Lazarillo de Tormes: Summary.

Lazarillo de Tormes.  Anonymous. Published: 1554.

Lazarillo de Tormes is a short but extraordinary work, published  anonymously in 1554. It is structured as a letter in which the narrator, Lázaro –a lowly town crier in Toledo– responds to a request made by an unnamed Vuestra Merced (Your Honour).

Lázaro has to explain in detail to Vuestra Merced, seemingly his social superior, a certain caso (“matter”), the nature of which becomes clear only at the end of the novel/letter.

The book begins with a brief Prologue which is brilliantly ambiguous: 1. It is written by an ostensibly uneducated town crier but alludes to several classical authors and is full of rhetorical devices; 2. Lázaro wants the letter to come to the attention of many readers and be praised, but it is addressed to one individual;  3.  he is a mere town crier occupying a very lowly job but rejects money as a reward, craving fame instead! 4. his letter opens promising great things (cosas tan señaladas) but later he calls it a trifle written in a crude style (nonada que en este grosero estilo escribo); 5. he affects modesty (no más santo que mis vecinos) but is proud of his achievement; 6. he is asked to write only about the “matter” but takes it upon himself to give a full account of his life up to that point.

Given that fame is important, it is ironic that the author did not attach his name to the work, possibly because of the religious and social satire it contains.  The book was placed on the Inquisition’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Another possibility is that the author wanted to distance himself from a hypocritical narrator and all that he represented.

The Prologue ends with Lázaro suggesting that as a hard working man he has achieved more than those who –thanks to the generosity of Fortune– have “inherited noble estates”- a daring suggestion for the time.

The letter proper is divided into seven sections (tratados) of unequal length. Each tratado details Lázaro’s experience as he serves, in turn, a blind man (Tratado 1), a priest (Tratado 2), an escudero –a very low-born noble (Tratado 3), a friar (Tratado 4), a pardoner i.e. a seller of papal indulgences (Tratado 5), a peddlar and a chaplain (Tratado 6), and a constable (Tratado 7). Of these, the friar, peddlar, chaplain and constable are dismissed in a few lines.

Tratado 1.
In the first tratado, Lázaro informs Vuestra Merced that he was born to a miller and his wife on the banks of the River Tormes, in a village close to Salamanca. Lázaro is still a child when his father is killed in a war to which he has been sent after being convicted of ”bleeding” some sacks brought to the mill for grinding.

His mother subsequently moves to Salamanca and has a relationship with a black stable-man, who becomes Lazarillo’s “stepfather”. This relationship produces a half brother for Lazarillo, and  ends when the “stepfather” is whipped and basted with hot fat for theft and his mother lashed and ordered not to have further contact with her lover.  Unable to care for Lazarillo (the diminutive –illo refers to Lázaro as child), his mother hands him over to a blind man to serve as his guide.

The bridge at Salamanca. The stone bull is across the bridge to the left.

Lazarillo quickly and literally learns the hard knocks of life. The first thing the blind man does is tell Lazarillo to put his head close to a stone bull and listen for an unusual sound (the stone bull still stands at one end of the Roman bridge over the River Tormes).

Innocently, Lazarillo does as he is told and immediately has his head smashed against the bull by the blind man. It was, as he says,  a wake-up call. From then on the relationship between Lazarillo and his master becomes a battle of wits in which the blind man emerges victorious, with one exception… the final battle!

Title page of the Medina del Campo edition, 1554.

Lazarillo’s main concern at this stage is survival, i.e. getting enough to eat. But his first master is astute, deceiving not only the child who was blind to the ways of the world, but also adults who should know better.

He is a master beggar and knows how to make money, having memorised countless prayers for all occasions. Lazarillo uses all the tricks he can to outwit the blind man, stealing from his wine jar, eating more than his share of grapes, replacing a juicy sausage with a turnip, but on each occasion he is found out.

In the wine episode, Lazarillo ends up having the wine jar smashed on his face; he doesn’t suffer physically after the grape incident but learns a valuable lesson on deception; the sausage incident ends with the blind man stuffing his nose so far down Lazarillo’s throat that Lazarillo throws it up all over his master.

Having suffered enough at the hands of the blind man, Lazarillo is determined to move on. The tratado ends with one final trick. On a rainy day, as they are crossing a village square, Lazarillo persuades his master to take a running jump to avoid a wide gutter. The blind man ends up half dead on the ground after crashing into a stone pillar.

Lazarillo’s parting words are “Hey, how come you smelled the sausage but not the post? Olé! Olé!” It’s Lazarillo’s first clear victory, taking us back at the same time to Lazarillo’s initiation into life with the bull incident.  The circle is complete; the blind man has no more to teach him.

Tratado 2.
In the second tratado, Lazarillo’s meets a priest who is the epitome of avarice. Lazarillo’s main concern is still the search for food, but now he faces a formidable all-seeing adversary whose eyes are described as “dancing in their sockets as if they were mercury.”  Suffering great hunger while his master has plenty, he thinks of running away but is held back  because he feels too weak and fears that in fleeing he will be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Using what he has learnt from his first master, Lazarillo embarks on a battle of wits with the priest centred on his attempts to steal eucharist bread from a chest which the priest kept locked. Lazarillo persuades a passing tinker to make him a key for the chest, offers him one of the loaves inside as payment and then helps himself to one.  When the priest next opens the chest, he suspects that some bread is missing and counts the remaining loaves. 

Lazarillo then finds himself in a quandary: how can he take any bread without the priest noticing it is missing? He starts by nibbling morsels hoping that the priest will conclude that mice have got in through the little cracks in the chest. That is what the priest believes, and subsequently he boards up the cracks.  Lazarillo then drills a hole in the chest with a knife while his master is asleep. The priest next borrows a mousetrap and begs some cheese from neighbours; Lazarillo takes the cheese and some bread as well. The priest asks the neighbours for advice and one remarks that there used to be a snake in the house. 

From then on the priest hardly sleeps, so Lazarillo resorts to raiding the chest during the day, while his master is at church.  At night, however, Lazarillo hides the key in his mouth in case the priest finds it. Ironically Lazarillo is eventually uncovered when his breathing causes a whistling sound through the key handle.  The priest believes the sound is made by a snake seeking the warmth of Lazarillo’s body.  He smashes at it with a thick stick, and ends up knocking Lazarillo unconscious. When Lazarillo regains consciousness “three days later,” he is unceremoniously dismissed by the priest.

Tratado 3.
By Tratado 3, Lazarillo has arrived in Toledo where he is employed by an escudero (squire), one of the best known figures in Spanish literature.  When he first meets the squire, Lazarillo is impressed by his clothes and general composure and has high hopes of  having landed on his feet.

He is quickly disabused, however. The house in which the escudero lives has no furniture except a rickety bed, the clothes he wears are all that he has, and there is no food! Fortunately, by now Lazarillo has learnt the art of survival so that finding food in the street is no problem.  As a result, he does not abandon his new master and in fact ends up feeding him.

Unlike the previous two tratados, there is no battle of wits in Tratado 3 because the escudero is not cruel.  He is impoverished, but as a noble (albeit low born) work is beneath him and his honour compels him to do anything (but work!) to maintain a façade of respectability.  As a result, the squire lives in a world of appearances, creating the illusion of well-being when he is in fact destitute.

He rents a house and bed he can’t pay for; he entertains two “ladies” who ditch him as soon as it becomes evident that he has nothing to offer them; he leaves the house each morning with a toothpick in his mouth as if he has crumbs between his teeth when he hasn’t eaten anything. He appears well dressed, but has only one suit of clothing; he carries a sword of which he is very proud, but he extols its ability to slice through a ball of wool rather than its martial qualities! (It is no more than part of his façade.)

Even when watching Lazarillo eat in the privacy of his house, his pride won’t allow him to ask for a bite. Rather he flatters and wheedles his way into an invitation from Lazarillo to join him: “I tell you, Lázaro, you are the most elegant eater I’ve ever seen… that’s a cow’s foot, is it?… I tell you that’s the tastiest food in the world. I’d prefer that to pheasant any day.”

One of the most comical incidents occurs when Lazarillo, given  a small coin by the squire –he doesn’t know how his master got it– heads off to get some food.  On his way, he runs into a funeral procession.  Following the casket, the widow bewails the fact that her husband is being carried to the “sad and miserable house … to the house where they never eat or drink.” Lazarillo jumps to the conclusion that the procession must be heading for the squire’s house, so he rushes back, shuts the door and clings to the squire out of fear. The squire has a good laugh, but only after the funeral group has passed does Lazarillo relax. Ironically, however, he is unable to enjoy his meal that day!

Towards the end of the tratado, the squire gives Lazarillo a short version of his life.  Brought up somewhere in Old Castile, he left because he did not want to have to take his hat off first to a neighbour of his, even though the neighbour was his social superior. He denies he was poor, claiming that at home he has a few houses which, if they were still standing would be worth a large sum! He also owns a dovecot which would provide him with more than 200 doves a year if it weren’t in ruins!  Now if only he could find a titled lord to serve, he would lie, flatter, deceive to remain in his service.

The squire’s fantasies are cut short by the arrival of a man and a woman, owners respectively of the house and the bed.  Unable to pay the rental fees for the house and bed, the squire does what he has done each time reality threatened his contrived world: he flees. Left to face the music, Lazarillo is fortunate that some female neighbours vouch for him and he is spared imprisonment.  He is left to lament on the irony that whereas servants normally abandoned their masters, in his case he has been abandoned by his master!

Tratado 4.
In this very brief tratado, Lazarillo is introduced to his fourth master, a friar, by some women he met while living with the squire (either the neighbours who saved him from prison or some spinners mentioned earlier in Tratado 3, who gave him food). In a few words, Lázaro describes the friar as an “enemy” of monastery life, and a lover of worldly activities.  He spends so much time visiting people that he wears out more shoes than the rest of his community together. Lazarillo receives his first pair of shoes from the friar, but can hardly keep up with him. For that reason and “for other little things which I shan’t mention, I left him.

Tratado 5.
Lazaro’s fifth master is a pardoner, a seller of papal indulgences, the purchase of which ensured that the buyer’s soul would serve reduced time in Purgatory. The pardoner is described immediately as the most adept and shameless seller of papal indulgences that Lázaro has ever seen or expects to see.  Whenever he arrives at a place, the pardoner elicits the local priest’s help in getting people to the church by offering bribes in the form of fruit or vegetables. He spouts Latin (or what sounds like Latin) if the priest is uneducated but Castilian if the priest says he knows Latin.

One evening, after a fruitless attempt to get the local villagers to buy indulgences, the pardoner gets into an argument with a constable over a game of cards they are  playing. The pardoner calls the constable a thief; the constable accuses the pardoner of being a forger and claims the indulgences are not genuine. Only the intervention of the townspeople prevents them coming to blows.

On the following day, while the pardoner is preaching the virtues of the indulgences he is interrupted by the constable who claims that he and the pardoner had intended to dupe the congregation and share the spoils from the sale of the indulgences. At that point the pardoner kneels in the pulpit beseeching God to strike him down if what he is selling is false.  On the other hand, if the constable is lying he should be the one punished.

Scarcely has the pardoner finished his prayer when the constable falls to the ground howling, with his mouth foaming and face twisted. Only after an indulgence is placed on his head does the constable recover his senses.  He then confesses to wanting vengeance for the previous evening and to being in the clutches of the devil who suffers agony at seeing the good that indulgences bring people. Predictably, sale of the indulgences is brisk, not only in that village but in neighbouring villages where news of the miracle spreads quickly.

Even Lazarillo is taken in, and only later, when he sees the pardoner and the constable laughing together, does he realize that the whole thing has been planned by his “clever and wily master.” After four months with the pardoner, Lazarillo moves on to his next master.

Tratado 6.
In this short tratado, the first of the two masters –a kind of peddlar for whom Lazarillo mixes paint– is dismissed in one line.  He is remembered only for causing his servant a lot of suffering.  The peddlar is followed by a chaplain who, besides his religious duties, makes money on the side renting out concessions to water sellers. He provides Lazarillo with a donkey and pitchers so that he can fetch water from the river and sell it in the streets.

This is Lázaro’s first job. The first 30 maravedís he earns each day go to the priest, the rest and his takings on Saturdays he keeps for himself. During the 4 years he spends on the job Lázaro earns enough to buy himself respectable second hand clothes and an old sword.  Seeing himself dressed as an honourable person (hombre de bien –imitating thereby the squire), Lázaro abandons the job.

Tratado 7.
Lázaro next serves a constable but quickly decides that chasing criminals is too dangerous. Thanks to the help of friends, he then finds an official job as town crier (which includes announcing wines and other things for sale and accompanying criminals on their way to punishment and broadcasting their offences).  Lázaro is pleased with what he has achieved, since just about everything dealing with these jobs has to pass through his hands, so he gets to make the decisions.

At about this time, Lázaro comes to the notice of the Archpriest of the church of St. Salvador who proposes he marry a maid of his. Seeing that this could only benefit him, Lázaro cynically agrees. He is very happy with the arrangement even when people suggest that his wife does more than just make the Archpriest’s bed and cook for him. 

Lázaro is satisfied with the Archpriest’s denial and the assurances that everything he does is for Lázaro’s good. And so the three are happy with the arrangement, a menage à trois, and they say no more about the caso (only now do we know what the caso in the Prologue refers to).  And if he feels that someone is about to say something about his wife, Lázaro simply cuts them off or threaten to kill them.

Lazarillo de Tormes is the first of three works generally considered to be fundamental in the formation of the picaresque novel. The other two are Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I 1599, Part II 1604) by Mateo Alemán, and El Buscón (ca. 1604-08, published 1626) by Francisco de Quevedo. For an introduction to the first, click here; for a detailed summary of El Buscón, click here.

English translations:
Alpert, Michael  Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler Penguin 2003
Applebaum, Stanley  Lazarillo de Tormes Dover Dual Language  2001
Frye, David ed. & transl. Lazarillo de Tormes and The Grifter (El Buscón) Indianapolis/ Cambridge 2015
Garcia Osuna, Alonso  Lazarillo de Tormes McFarland and Co. Jefferson NC 2005
Recent and fine studies in English on a wide variety of topics regarding Lazarillo de Tormes: Cruz, Anne ed. Approaches to Teaching Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Tradition  Modern Language Association 2009
Image of Medina del Campo edition from
Goya’s Lazarillo from