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The picaresque novel (Spanish: "picaresco", from "pícaro", for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular style of novel that originated in Spain and flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and has continued to influence modern literature. The term denotes a subgenre of usually satiric prose fiction and depicts in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in Antwerp and Spain in 1554 is variously considered either the first picaresque novel or an antecedent to the genre. The title character Lazarillo is a pícaro who must live by his wits in an impoverished country full of hypocrisy. The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, written in Florence beginning in 1558, also has much in common with the picaresque. The first unquestioned picaresque novel was published in 1599: Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, characterized by religiosity. Francisco de Quevedo's El buscón (1626) is considered the masterpiece of the subgenre, because of his baroque style and the study of the delinquent psychology.
In other European countries, these Spanish novels were read and imitated. In Germany, Grimmelshausen wrote Simplicissimus (1669), the most important of non-Spanish picaresque novels. It describes the devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War. In France, this kind of novel declined into an aristocratic adventure: Le Sage's Gil Blas (1715). In England, the body of Tobias Smollett's work, and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) are considered picaresque, but they lack of the sense of religious redemption of delinquency that was very important in Spanish and German novels. The triumph of Moll Flanders is more economic than moral.
Influence on modern fiction
In the English-speaking world, the term "picaresque" has referred more to a literary technique or model than to the precise genre that the Spanish call picaresco. The English-language term can simply refer to an episodic recounting of the adventures of an antihero on the road. Henry Fielding proved his mastery of the form in Joseph Andrews (1742), The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), but, as Fielding himself wrote, these novels were written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, not in imitation of the picaresque novel.
Some modern novelists have used some techniques of the antique novels, as Gogol in Dead Souls (1842-52). Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) combined the influence of the picaresque novel with the then new spy novel. Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Svejk (1923?) was the first example of the picaresque technique in Central Europe. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was consciously written as a picaresque novel, as were many other novels of vagabond life, such as Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is also a picaresque novel with bildungsroman traits.
Other recent examples are Robert Clark Young's One of the Guys (1999), Camilo José Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte" (1951), Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959), Helen Zahavi 's Dirty Weekend (1991), "the serial-killer novel to end all serial-killer novels" (Ian Ousby ) and Stewart Home's Cunt (1999).
- Alexander A. Parker: Literature and the delinquent: The picaresque novel in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753.
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