Picaresque Novel | Definition, Examples and Characteristics

Picaresque Novel | Definition, Examples and Characteristics

Picaresque Novel

Meaning of Picaresque Novel

The picaresque novel (Spanish: ‘picaresco’, from ‘picaro’, for ‘rogue’ and ‘rascal’) is a popular genre of novel that originated in Spain and flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and has continued to influence modern literature. Basically Picaresque novel is a humorous novel in which the plot consists of a young knave’s misadventures and escapades narrated in comic or satiric scenes. This roguish protagonist is called a ‘picaro’ who makes his (or sometimes her) way through cunning and trickery rather than through virtue or industry.

What is Picaresque Novel?

Picaresque novel is the life story of rogue or picaro, a clever and amusing adventurer of low social status. The story is usually narrated in the first person as autobiography. Episodic in nature, the plot consists of a series of thrilling incidents. The hero wanders from place to place, from job to job. The adventures help the picaro to meet with the people of all different social strata- businessmen, politicians, clergymen, doctors, lawyers, drunkards, poor, buffoons etc. He is thus charged with opportunities of satirizing the hypocrisy and corruption of entire society.

Characteristically, the picaresque novel is anti-romantic in nature. It sharply attacks the romance, courtly marriage and chivalry of the medieval literature. Dr. Kettle is of the opinion, “What made their novel possible was the new attitude to the world brought about by the decadence of feudal society.” With the passing of the old society, a vacuum was created and people were faced with a desperate situation. Ruined and demoralized, the aristocracy took to questionable means for mere survival and the lower classes became rogues and vagabonds. Surely, the picaresque novel came out in such a vehement context.

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Chief characteristics of Picaresque Novel

Picaresque novels have following characteristics: –

1. Episodic in structure, having the insider thrilling or sensational.

2. Picture of contemporary society is thus presented realistically and completely.

3. Consists of a series of thrilling events only loosely connected together by the fact that the same central character figures in them all.

4. Immense variety-social setting of incident and of character.

5. Not concerned to any great extent, with moral issues. The picaresque novel is not moral in its intention.

6. Often autobiographical novel about a rogue or ‘picaro’ (who is a person of low social status)

7. The protagonist is a rogue or rascal figure, mostly along a comical line.

8. The story is often told in the first person (i.e., from the protagonist’s point-of-view).

9. The novelist may satirize various faults of character or the corruption of society, but his purpose is to entertain and delight.

Examples of Picaresque Novel

The first English specimen of Picaresque novel was Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). This style of novel though originated in sixteenth century Spain, yet it flourished throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.

It emerged in 1553 in Spain in the anonymous Spanish work Lazarillo de Tormes, and later Spanish authors like Mateo Aleman and Fracisco Quevedo produced other similar works. Lazarillo de Tormes is the first picaresque novel in Spain that tells us the life story of a picaro boy. History of the Life of Boscon is another Spanish picaresque novel describing the life and adventure of a rascal who follows his wealthy school mate. He joins a gang of thieves, poses as a cripple, becomes an actor and finally went to America.

In sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque. Another early example is Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (1599), characterized by religiosity. In other European countries, Spanish novels were read and imitated. In Germany, Grimmelshausen wrote Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669), the most important of non-Spanish picaresque novels. This novel describes the devastation caused by the Thirty Years’ War.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is somewhat akin to the Spanish picaresque novel. It is a devastating satire on the entire mischievous pile of romantic absurdity. Gil Bilas by Le Sage is however the best known picaresque novel that exercised a huge influence on Fielding and Smollett.

However, it was Thomas Nash, the University Wit who first introduced the picaresque tradition in his English fiction, The Unfortunate Traveller in the Life of Jack Wilton (1594). It is remarkable for its spirit and wit and for the streak of tragic realism which runs through the major episodes.

Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is considered the first picaresque of the 18th century. But critics like Ian Watt, Arnold Kettle and Neill opposed the idea to call it mere picaresque novel. According to Ian Watt, the adventures of the heroin are rooted in the dynamics of economic individualism and so she is different from the picaresque protagonists.

Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) is another popular picaresque novel. It is a series of episodes told with vigour and vividness and is linked together in the life of the selfish and the unprincipled hero who relates them. His others picaresque novels are Peregrine Pickle, Fardinand Count FathomHumphry Clinker etc.

Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is a gorgeous novel in picaresque tradition. Tom is a traveling foundling. The plot of Tom Jones is a cleverly constructed framework for a picture of life. It takes the reader to a panoramic tour through society, a tour in which all the features of interest would be unobtrusively highlighted. His another picaresque novel is Sir Joseph Andrews.

The illustrated The Magic Pudding (1918), by Australian author Norman Lindsay, is an example of the picaresque adapted for children’s literature. The Enormous Room (1922) is E. E. Cummings’ autobiographical novel about his imprisonment in France during World War I on unfounded charges of “espionage” and it includes many picaresque depictions of his adventures as “an American in a French prison”. J.B. Priestley made excellent use of the picaresque form in his enormously successful book The Good Companions (1929) and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

Many other novels on vagabond life were consciously written as picaresque novels, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer(1934). Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a picaresque novel with bildungsroman traits. Thomas Mann’s Adventures of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954), which like many novels, emphasizes the theme of a charmingly roguish ascent in the social order.

Other novels with element of picaresque include Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Mark Twin’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend etc.

Indian novelist R. K, Narayan wrote a superb picaresque novel, The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Another novelist mingles picaresque elements in his famous novels Coolie, Untouhable etc.  Recent example of Picaresque novel is Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (Booker Prize 2008).

To conclude, picaresque novel fells spotlight on the realistic aspects of the society. The broad social canvas, the vivid description of trades and professions, the mingling of all social classes, the ironic scrutiny of the morals- these characteristics surely enrich our taste to read picaresque novel time and again.

2 thoughts on “Picaresque Novel | Definition, Examples and Characteristics”

  1. Loved this post! I’ve always been fascinated by picaresque novels and this explanation helped me understand the genre even better. The examples you provided were really helpful in illustrating the characteristics of a picaresque novel. Keep up the great work on your blog!


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