Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Picaresque According to Cervantes

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Picaresque According to Cervantes

Article excerpt

There is an unfortunate and enduring belief among non-Hispanist scholars that Miguel de Cervantes was a writer of the picaresque and that his most famous protagonist, Don Quixote, is a picaresque (anti)hero. This misjudgment, mostly outside Spain, has historical roots, starting with Cervantes' own contemporaries, and has lasted to the present. (1) The misunderstanding stems firstly from the fact that many scholars are unfamiliar with the Spanish picaresque. This is confounded by the fact that Cervantes did indeed integrate numerous features of the Spanish picaresque into several of his works, especially Don Quixote and his Exemplary Novels. However, this problem extends beyond Cervantes to a number of authors whose works have been lumped into the picaresque with disregard for what the genre entails. W. M. Frohock brought attention to this fact by noting that non-Hispanists employ the term "picaresque" so loosely that "for every novelist to write a new novel there is at least one critic waiting to find something picaresque in it." (2) More recently, Joseph V. Ricapito points out that even today "one sees the word 'picaresque' used in so many ways" that "the original sense of the word has become blurred." (3) Unfortunately, Cervantes' fiction has not been immune to comparable assessments, but to deem Don Quixote a picaresque narrative and the knight a picaro is to misunderstand both the characteristics of Spanish picaresque and of the generally accepted character traits of Spanish Golden Age picaros. (4)

It is true that Cervantes was forced to cope with the picaresque in some way, especially since Don Quixote (1605) was published on the heels of Mateo Aleman's wildly popular picaresque narrative Guzman de Alfarache (1599), which went through more than twelve editions before its second part appeared in 1604. The Guzman is often credited with being the most significant picaresque novel and marked both a resurgence of the genre and its highpoint; it was often known simply as El Picaro. In fact, several other authors wished to capitalize on Aleman's instant success and brought out their own picaresque narratives immediately after: Mateo Lujan de Say avedra published a spurious second part to Guzman de Alfarache in 1602, (5) Francisco Quevedo wrote Historia de la vida de buscon, llamado Pablos [Life of the Swindler called Pablos] (circulating in manuscript form as early as 1604 and later published in 1626), and Lopez de Ubeda published the first female picaresque work, La picara Justina (1605). The opening years of the seventeenth century saw a flurry of picaresque production, all of which took inspiration from the original prototype, the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 but censored and rereleased in expurgated form from 1573. Lazarillo, published in both Spain and Antwerp, marks the origin of the picaresque myth in Western literature by establishing the solitary boy antihero along with the literary setting, eventually yielding the modern conception of the narrative form.

Amidst the sudden--and perhaps unexpected--regeneration and reconstitution of the picaresque, Cervantes may have completed as much as half or more of Don Quixote, which he sent to the printer in 1605. (6) Other major works, the Novelas ejemplares (1613) and the second part of Don Quixote (1615), were likewise conceived, written, and published exactly at the height of popularity of picaresque narratives. (7) Cervantes' most significant works were all published in the midst of a picaresque surge brought about almost single-handedly by Aleman's Guzman de Alfarache. Aleman's masterpiece established an unsurpassed model during the time period so that anything resembling the picaresque automatically alluded to the Guzman. (8) As Edward C. Riley points out, the literary scene was abuzz with the Guzman to such an extent that the disquieting presence of Aleman's picaro could not have been ignored by contemporaneous writers concerned with "attracting both a large readership and the respect of serious critics," as Cervantes was. …

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