Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Lazarillo de Tormes

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities is a Spanish novel, published anonymously, 1554, in Alcala de Henares and Amberes in Spain, and, 1557, in Antwerp, Flanders, currently under Spanish rule. Besides its importance in the Spanish Literature of the Century of Gold, credit is given to Lazarillo de Tormes for founding a literary genre, the Picaresque novel (from Spanish "pícaro" for "rogue" or "rascal"), to expose injustice while amusing the reader. This extensive genre includes Tom Jones by Henry Fielding and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, even Twentieth century novels, dramas, and films sfeaturing the anti-hero.

Because of its controversial nature, Lazarillo de Tormes was banned by the Spanish Crown and catalogued by The Inquisition within the Index of the Purgatorio. 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.) So it is 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).

A primary objection to Lazarillo were its descriptions of the world of the pauper and the petty thief, not the superhuman events of chivalric novels such as the classic from the previous century, Amadis de Gaula. Objections to characters not "high-born" was 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, Hernani, by Victor Hugo caused riots simply because these dramas featured middle class persons.

The name "Lazarillo" is diminutive for the Spanish name "Lazaro", named for Lazarus in The New Testament, a man resurrected from the dead by Jesus. The "de Tormes" part is from the river Tormes which ran through his home town, Salamanca, NNE of Toledo, a great ancient city known to posterity by the painting, "View of Toledo", of El Greco. Because of Lazarillos adventures in Chapter 1, the word "lazarillo" in Spanish means "guide", as to a blind person.

The Sixteenth Century Toledo town crier, Lazaro, tells the story of his rising from poverty. His mother, widow of a Spanish soldier and common-law wife of a negro thief, apprenticed Larazillo (in Chapter 1) to a wily blind beggar, the first of his many masters, described (after a "Prologo") 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 "betters", Lazaro succeeds in marrying the mistress of a local churchman, who accepts the cover of a menage-a-trois.

Lazarillo introduced for the picaresque genre the 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 "el ciego," "el escudero," "el buldero," presenting these characters as types. Significantly, the only names of characters in this book are those of Lazarillo, his mother (Antona Perez), his father (Tome Gonzales), and his stepfather (El Zayde), members of his family.

"of His Fortunes and Adversities":

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

Miguel Cervantes, author of the great classic, Don Quixote, said that his book was inspired by Tractado 3 in which Lazarillo serves an eccentric old squire who thought he had been a great knight.

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

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

  1. Long before the Emile of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Oliver Twist of Charles Dickens or Huckleberry Finn of Mark Twain, this anonymous author treated a boy as a boy, not a small adult.
  2. Long before Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, this author treats of 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 "Zayde" is hung as a thief.
  3. Long before modern treatment of "persons of color", this author treats sympathetically the life with his negro stepfather and negrito half-brother.
  4. Long before recent dramas and films, the author suggests the pleasures and pains of an interracial family.

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" has been one or the other of Spanish twins: Alphonso de Valdés (1500-32) and Juan de Valdes, 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 "convuersos", that is, persons of Jewish heritage who converted to the Roman Catholic faith, often suspected of "closet heresy".


" class="external">