The Spanish Picaresque Novel: The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554): Its Social Structure and Its Characters
The Spanish picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes written in 1554 by an anonymous author, possibly a Jewish converso (that is, a Jewish individual forced to convert to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition) (Rudder, 1988)), details a series of unfortunate, but frequently ironic and comical adventures of a young orphan/vagabond or "picaro." ("Picaro" is the Spanish word for such a character, thus the description "picaresque" given Lazarillo de Tormes and other, similar 16th and 17th century novels published in Spain, including La vida del buscon by Quevedo, and Guzman de Alfarache by Aleman ( Febres, 1988)). As Rudder (p. 6) states: Some critics . . . think the author was a Jewish convert to Christianity because of certain phrases which point in that direction." The boy Lazarillo travels around, parentless and penniless, through Spain during his youth with a series of not-so-kindly masters, in an effort merely to survive. The social structure of 16th century Spain, as shown in this often-comic episodic novel, pits innocent childishness against cruel maturity; weary worldliness against energetic naivety; open-minded honesty against seasoned deceit, and privileged social position against impoverished deprivation. The character Lazarillo himself is frequently juxtaposed against self-serving, cruel, materially and emotionally bereft, dishonest individuals: a cruel blind man; a miserly priest; a poor squire, and bothers. Some are better off than Lazarillo; some are not, but in the world of this novel, everyone must look out for himself ort herself above all else. In such a society, no room even exists for consideration of others. Ultimately, the boy Lazarillo grows into a man, Lazaro, who is, in many ways not unlike the masters he has served earlier, that is, in terms of ambition; self-interest; and an overall lack of either reflectivity or self-awareness. Lazaro even becomes as ridiculous, in his own way, as those he has earlier served and mercilessly ridiculed to the reader. The implication is clear: the social structure of such an unbalanced and inequitable society can only recycle and repeat itself in the attitudes of the next generation. It is not so much Lazaro; his former masters, or any of the others who people the novel who are fundamentally bereft of morality; sympathy, or conscience: instead, they are simply reacting to and operating within (and trying to exist as best they can within) the world in which they find themselves.
As the anonymous author of this picaresque novel implies, then, of Spanish society of the time, the lack of kindness of so many the boy meets is not so much their fault as society's in general: after all, such a sharply stratified social structure grants so much to so few, but so relatively little to so many, including Lazarillo and his childhood masters. The realities of such a pervasively lopsided social structure then, suggest strongly that only at one's own considerable personal expense does one ever trust his (or her) fate to others. In a world that necessitates such self-interest merely to survive, everyone must, above all, look out for himself or herself.
Moreover, as the author suggests the real problem, within Lazarillo's unforgiving social world, is that widespread self-interest, especially among those who could afford to practice less of it, has in fact created (and perpetuates at all social levels) the corrupt and unequal society of Lazarillo and the rest.
As a child, Lazarillo, whose biological father was convicted of stealing from the mill where he worked (although no actual proof of the crime was ever offered) was jailed and then sent off to war as a muleteer, where he then died in the service of his master. Later, as Lazarillo recalls, his black stepfather, a rather good provider, is also convicted of stealing from his workplace, in an effort to support his family, which now includes not only Lazarillo and his mother, but a new half-brother, severely punished (as is Lazarillo's mother) and banished by law from seeing his common law family again.
Now, since Lazarillo's mother cannot support both him and his younger half-brother, she gives the older boy to a blind beggar who has stopped at the inn where she still works, to act as the blind man's guide. As Lazarillo recalls of the deal his mother and first master have struck: "He . . . said that I wouldn't be a servant to him, but a son" (Anonymous, p.12). However, the blind man instead almost immediately first physically abuses, and then slowly starves his young charge.
In one such abusive incident, in which Lazarillo and his blind master come upon a statue of a bull, and the blind master instructs the boy to place his ear against the side of the statue, supposedly to "hear a great sound" (p. 13) the blind man instead "doubled up his fist and knocked my head into that devil of a bull so hard I felt the pain from its horns for three days" (Anonymous). Following that, the injured child Lazarillo (who is appealingly lacking in self-pity) ruefully reflects to himself:
. . . At that very instant I woke up from my childlike simplicity and I said to myself 'He's right. I've got to open my eyes and be on my guard. I'm alone now, and I've got to think about taking care of myself. (p. 13)
Beginning then, the main character's cynicism about the world in which he finds himself (and about most of those who people it) seriously takes root, and increases steadily throughout the rest of his misadventures. After all, within the milieu of Lazarillo de Tormes, starting with the boy's unfortunate parents and stepfather, continuing with each of his various wretched masters, and encompassing 16th century Spain in general, where so many possess so little, it is not at all surprising that each of Lazarillo's masters turns out, in one way or another, to cheat, betray, lie to, deceive, trick, or otherwise abuse him.
By his various masters, then, Lazarillo is left again and again, after serving first the blind man; second a miserly priest; third, an impoverished squire, and several others, until he finally, out of necessity, becomes enough like those around him, in his wiliness and his cunning, to survive independently and even begin to better himself by ingratiating himself with those better off (as he has seen so many others do). As a parentless picaro, then, each of Lazarillo's early encounters with his masters leaves him even more cynically wise than the last. Thus develops (rather quickly) Lazarillo's painfully-wrought, ironic, tragicomic surprisingly mature view of the true nature of others, as well as the true nature of everyday life within the heartless and corrupt social milieu of 16th century Spain in particular. Thus, Lazarillo rapidly becomes clearly aware of life's often-cruel realities after he places his trust again and again in adults who turn out to be other than as they appear to be (or say they are). From all of this, then, Lazarillo, realizes, having learned the hard way, that appearances do not necessarily match realities.
For instance: one of Lazarillo's masters supposed benefactors, who is a Catholic priest and therefore supposedly virtuous, honest, and fair, teaches Lazarillo, through his contrary actions, that wearing a frock does not make a person unselfish or good). Lazarillo learns as well to trust his own instincts, rather than the words of those supposedly older and wiser, whom he hopes will treat him fairly and help him, benevolently or at least fairly, to survive, although again and again, they do not in fact turn out to do so.
As a child, then, Lazarillo, his wits constantly sharpened by experience, is left repeatedly to absorb, and then reflect on his most recent misadventure, but then wander off again to find yet another master. The next one inevitably turns out to be equally abusive, or even more so (though in a different way, which both deepens and widens the scope of Lazarillo's ever-growing cynical wisdom).
At the end of the book, Lazaro (formerly Lazarillo, or "little Lazaro," but now a self-sufficient grown man) has become someone as acquisitive, grasping, and self-serving as those he served early on, although (like them) he seems quite oblivious to this painfully (yet at the same time comically) ironic fact. As Fiore (1984) concurs:
The narrator of the novel is the adult Lazaro who relates his pseudo autobiography in a letter form, while the protagonist in most of the narrative is Lazarillo as a boy, who is much more simpatico [nice],
entertaining, and impressive than the adult Lazaro. (p. 83)
As Febres (1988, p. 1) notes:
. . . he learns quickly to defend himself from the diverse, painful, and cruel blows of the world; [and] passes from master to master until he is able to earn enough money as a water-seller to buy himself a second-hand suit and sword, whereupon he looks to higher things and…