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Lazarillo de Tormes (also known as The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities) was published in three Spanish cities in 1554 and has been in publication ever since. It is a picaresque novel characterized mainly by its use of satire. A picaresque novel contains a first-person narrator who is a picaro, a young boy who might be considered a rogue or born of low class. In this early style novel, the narrator (universally male) tells of his adventures as he makes his way through the countryside, working for various masters from different social strata in an effort to survive. The satirical tone conveys the injustice that the narrator discovers as he roams the country, always in an attempt to find food, wages, and a place to sleep.
The novel was banned by the Spanish Crown and included in the Index of Forbidden Books of the Spanish Inquisition, most likely for its anti-clerical narrative. The narrator often criticizes the Catholic Church and its hypocrisy, while notably not criticizing the church’s rituals and practices. The narrator is also critical of the aristocracy. The narrator and author are closely tied, and the author often uses the narrator to render his themes.
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Lazarillo de Tormes was considered an innovative novel upon publication. Unlike most fiction of the era, which usually featured highly poetic language and plots centering on plots the supernatural or chivalric knights, Lazarillo de Tormes was considered a new genre. The realistic writing, simple language, and emphasis on real-life people and institutions made it a groundbreaking work of fiction. Also, long before doing so became popular, Lazarillo de Tormes featured the working lives of poor women. The book’s sympathetic portrayal of people of color and interracial families was considered ahead of its time.
The identity of the author is unknown. Because the book is highly critical of the Catholic Church and the Spanish aristocracy, it is likely the author wrote anonymously to escape persecution, jail, or worse. However, while the narrator is poor, unschooled, and mixed race, the author was likely educated. Much of this is seen in the story’s high diction and language, especially in the Prologue, and in its knowledgeable display of contemporary political issues and historical thinkers.
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In 1959 the book was adapted for the screen by a Spanish-Italian film company. Directed by César Fernádez Ardavin, the film won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and won best director and best film at the Premios CEC, an International awards festival for writers, artists, and technicians who work in film.
This study guide refers to the 2003 Penguin Books edition.
As a picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes is not plotted like a traditional literary novel. Instead, it is told episodically. The narrator, who is also the protagonist (and often the voice of the author), reveals the story through seemingly unrelated episodes that explore themes of papal and aristocratic abuse.
The story begins with a Prologue. Though it is written by a self-proclaimed uneducated town crier named Lázaro, the language is that of an educated person. Lázaro wants everyone to know his story, though the Prologue is addressed to one person, a nameless judge. Lázaro has been asked to tell only a little, but he instead recounts his life’s story, then ends his letter by suggesting that though he is a lowly town crier, he has achieved the status of those with property and nobility.
In another innovation for literature, Lazarillo de Tormes is also an epistolary novel because it takes the form of a letter. It is divided into seven parts. In the first part, Lázaro explains that his father was killed in a war. His mother remarries a Black stable-man who becomes Lázaro’s stepfather. Unable to care for her son, Lázaro’s mother hands him over to a blind man. Lázaro serves as a guide to the blind man—a clever, abusive man who keeps food away from Lázaro. The two match wits until Lázaro, who becomes an expert beggar, outsmarts the blind man and runs away.
In the second chapter Lázaro writes to the judge about his experiences with a greedy priest who keeps all the eucharist bread locked in a chest. Realizing he has learned a lot about the ways of the world through living with the blind man, Lázaro outwits the priest by tricking a “tinker” into making a key to the chest. The priest believes a mouse is getting to the bread, but it’s Lázaro who eats it. The priest eventually goes mad, plugging holes in the chest and staying up all night to watch for whatever is stealing the food. His neighbors suggest that it’s not a mouse but a snake stealing the bread. Lázaro keeps the key in his mouth and one night gives himself away by breathing through the holes in the key and making a whistling sound. He is knocked unconscious by the priest, who understands that Lázaro has been stealing his bread. Three days later, Lázaro runs away.
In Chapter 3 Lázaro is employed by a squire, who dresses in a fabulously wealthy style. Lázaro believes he has hit the mother lode but soon learns that the squire is only keeping up appearances. As a noble, even of low rank, the man will do anything but give the appearance of having to work, even though he is abjectly poor. So Lázaro hones his begging skills. Even when Lázaro has food to eat, the squire is too proud to beg from Lázaro. Instead, he tries to flatter Lázaro into giving him some food. In the end, the squire is unable to pay rent and flees, leaving Lázaro behind. Lázaro evades imprisonment for failure to pay the debt; the neighbors tell the police he is a servant and therefore not responsible. This is the first and only time that Lázaro is left by his master, and not the other way around.
In the fourth, very short, chapter, Lázaro’s next master is a friar whom Lázaro describes as an enemy of monastery life because he loves worldly activities. Lázaro gets his first pair of shoes from the friar, but he visits so many people that he can hardly keep up with the friar and wears out his shoes. He leaves the friar because of this frenetic schedule and, as he says, “for other little things which I shan’t mention” (47).
In Chapter 5 Lázaro’s master is a man who sells “papal indulgences,” which people buy to skip time in purgatory or reduce punishment for sins. Lázaro remarks that the seller is a very good salesman, a wily character who knows how to manipulate people for more sales. Later in the chapter, Lázaro is taken in by a scam the seller and the constable enact that produces a “miracle” and induces people to practically throw money at him. Only later does Lázaro see the seller and the constable laughing at their trick.
Lázaro leaves the seller after four months. Even though the seller gives him plenty of food, he writes that he had “hard times” with this master.
Chapter 6 is another very short one told in four paragraphs. Lázaro mixes paint for an artist who paints tambourines. He is well taken care of and provided with food and shelter. He is also given a job, his first, by a priest who gives him a donkey and a jug that he fills at the river and then sells to the people in town. In four years he makes enough money to dress himself “very decently in second-hand clothes” (57). The minute he sees himself dressed so well and carrying a sword, he quits his job, returns the donkey to the priest, and strikes out on his own.
In the final chapter Lázaro works for a constable, figuring it is smart to familiarize himself with the law. But he leaves the constable soon after taking the job because it is dangerous; he was chased one night by fugitives and the constable was beaten badly. Lázaro was smart enough to run away.
After that Lázaro survives on the gifts and charity of friends and gentlemen until he takes on work in the civil service. He realizes government jobs are the most secure and he becomes a town crier, a lowly job that requires him to make public announcements about wines for sale in town, public auctions, and lost property. He also accompanies criminals through town, shouting out their misdeeds. He is pleased with this job.
He soon comes to the attention of the archbishop of the church, who proposes that Lázaro should marry one of his maids. The archbishop and the maid are embroiled in an affair, but Lázaro marries her and is happy with the arrangement. When townspeople suggest that his wife is sleeping with the archbishop, he cuts them off or threatens to kill them.