was published in 1997. The novel is also considered a frame novel in that it is told from the perceptive of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke who is attempting to entertain his extended family.
Why Do Writers Write Picaresque Novels?
Writers choose to use the traditional elements of picaresque novels because of the adventures these characters and forms offer. Within these novels, writers can jump from place to place and time to time without worrying about breaking the continuity of the plot. Readers are also drawn to these kinds of novels due to the excitement that episodic narratives present. One will be unsure what’s going to happen next or where the author is going to take the novel. Additionally, picaresque heroes are also appealing. Their lack of regard for rules and norms make them interesting to write and read about.
Related Literary Terms
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Hero: the principal or primary character of a work.
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.