Lazarillo de Tormes

From Academic Kids

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities is a Spanish novel, published anonymously, 1554, in Alcalá de Henares in Spain, and, in 1557, in Antwerp, Flanders, then under Spanish rule.

Besides its importance in the Spanish literature of the Golden Century, Lazarillo de Tormes is credited with founding a literary genre, the picaresque novel, so called from Spanish pícaro meaning "rogue" or "rascal". In these novels, the adventures of the pícaro expose injustice while amusing the reader. This extensive genre includes Tom Jones by Henry Fielding and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and shows its influence in twentieth century novels, dramas, and films featuring the "anti-hero".

Lazarillo de Tormes was banned by the Spanish Crown and included in the Index of Forbidden Books of the Spanish Inquisition; this was at least in part due to the book's anti-clerical flavour. In 1573, the Crown allowed circulation of a version which omitted Chapters 4 and 5 and assorted paragraphs from other parts of the book. (A complete version did not appear in Spain until the Nineteenth Century.) It was the Antwerp version that circulated throughout Europe, in French translation (1560), in English translation (1576), in Dutch translation (1579) after Flanders went under Dutch rule (1578), in German translation (1617), in Italian translation (1622).



The Sixteenth Century Toledo town crier, Lázaro, tells the story of his rising from poverty. His mother, widow of a Spanish soldier and common-law wife of a Negro thief, apprenticed Lazarillo (in Chapter 1) to a wily blind beggar, the first of his many masters, described (after a Prólogo) in seven chapters (tractados) united only by the adventures of a determined, resourceful boy. Struggling to survive when the poor must try to serve their purported betters, Lazaro succeeds in marrying the mistress of a local churchman, who accepts the cover of a Ménage ŕ trois.

Lazarillo introduced the picaresque device of delineating various professions and levels of society. A young boy or young man or woman describing masters or "betters" ingenuously presented realistic details. But Lazarillo spoke of "the blind man," "the squire," "the pardoner," presenting these characters as types. Significantly, the only names of characters in this book are those of Lazarillo, his mother (Antona Pérez), his father (Tome Gonzáles), and his stepfather (El Zayde), members of his family.

Table of contents "of His Fortunes and Adversities":

  1. Prólogo
  2. Tractado 1: childhood and apprenticeship to a blind man.
  3. Tractado 2: serving a priest.
  4. Tractado 3: serving a squire.
  5. Tractado 4: serving a friar.
  6. Tractado 5: serving a pardoner.
  7. Tractado 6: serving a teacher.
  8. Tractado 7: serving a bailiff.


Primary objections to Lazarillo were to its vivid and realistic descriptions of the world of the pauper and the petty thief. This was in contrast to the superhuman events of chivalric novels such as the classic from the previous century, Amadís de Gaula.

Such objections to characters not being "high-born" continued to be made in the literature of other countries for centuries. It resulted in censorship of novels by Pierre Beaumarchais, one of which was used for the operatic libretto of The Mariage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And the 1767 premiére of the German drama, Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Lessing as well as the 1830 premiére of the French drama, Ernani, by Victor Hugo caused riots simply because these dramas featured middle-class characters, not nobles or religious figures.

The name Lazarillo is the diminutive of the Spanish name Lázaro, after the Lazarus in the New Testament who was resurrected from the dead by Jesus. The de Tormes comes from the river Tormes. In the narrative, Lazarillo explains that his father ran a mill on the river where he was literally born on the river. The Tormes runs through Lazarillo's home town, Salamanca, a Castilian university city. Because of Lazarillo's first adventures, the Spanish word lazarillo has taken the meaning of "guide", as to a blind person, and in Spain a seeing-eye dog is called a perro lazarillo.

In contrast to the fancifully poetic language devoted to fantastic and supernatural events about unbelievable creatures and chivalric knights, the realistic prose of Lazarillo described suppliants purchasing salvation from the Church to avoid hell, servants forced to die with masters on the battlefield (as Lazarillo's father did), thousands of refugees wandering from town to town, poor beggars flogged out by whips because of the lack of food. The anonymous author included many popular sayings and ironically interpreted popular stories.

The Prologue with Lazaro's extensive protest against injustice is addressed to a high-level cleric, and four of his seven masters in the novel served the church. Lazarillo attacked the appearance of the church and its hypocrisy, though not its essential beliefs, a balance not often present in picaresque novels that followed.

The work is a masterpiece for its internal artistic unity. For example, as Lázaro's masters rise up the social scale (from beggar to priest to nobleman) so their ability to feed him diminishes; Lázaro leaves his first master, is thrown out by the second and is abandoned by the third.

The work is riotously funny, often relying upon slapstick humour (such as the young Lázaro leading his blind master to jump against a stone column, in revenge for his master banging his young servant's head against a stone statue); some of its funniest episodes are apparently based upon traditional material. But there is a deeper, more unsettling humour and irony here. Nothing is what it seems in this book: the blind beggar's public prayers are a sham and the nobleman's nobility is pure facade; and at the end of the book, Lázaro professes to have reached the pinnacle of success, but is little more than a cuckold living off the immoral earnings of his wife.

Besides creating a new genre, Lazarillo de Tormes was critically innovative in world literature in several aspects:

  1. Long before the Emile (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) or Huckleberry Finn the anonymous author of Lazarillo treated a boy as a boy, not a small adult.
  2. Long before Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe), Lazarillo describes the domestic and working life of a poor woman, wife, mother, climaxing in the flogging of Lazarillo's mother through the streets of the town after her black husband Zayde is hung as a thief.
  3. Long before modern treatment of "persons of color", this author treats sympathetically the pleasures and pains of an interracial family in his descriptions of life with his black stepfather and negrito half-brother.

Possible authors

For the specialist in comparative literature, the identity of the anonymous author of Lazarillo has been a puzzle for nearly four hundred years.

Perhaps the most favored candidates for authorship has been one a pair of Spanish twins: Alphonso de Valdés (1500-32) and Juan de Valdés, twin sons of a hereditary councillor of Cuenca in Castile (the kingdom of Isabella of Castile whose marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon united Spain). The twins were conversos, that is, persons of Jewish heritage who converted to the Roman Catholic faith, a class often suspected of closet heresy by the Inquisition. Hurtado de Mendoza has also been suggested as its author.



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