Lazarillo de Tormes: Summary, Analysis & Theme

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  • 0:03 'La Vida de Lazarillo…
  • 1:07 Summary of the Plot
  • 2:36 Picaresque Literature
  • 3:59 Themes
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why would authors choose to write about beggars instead of knights? In this lesson, we'll examine one novella that provides a clear answer to this question and helps to cement the figure of the anti-hero.

''La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes''

Who was Lazarillo de Tormes? You may not know this name, but he has played a bigger role in the world than you may realize. His life was extremely influential on the rise of modern society and Western literature, particularly the literature of Spain. This influence is even more impressive when you consider that Lazarillo was fictional.

''La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes'' was a novella published in Spain in 1554. Published in three editions, and three different towns, it's author remained anonymous. His or her real identity is a mystery to this day. The book, however, became widely known. It broke from 16th-century Spanish conventions so drastically that it is considered the progenitor of modern Spanish literature, and it had a major influence on modern literature around Europe as well. Authors from Miguel de Cervantes to Mark Twain built upon the tropes and format of this story. As a novella, ''La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes'' may not have been very long, but its theme took on a ''vida'' of its own.

Summary of the Plot

''La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes'' is the first-person story of a man named Lázaro de Tormes. His mother calls him ''Lazarillo,'' which means ''Little Lázaro.'' So who is this character? Unlike the knights in shining armor of medieval literature, Lazarillo is a peasant, born into a poor family. His society offers very little room for social advancement, and Lazarillo learns to survive through cunning, wit, and deception.

The story begins in Larazillo's infancy when he's born near Salamanca, on the river Tormes. As a child, his mother realizes she cannot feed him and sends him to live with a blind beggar. It is from this beggar, who also must rely on his wits to survive, that Lazarillo learns to be cunning and deceptive when necessary. He embraces a cynical view of the world and learns that the only path to greater social power is through lies, tricks, and outwitting everyone around him.

In each of the novella's seven chapters, Lazarillo takes an apprenticeship with a new person, often conning them in order to get ahead. After the beggar in chapter one, he serves a priest in chapter two, a squire in chapter three, a friar in chapter four, a pardoner in chapter five, a chaplain in chapter six, and finally an archpriest in chapter seven. By the end, he has elevated himself through the ranks of society. Lazarillo finally achieves a high social position through marriage.

Picaresque Literature

Lazarillo de Tormes was a very important character when he first appeared on the literary scene. Medieval literature featured knights on godly quests, driven by chivalry, honor, and duty. Lazarillo, however, was a peasant who survived through deception and wit. He's not a traditional hero. In fact, Lazarillo de Tormes is an anti-hero, a protagonist who isn't optimistic or powerful and doesn't embody an idealized morality. He's not noble or unwaveringly good, and his quest isn't really just.

In Spanish customs, Lazarillo is known as a pícaro, which best translates to rascal or rogue. By focusing on a pícaro instead of a knight or nobleman, the author allowed Lazarillo to adopt a critical eye of society, and thereby present a critique of it to the reader. Thus, ''La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes'' established a new literary genre, known as the Picaresque. Picaresque literature features an anti-hero protagonist from a low social class who spends time in the ''wrong'' crowds of society. Rather than socializing with the aristocrats, they spend their time with beggars, thieves, and other peasants. Picaresque literature uses the cynical, first-person accounts of the anti-hero to criticize social customs and norms. It's a reactionary genre that elevates the critiques of a society through the eyes of its lowest members.

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