In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Picaresque

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Research Guides
  • Picaresque as Genre and Myth
  • Gender Studies and Socioeconomic History
  • Picaresque within the General History of the Novel
  • Histories of the English Novel
  • English 16th- and Early 17th-Century Literature
  • Translations from the 17th to the Early 18th Centuries
  • English 18th-Century Literature
  • English 19th- and 20th-Century Literature
  • The Literature of Roguery
  • The Domestication of the English Pícaro

British and Irish Literature Picaresque
José María Pérez Fernández
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0102


The picaresque as a generic category originated in Spanish literature of the 16th and early 17th centuries. It then spread all over Europe, exerting a particularly important influence toward the end of the 17th and above all during the 18th century in Germany, France, and England. The picaresque appears inextricably tied to the emergence of the novel: hence its importance when it comes to an assessment of the origins and evolution of certain varieties of English late 17th- and early 18th-century prose fiction. The fate of the picaresque after the 18th century is subject to controversy, but there is no doubt that its influence and presence diminished. Like the concept of the picaresque itself, the role of the international picaresque in the development of English prose fiction must be studied in parallel with analogous national traditions that addressed similar concerns and responded to the same early modern stimuli. This accounts for the presence in this survey of articles and books that study other linguistic traditions. The picaresque crystallizes in its plots and in its language concerns and paradoxes that are inherently modern and transnational. These include the moral, political, and economic foundations for the values that regulate the relations between the early modern self and society. The main concerns of the picaresque include poverty, vagrancy, crime, prostitution, and in general the struggle of individuals for material survival and social legitimacy in an environment that upholds lofty ethical standards as it also requires the reckless pursuit of self-interest for mere survival. Its autobiographical, first-person narrator also brings to the foreground the paradoxes of narrative representation, and the intricate strategies that the picaresque devises to verbalize all these concerns constitute founding moments in the history of the novel. Students and researchers will find that, after a general survey of the existing scholarship, the best model for an approach to the picaresque is one that contemplates it as part of the larger network that sustains the development of prose fiction before, during, and after the 18th-century rise of the novel. This heterogeneity requires an interdisciplinary approach that must include literary theory; the semiotics of fiction; and the history of translation, cultural, and gender studies as well as social, political, and economic history. The citations included here are those that refer to the picaresque explicitly, or those which—without addressing the picaresque by name—describe phenomena that are closely related and/or show clear analogies with it, such as rogue literature.

General Overviews

The essays in this section seek to outline the main features of the picaresque with a view to establishing its canon and the scope of its influence. Guillén 1971a and Guillén 1971b constitute two of the best introductions to its critical scope and the controversies it stirs. Framing it within the longue durée of the intellectual history of the West, Guillén construes the picaresque as a cultural artifact that thematizes the traumas caused by the transition from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. The author establishes a flexible list of its main features, suitably illustrated with a collection of international samples. Guillén defines the pícaro as an archetypical “half-outsider,” a characteristic that would be influential in establishing the view of the picaresque as more myth than genre. In Guillén’s account the picaresque also confronts readers with the aporias and paradoxes that inform the literary representation of the modern self and its world. Blackburn 1979 reads the pícaro as a literary paradigm of the outcast who attempts to survive precariously within a hostile environment. The pícaro responds in kind to the anomie of these circumstances and devises pragmatic strategies of survival whose cynicism clashes with the moralizing rhetoric that frequently pervades the narrative. Not an outright rebel, but self-interestedly pragmatic and ready to do whatever it takes to survive on a daily basis, the pícaro appears devoid of any idealistic strain, or the tragic grandeur of other modern anti-heroes, such as Faustus, Don Juan, or even Don Quixote. Sieber 1977 provides an excellent introduction to the international diffusion of the picaresque, and also discusses the differences between Spanish pícaros and English rogues. The author sets the 18th century as the limit for the scope of the picaresque both as a genre and a mode. This is the same temporal scope adopted in Bjornson 1977, which also covers the German and French versions of the picaresque. Bjornson proposes an open-ended model that prefigures Blackburn’s view of the pícaro as an archetype or a myth. Maiorino 1996 also emphasizes the protean nature of the picaresque and its typological diversity. The author views it as essentially dialogical and—given its thematic focus on marginal situations and protagonists—in sharp contrast with the values and formal patterns of traditional genres like epic and tragedy. Rico 1984 focuses on the Spanish foundations of the picaresque, with an emphasis on the complexity of the different narrative levels that make up the texture of founding works like Lazarillo.

  • Bjornson, Richard. The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

    Contains an important essay (“Translations and Transitions,” chapter 7, pp. 139–165), which provides an account of the changes that the picaresque underwent when it was translated into other European vernaculars.

  • Blackburn, Alexander. The Myth of the Pícaro: Continuity and Transformation of the Picaresque Novel 1554–1954. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

    Opposing the view of the picaresque as a genre, Blackburn takes Guillén as his cue and defines it as one of the myths of modernity whose presence persisted well into the 20th century.

  • Guillén, Claudio. “Toward a Definition of the Picaresque.” In Literature as System: Essays Toward the Theory of Literary History. By Claudio Guillén, 71–106. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971a.

    Guillén comes up with a flexible, but rather cogent and sufficiently clear definition of the picaresque as a transnational genre, and then illustrates it with a series of international samples.

  • Guillén, Claudio. “Genre and Countergenre: The Discovery of the Picaresque.” In Literature as System: Essays Toward the Theory of Literary History. By Claudio Guillén, 135–158. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971b.

    Guillén’s scholarship established important new terms for further discussion of the picaresque. This essay combines in its first part an approach to Lazarillo as a case study, while the second part approaches the picaresque from the theory of literary genres.

  • Maiorino, Giancarlo, ed. The Picaresque: Tradition and Displacement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

    Proposes a convincing dialogical model for the picaresque. With its mundane concerns for economic hardship, mere survival, or starvation, the picaresque contrasts with the idealistic values of the epic.

  • Rico, Francisco. The Spanish Picaresque and the Point of View. Translated by Charles Davis with Harry Sieber. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    English translation of La novela picaresca y el punto de vista, first published in 1982. Although some of his opinions have been contested (see Sevilla Arroyo 2001, cited under Picaresque as Genre and Myth), here Rico provides one of the best accounts of the Spanish origins of the picaresque. See also Dunn 1993 (cited under Picaresque as Genre and Myth).

  • Sieber, Harry. The Picaresque. London: Methuen, 1977.

    A good short introduction for undergraduate students. Addresses methodological problems and traces the genre’s international development from its Spanish origins. An excellent introduction when complemented with the first section of Dunn 1993 (cited under Picaresque as Genre and Myth).

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