Picaresque Novel – Definition & Meaning

Picaresque narrative is an important predecessor of the later novel which emerged in sixteenth century Spain, although the most popular example of it, Gil Blas (1715), was written by the Frenchman Le Sage. “Picaro” is Spanish for “rogue” and a typical story which concerns the escapades of an insouciant rascal who lives by his wits and shows little if any alteration of character through the long succession of his adventures. Picaresque novel is realistic in manner and episodic in structure. It is opposed to the sustained development of a single plot. It is often satiric in aim. The first, and very lively, English example was Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler (1594). We recognize the survival of the Picaresque type in many later novels such as Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Tom Sawyer (1876). Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull (1954), and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953). The development of the novel owes much to prose works which, like the picaresque story were written to deflate romantic or idealized fictional forms. Cervantes’ great Quadi-picaresque narrative Don Quixote (1605) was the single most important progenitor of the modern novel. In this work, an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of Chivalric romance in everyday life is used to explore the general relations of illusion and reality in human life.

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After these precedents and many others-including the seventeenth century Character (a brief sketch of a typical personality or way of life) and French courtly romances such as Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Cleves (1678). What is recognizably the novel as we now think of it appeared in England in the early eighteenth century. In 1719 Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe and in 1722 Moll Flanders. Both of these are still Picaresque in type because they are a sequence of episodes held together largely because they happened to one person and Moll is herself a colourful female version of the old Picaro. She is twelve year a whore, five times a wife, Twelve year a thief, Eight year a Transported Felon in Virginia. But Robinson Crusoe is given an enforced unity of action by its focus on the problem of surviving on an uninhabited island, while both stories present so convincing a central character, set in so solid and detailly realized a world, that Defoe is often credited with writing the first “novel of incident”.



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