Picaresque Novel

Everyone enjoys a tale of the loveable rogue, but where did this prototype come from? Originating in 16th century Spain, the picaresque novels are a genre of prose fiction that tells the tales of the mischievous rascals who get by day to day in corrupt societies on nothing but their wit. Here we look at what makes a picaresque novel as well as its history and examples of the form. 

Get started Sign up for free
Picaresque Novel Picaresque Novel

Create learning materials about Picaresque Novel with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    Picaresque novel: definition

    Picaresque takes its name from the Spanish term 'picaro' which translates roughly to 'rogue' or 'rascal'. It is the picaro that is at the centre of all picaresque novels. A picaresque novel is a genre of fiction where the reader will follow the adventures of a roguish hero or heroine in a realistic, often satirical manner.

    These rogues normally live outside of the social norm and although they are not criminals they certainly do not follow society's rules. These characters usually have a certain charm about them and often have the reader's sympathy.

    A rogue does not follow the rules and can sometimes be seen as 'cheeky' or dishonest.

    Picaresque novels are normally comedic or satirical in their tone, offering a humorous look at the corrupt world around them. They often have an episodic plot, with the narratives choosing not to dwell on a conventional and structured plot but rather jump from one misadventure to another. The stories are told in the first person from the 'hero's' point of view. The picaresque is one of the earliest forms of the novel and is said to have its roots in chivalric romance. The narratives follow the rambling adventures of their hero, although the picaro is not exactly heroic!

    Chivalric romance is a literary genre that was most popular during the medieval period. Chivalric romances would contain tales of knights performing heroic deeds told in prose or verse.

    The term 'picaresque' was first coined in 1810 but the first picaresque novel is widely regarded to be written over 200 years earlier.

    The picaresque novel has its origins in 16th-century Spain, the first novel being Lazarillo de Tornes (1554). It tells the story of Lazaro, a poor boy who exposes the hypocrisy of his clerical masters. Lazarillo de Tornes proved popular among readers not long after Mateo Aleman's Guzman de Alfarache (1599) was published. Aleman's novel introduced an element of religion to the picaresque novel, the protagonist Guzman is a picaro looking back on his past. With these two novels, a genre was born.

    The first picaresque novel written in English is The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594) by Thomas Nash.

    Picaresque novel: history

    Although the picaresque novel as we know it originates in 16th century Spain, its roots and influences trace back to the classical period. The character traits of the picaro are similar to those found in Roman literature, particularly in Petronius' The Satyricon (1st Century AD). The Roman satire tells the story of Encolpius, a former gladiator who narrates his often bawdy adventure.

    Picaresque Novel, the Forum with the Colosseum in the background , StudySmarterFig. 1 - The picaresque novel has its roots in ancient Rome.

    Another Roman novel that shares characteristics of the picaresque is The Golden Ass by Apuleius. The story follows Lucius in episodic tales as he attempts to become a master of magic. In one of the episodes, Lucius manages to accidentally turn himself into a golden donkey. It is a comic story which like other picaresque novels contains shorter, 'insert stories' which can be independent of the larger story or be included in the plot.

    One more influence on the early picaresque novels was Arabic folktales and literature. The Moorish population in Spain led to Arabic folktales being well known and its literature widely read. A literary genre which has origins in Iran called Maqamat has many similarities to the picaresque novel. These stories would often have a vagabond who would travel around getting by on gifts from people they have impressed with their words and trickery.

    Characteristics of picaresque novels

    In literature, the common characteristics found in the picaresque novel are:

    • The narrative that follows the life and adventures of a low-class, but cunning picaro,
    • The prose has a realistic, often satirical manner.
    • The narrative usually has an episodic plot, with each episode presenting a different encounter or situation.
    • There is no specific characterisation or character arc for the picaro to fulfil.
    • The picaro survives through wit and cunning in a corrupt society.


    Most picaresque novels are told in the first-person narrative, using the pronouns such as I, my and we. The picaresque novel is normally told as if it is an autobiography, albeit fictional.

    A 'lowly' main character

    The main character in a picaresque novel is often low in either class or society. The term picaro translates to rogue, which can be interpreted as dishonest. But the rogues in the picaresque often have a charming or loveable quality to them.

    No distinct plot

    Picaresque novels have little or no distinct plot but are instead episodic. The central part of the novel is the picaro so the reader follows them from one misadventure to another.

    No 'character arc'

    The picaro in picaresque novels rarely changes throughout the story. It is their firm belief in their character that adds to their charm. That means there is little in the way of character development in the novels.

    Realist language

    Picaresque novels are told using simple realistic language. This is partly because they are told in the first person and the characters are portrayed as lowly. The stories are told plainly and reflect the narrator.


    Satire often features in picaresque novels. The apparent 'lowly' protagonist is normally used to expose the hypocrisy of the corrupt world around them. Because they are somewhat unusual in their behaviour the satire is presented in a comic form.

    Satire is a form of fiction or art that highlights flaws and shortcomings in people or society through ridicule and humour.

    Picaresque novel: examples

    Some of the earliest examples of picaresque novels are Lazarillo de Tornes, Mateo Aleman's Guzman de Alfarche, and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. Notice that some of the earlier picaresque are Spanish novels.

    Lazarillo de Tornes (1554)

    Largely considered the first picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tornes was published anonymously in 1554. It tells the story of Lazaro, a young man who gets by day to day in poverty. He lives outside of societal norms and claims that his mission is to reveal the hypocrisy of those in the upper echelons of society. The story is told in a series of episodes that are sometimes based on Arabic folk tales.

    Guzman de Alfarache (1599)

    This picaresque novel was published in two parts and written by Mateo Aleman from 1599 to 1604. Guzman de Alfarache recounts the growing up of a young outcast who recalls his childhood misadventures. As he becomes older he reflects on the questionable morality of his early life. The result is a work that is half novel and half sermon on societal ills.

    Don Quixote (1605)

    Although possibly a controversial choice, critics argue whether Miguel de Cervantes' novel is technically picaresque as it doesn't follow all their characteristics. Despite these protestations, Don Quixote has long been associated with the picaresque genre.

    Considered the 'first modern novel', Don Quixote tells the story of a hidalgo and his quest to bring back chivalry. Alonso enlists the help of Sancho Panza as a squire in his quest. Sancho Panza acts as the more traditional picaro often giving witty depictions of his master's folly. Chivalry is dying out and Don Quixote is thought of as crazy and his quest pointless.

    Hidalgo is the lowest form of 'gentleman' or nobility in Spain.

    Picaresque Novel, two white windmills in la Mancha, A city in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Don Quixote of La Mancha is a novel synonymous with the picaresque novel.

    Picaresque novel in English literature

    Here we will look at some of the famous examples of picaresque novels written in the English language, looking at early examples and some of the more contemporary works. Examples of English picaresque novels are The Pickwick Papers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Adventures of Augie March.

    The Pickwick Papers (1837)

    Written by Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers is a series of misadventures serialised for a magazine. It was also Charles Dickens' first novel. Samuel Pickwick is an old man and founder of the Pickwick Club. We follow his journey with fellow 'Pickwickians' as they travel through rural England. These journeys normally end in mishaps and at one point the hapless Pickwick finds himself in Fleet prison.

    Fleet prison was an infamous prison in London which was operational from the 12th to 19th century. Its name is taken from the river Fleet next to it.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

    Mark Twain's work is often regarded as one of the 'Great American Novels'. Huckleberry Finn is a young boy who escapes his home in Missouri by travelling downriver with escaped slave Jim. We witness their various escapades as they travel down the great Mississippi River. The book is renowned for its use of vernacular language and its anti-racist message. Some critics argue that the book is controversial due to its coarse language associated with racism and stereotyping.

    Vernacular language is the dialect or language used by people from a specific region.

    The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

    Saul Bellow's picaresque novel follows the titular hero Augie March who grew up during the Great Depression in Chicago. The reader follows Augie as he endeavours in a series of strange jobs in an effort to become a 'self-made man'. He is intelligent but uneducated and his wits take him from Chicago to Mexico and eventually to France. The novel won the National Book Award in the United States on its publication.

    The Great Depression was a period of economic depression that ran from 1929 till 1939 caused by a stock market crash in the United States.

    Picaresque Narrative - Key takeaways

    • The picaresque novel follows the adventures of a loveable rogue normally living in poverty.
    • The first known example of a picaresque novel is Lazarillo de Tornes written in 1554.
    • Some of the key characteristics of the picaresque novel include being told in the first person by a 'lowly' character with no distinct plot and a satirical look at the world.
    • The first known author of a picaresque novel is Mateo Aleman, although his novel was written 45 years after the first picaresque novel.
    • The first picaresque novel written in English is The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594) by Thomas Nash.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Picaresque Novel

    What is a picaresque novel?

    The picaresque novel follows the adventures of a loveable rogue normally living in poverty.

    What are examples of the picaresque novel?

    The first known example of a picaresque novel is Lazarillo de Tornes written in 1554.

    What are the characteristics of the picaresque novel?

    Some of the key characteristics of the picaresque novel include being told in the first person by a 'lowly' character with no distinct plot and a satirical look at the world.

    Who is the author of the first picaresque novel?

    The author of the first picaresque novel is unknown, but their novel is called Navarillo de Tornes (1554)

    When was the term 'picaresque' first coined?

    The term 'picaresque' was first coined in 1810.

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner