Picaresque Novel: Meaning, Definition and Explanation

The picaresque novel (Spanish: 'picaresco', from 'picaro', for 'rogue' and 'rascal') is a popular genre of novel that originated in Spain an

Picaresque Novel: Meaning, Definition and Explanation

The word ‘Picaresque’ is defined as ‘belonging or relating to rogues or knaves; applied especially to a style of literary fiction dealing with adventures of rogues, chiefly of Spanish origin.’ It is also defined as the ‘autobiography of a picaro, a rogue, and in that form a satire upon the conditions and persons of the time that gives it birth.’

The recent critics, however, stretched the definition of picaresque and Walter Allen included in this group ‘any novel in which the hero takes a journey whose course plunges him into all sorts of conditions and classes of men.’ Nortrop defined the picaresque novel as ‘ a realistic portrayal of criminal life in which criminals and their tricks constitute the chief source of interest.’

Thus it becomes evident that picaresque novel is the life-story of a rogue or picaro, a clever and amusing adventure of low social class who earns his livelihood by tricks and roguery rather than by hounourable industry. The story is usually told by the picaro in the first person, as an autobiography. Episodic in nature, the plot consists of a series of thrilling incidents only slightly connected and strung together with organic relationship. They are without patter, If at their best the picaresque stories had a beginning, they had no end. They were published in parts and the main aim of the novelist 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. The adventures and wanderings in different social settings permit the picaro to meet people of all classes- bankers, politicians, the clergy, doctors, lawyers, actors and society-folk. He is thus provided with the opportunity of satirizing corruption and hypocrisy of a whole society and epoch. The picaresque novel is in consequence a study of manners.

In picaresque novel, the ‘rogue’ is the hero. The rogue may be defined as one who lives by his wits. Living by wits implies knowledge of the world, a sharp insight into responses that may be played upon advantageously, a mastery of the techniques of playing upon them, the ready appraisal of life by what Charlotte Bronte might have called ‘the organ of computation’ in a word , the apparatus or a ‘lighting calculator.’ Since in the life of wits certain functions of the mind dominate, this life also means a diminution, if not total elimination, of emotional depths and moral concern. The rogue is without conscience of the inhibitions created by the community’s sense of right or wrong; not so much that his is the enemy of these or falls short of an expectable standard by which we judge him, as that he lives in another world from them. He lives outside the ‘ordinary’ feelings of the community; his hypertrophy of practical intelligence replaces a full emotional development. Not that the picaro is entirely ‘heartless’ or without feelings; it is aesthetically necessary that he be not a monster. His self-love gives him some link to the rest of mankind; he can fear; he may have transient fidelities. But if he is afraid, his fear does not deepen into terror. He may experience disgust, but not horror. He is likely to be well-endowed with sex, but he hardly experiences passion or serious jealousy, and least of all love. He may find people difficult, objectionable, or annoyingly skeptical, but he does not hate.

The picaresque writer has tough time in securing ‘sympathy’ for the rogue hero. This is achieved by giving the picaro certain admirable qualities: good nature, charm, an ironical view of himself or by making the rogue somewhat a creature of necessity, maltreated by others and by circumstances.

The picaresque novelists are not basically concerned with moralizing but with a curiosity about life. They are concerned with the exciting business of living and making a life. They present life realistically and faithfully for satirical, humorous or critical delineation but they lay emphasis on the elevation of morality.

Though the picaresque novel originated in Spain, it also inspired the English writers. Thomas Nashe was the first English novelist who presented the picaresque spirit in his novel The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). It is the most remarkable work in picaresque fiction in English before Defoe. It features the deliberately rough, unorthodox, first person narration of its protagonist Jack Wilton. Jack Wilton is a certain kind of page attending to the court of Henry VII. He lives by his wits, playing tricks on old and gullible occupants of the camp and gets whipped for his pains. It has elements of a ‘picaresque’ tale as typified by Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), translated from Spanish in 1586.

After Nashe, the picaresque tradition was kept alive by Richard Head and Francis Kiekman in The English Rogue (1665-71).

In the first half of the 18th century, the picaresque novel was popularized in England by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Smollett. The autobiographical method of the picaresque novel fell in exactly with his talents and he published his remarkable picaresque novel Moll Flanders.  However, critics including Ian Watt and Arnold Kettle do not consider it as a picaresque novel. Moll Flanders is the story of an easily seduced picaresque heroine whose fortunes rise and fall on her amorous experiences until she reaches old age only slightly pricked by conscience for a wicked life. Defoe presents the corruption, nobility and the decline of the ignorant and brutal company gentleman. He had enlarged the scope of the picaresque novel by presenting the life of a dissolute protagonist. The real beginning of picaresque novel took place in the 18th century with the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe by rejecting all the fantastic convention of the romance and by adopting with studious precision the manner and tone of actual biography.

Smollett is another 18th century novelist who wrote picaresque novels. He wrote a number of picaresque novels: Roderick Random, Humphrey Clinker, Ferdinand Count Fathom and Peregrine Pickle. Smollett was influenced by Le Sage’s Gil Blas. His novels are not organized into an artistic whole. He conceived the novel as ‘a large diffused picture of life’. Smollett broadened the scope of novel and was the first English novelist to exploit ‘systemically and successfully the national peculiarities of Irish.’ Much closer to the Spanish picaresque in theme and tone is his Ferdinand Count Fathom as Smollett was very conscious of the Spanish picaresque tradition.

Dr Arnold Kettle remarks, “Nashe and Defoe and Smollett deal, in varying degrees, with moral issues, but the germ of their books is never an idea, never an abstract concept. They are not in any sense allegories… Their talent is devoted first and foremost to getting life on to the page, to conveying across to their readers the sense of what life as their characters live it really like.”

Another novelist of picaresque novel was Richardson. His Tom Jones is redolent of the picaresque elements. His importance in the history of novel lies in his introduction of characters of the lower middle classes, especially women, whom he portrays with great accuracy and minuteness of detail. His characters are real and life like. Richardson specialized in depicting female characters. He could depict with extraordinary skill the subtleties and inconsistencies of women’s heart. Richardson represented for the first time the women’s point of view in the history of English fiction. Pamela and Clarissa are well drawn portraits.

To sum up it can be said that the picaresque novel is important because it for the first time gave a realistic picture of a whole age. Moreover, it popularized a literary type in which people of low and humble origin were treated honestly and, even when wicked, sympathetically.