Lazarillo de Tormes and Reality.

“Realistic” is an adjective frequently used to describe Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), i.e. it is a credible representation of a segment of 16th-century Spanish society. 

In contrast to the escapist romances of chivalry or sentimental romances so much in vogue in the first half of the 16th century, Lazarillo de Tormes gives us the underbelly of society, but it is not the first Spanish work to do so.  It was preceded by La Celestina (1499), the first sustained prose fiction in Spanish (albeit written in dialogue form) to detail the life of common people around a coherent plot (the love intrigue of two upper class youths, Calisto and Melibea.)  La Celestina proved very popular, spawning continuations and imitations in prose and drama.  Another dialogued prose work, perhaps inspired by La Celestina, is La lozana andaluza (1528) by Francisco Delicado.

Delicado was a Spanish cleric who moved first to Rome and later to Venice. Interestingly, he published editions of several Spanish works while in Venice,
including La Celestina and Amadis de Gaula.

However, unlike La CelestinaLa lozana andaluza has no love intrigue, its setting is Rome, and it contains a substantial anticlerical content.  Nevertheless, both have in common their depiction of the sordid world of the street and offer an uncomfortable picture of a corrupt, hypocritical, self absorbed and self serving society, with seemingly no redeeming qualities. 

What drives both Celestina and Lozana is self interest; everything is negotiable, love is bought and sold, and behind the pleasures of the body there lurks the constant shadow of passing time, and the need to build up a secure nest egg for old age! This fight for survival is even more believable when set in worlds that are clearly contemporary, with street names, references to churches, squares, wines, varieties of food etc. 

But it is language that ultimately defines the characters.  They lie, flatter, indulge in gossip, express opinions, and change their minds etc.; their speech is colloquial, peppered with proverbs, and ambiguous… all very real, human characteristics.

Lazarillo de Tormes compares very favourably with La Celestina and La lozana andaluza in these respects, even though it is presented as a letter, with all recorded dialogue passing through the optics of the letter writer, Lázaro. As with La Celestina and La lozana andaluza, there are folkloric and literary influences, but what the unknown author has done is weave together a social tapestry that is both a plausible representation of the world inhabited by the characters and a persuasive picture of the development –or corruption– of a personality.

Lázaro’s society is contemporary, and the towns and villages mentioned geographically identifiable: Salamanca, Almorox, Escalona, Maqueda, Torrijos –Tratados 1,2— and Toledo, Tratados 3, 5.  Lazarillo’s four principal masters –the blind man, the priest, the squire and the pardoner (Tratados 1, 2, 3, and 5 respectively)– appear real enough, although none is identified by a proper name.  Nor are there those detailed descriptions of the kind so favoured by 19th-century realism. We have no idea, for example, what any the characters –including Lazarillo– look like, and the towns and villages are interchangeable.

The anonymity of the masters may be a device
to attack society in general rather than specific
individuals; it is society that corrupts, and the
society depicted in Lazarillo de Tormes is
singularly lacking in redeeming qualities.

Nevertheless, even without names or detailed physical descriptions, Lazarillo’s masters are not flat, undeveloped figures, because Lázaro has an extraordinary ability to capture their personality.

Lazarillo and the Blind Man.

For example, the astute blind man “was an eagle at his job”, the avaricious priest’s eyes “danced in their sockets as if they were mercury.” 

The honour-obsessed and impoverished squire parades in public “quite well dressed, well groomed, and with measured gait.”  The duplicitous pardoner kneels in the pulpit “his hands clasped and eyes directed to heaven, transported by divine spirit…”

The language they use reveals a lot about them.  The blind man may be physically handicapped, but he is astute and regularly outwits the socially “blind” Lazarillo.  Take the episode of the bunch of grapes, for example.  The blind man suggests that they each take one grape at a time. He then reneges and takes two at a time, whereupon Lazarillo helps himself to three. After finishing all the grapes, the blind man accuses Lazarillo of having taken three at a time. Despite denying it, Lazarillo is curious to know how his master has caught him out. The blind man replies: “You know how I spotted you were taking them three at a time? Because I was eating two at a time and you didn’t say anything.

With comical “generosity,” the gluttonous priest offers Lazarillo the scrapings off the Eucharist bread he believes to have been nibbled by mice: “Here, eat this for mice are clean things.”  The starving squire, attempting to save face when he is dying to be invited to join Lazarillo at his meal, ingratiates himself as follows: “I tell you, Lázaro, I’ve never seen anyone eat more elegantly than you, and anyone who sees how you do it will want to eat even if he isn’t hungry.”  The scheming pardoner oozes sincerity as he brazenly fleeces the gullible: “Oh Lord God, from whom nothing is hidden… You know the truth and how unjustly I am accused…

Lazarillo’s struggle for survival and his ambition to advance up the social ladder pits him against others equally determined to do as well as possible for themselves. To do this, they adopt masks and strategies that help their cause. 

They are actors who cannot be trusted. The blind man, for example, aborts prayers that he has been paid to say if those paying leave before he has finished. The priest pretends to be generous to Lazarillo in public, but starves him or at best gives him leftovers.  The squire ostentatiously puts on his only clothes each morning and then parades in public as if he were wealthy when he is in fact impoverished. The pardoner is the actor par excellence, bribing village priests and fleecing naïve villagers.

This is the world that Lazarillo has to navigate, an unstable world where words and objects can have shifting values.  For example, in Tratado 1, the wine jar –from which Lazarillo helps himself whenever he can– is viewed both as “sweet” and “bitter” (dulce y amargo).   “Sweet” for Lazarillo when he was able to get away with stealing some wine, “bitter” after the blind man brought it crashing down on his face. 

Another example is the moment when the squire proudly shows Lazarillo his sword (Tratado 3).  For the squire it is a sign of his status and honour, more valuable than its weight in gold; its sharpness is such that it could cut through a ball of wool (i.e. proof of its quality). Looking at the same object, Lazarillo immediately associates it with his teeth, which although not made of steel could cut through a whole loaf of bread.  This graphically illustrates how our experience determines our interpretation of the world.

The differing interpretation of the sword is
a brilliant forerunner of what will become
a feature of Cervantes’s works: multiple points
of view (e.g. the windmill episode in Don
, 8. The down-to-earth Sancho

Panza sees windmills; Don Quixote’s obsession
with knight-errantry leads him to see giants).

The squire sees things from his upbringing as a (minor) noble; Lazarillo from his battles with hunger.  But Lazarillo learns from further experience, and he ends up, in Tratado 6, imitating the squire by purchasing second hand clothes and a sword as signs of his progress in the world.  Like his former master, he too now walks around as if he were someone important.

In a society where action and appearances are so important, language is fluid and words can have more than one meaning.  When Zaide, Lazarillo’s mother’s lover, laughingly calls his son (i.e. Lazarillo’s half brother) hideputa (“bastard”) it is said affectionately, but on another level it is literally true since Lazarillo’s mother is a prostitute (i.e. a puta, and hideputa is the shortened form of hijo de puta i.e. “son of a whore”). 

Later, when Lazarillo’s mother hands him over to the blind man, she says that Lazarillo is the “son of a good man” (hijo de un buen hombre), a euphemism also for a “cuckold.”  When the squire asks Lazarillo if his hands are clean before helping to fold his cape, the question has loaded social implications.  On the surface, it is reasonable to require someone with clean hands to handle clothes, but here it also alludes to the 16th-century Spanish obsession on the part of “Old” Christians (e.g. the squire) with purity of blood.  “Clean hands” equal “clean” blood, i.e. someone who is not a Converso (a Jewish convert or descendant of converts to Christianity). The same preoccupation turns up shortly after when the squire inquires if the bread he has taken from Lazarillo was kneaded by clean hands.

One of the pitfalls for first-person narrators is the limited knowledge they can have of events which they have not witnessed or experienced.  To assert as fact what they have not seen or experienced undermines their credibility.  The author of Lazarillo de Tormes clearly had a sophisticated understanding of this problem, and cleverly retained the illusion of reality in instances when Lázaro speculates on what has happened when, for example, he is asleep or unconscious. 

The best illustration comes from Tratado 2, when the priest is trying to locate the snake he believes to have nibbled at the Eucharist bread.  Lazarillo is asleep, with the key to the chest containing the bread is concealed in his mouth. The verb of probability, deber, is used extensively in this scene: “my mouth must have been open,” “it must have seemed to him,” “must have made a great noise,” “the key must have been half out,” “the cruel hunter must have said.”  Alternatively, Lázaro relies on what he has been told: thus, after recovering consciousness from the blow delivered by the priest, he says: “I can’t vouch for what happened in the next three days… but what I’ve just recounted I heard from my master who talked about it at length to anyone who came by.”

The illusion of reality is also strengthened by the lively, colloquial dialogue between Lazarillo and his masters or, as in Tratado 5, between the pardoner and his accomplice as they set about defrauding the gullible villagers.  Sometimes Lázaro uses the present descriptive tense to provide a sense of immediacy and increased drama to the action. 

For example, in Tratado 2, we can imagine Lazarillo’s frustration at having the key to the chest which contains the bread he is deprived of by the avaricious priest. He would love to be able to devour the bread, but he has to be careful: “open the chest… and I begin to crumble the bread… and I take one piece and leave another.” 

Similarly, in Tratado 3, Lázaro describes the arrival of the owners of the house and bed the squire has rented and which he has failed to pay for: “Back they come with them (a constable and clerk whom the owners have gone to fetch), and they take the key and call witnesses and open the door and put a lien on the property until they are paid.

While the devices employed by the author create the illusion of reality, we should be cautious about accepting the world depicted in Lazarillo de Tormes as being a realistic portrait of Spanish society in the first half of the 16th century.  Certainly, the Spanish language, place names, and the proper names of Lazarillo’s parents help to anchor the action in Spain, but poverty, hunger and the struggle for survival were not unique to Spain, and Lazarillo’s masters could be found in other European countries (the only exception being the squire because of the peculiarly Spanish concept of honour and preoccupation with purity of blood).  In addition, both high nobility and peasantry (i.e. farmers or workers of the land) are conspicuously absent.

What Lazarillo de Tormes offers, then, is partial portrait of society, which feels authentic and is an excellent example of what is called verisimilitude (i.e. having the appearance of truth).  As such, Lazarillo de Tormes forms part of a larger picture of Renaissance debate between historicity/truth/certainty and fiction/lies/instability. The letter format gives Lazarillo de Tormes the appearance of a historical document and the realistic devices used make it believable, but it is in fact all fiction. But it is a fiction that has all the appearances of truth.

The 16th century is a period when the medieval order of things is undermined by challenges and instability and Lazarillo de Tormes, like La Celestina and La lozana andaluza, is part of that radical trend. We can see something similar in other fields: the rise of Protestantism challenged the authority of Catholicism, the Copernican revolution suddenly subverted the idea of the earth as the centre of the universe, the rediscovery of classical, pagan culture offered alternatives to the Christian view of the world, even the discovery of America demonstrated that the world was not what it had seemed to be.

Cruz, Anne J. ed   Approaches to Teaching Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Tradition  Modern Language Association  2009

Cruz, Anne J Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain  Toronto 1999
Deyermond, Alan  Lazarillo de Tormes: A Critical Guide  London 1993 (2nd ed. revised)
Dunn, Peter  Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History London and Ithaca 1993
Guillén, Claudio ed.  Lazarillo de Tormes  New York 1966
Maiorino, Giancarlo  At the Margins of the Renaissance: Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Art of Survival  Pennsylvania State UP 2003
Rico, Francisco   The Spanish Picaresque Novel and the Point of View  Cambridge 1984  (Translated from the Spanish by Charles Davis)
Image of Lazarillo and the Blind Man by Theodule Ribot: By Didier Descouens – Own work, Public Domain,