Lázaro: The Letter Writer.

The anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes is a brilliantly ambiguous work, giving rise to many interpretations.  Is it a savage satire on the abuses of the Catholic Church, or on Christianity? Does it depict the successful self made man, or the corruption of an innocent child? Is it a parody of romances of chivalry or the lives of saints?

Even if we knew who the author was, there would likely be no agreement about its meaning, any more than there is agreement about Don Quixote whose author we do know (Miguel de Cervantes).

In this page, we’ll look at Lazarillo de Tormes internally, as a letter penned by Lázaro in response to a letter from a certain Vuestra Merced (Your Honour) asking Lázaro to explain in detail el caso (“the matter”).  Let’s see what conclusions we arrive at after we have read Lázaro’s letter. (For plot, see summary.)

It is clear from the way Lázaro addresses Vuestra Merced (VM) in the Prologue –and periodically in the letter itself — that the latter is someone influential, whose reading of the letter will be important. As a result, Lázaro’s letter is crafted in such a way that it will satisfy VM’s curiosity about the caso mentioned in the Prologue, and at the same time cast Lázaro in a favourable light.

After adopting the correct posture of an inferior seeking the good will of his superior (“I beg Your Honour to accept the poor service… etc”), Lázaro adds that he will start at the beginning of his life so that VM might know all about him.

Why does Lázaro want to start with his birth? There are two reasons.  First, he wants to get VM to react with sympathy and understanding to his letter, given the abuse he suffers at the hands of his different masters.  Second, he wants those who have been favoured by Fortune  and inherited great estates to recognize how much more he –whom Fortune has not favoured– is to be admired for having “made it” through his own efforts.

This second point is made at the very end of the Prologue as if it were an afterthought, but it is significant because it shifts the focus from the humble narrator obliged to answer VM’s request to someone evidently proud of having risen in society from nothing.  Lázaro is determined to show how he has reached a “safe haven,” as he puts it in the final words of the Prologue.

Of the eight masters that Lazarillo serves, only 4 are treated at any length: the blind man (Tratado 1), the priest (Tratado 2), the squire (Tratado 3) and the pardoner (Tratado 5). The friar (Tratado 4) and the chaplain (Tratado 6) are remembered briefly while the other two masters are dismissed in a line or two.

After Lazarillo’s mother hands him over to the blind man, he is introduced very graphically to the hard knocks of life.  The first thing his master tells him to do is to place his ear against a stone bull in order to hear a loud noise.  When Lazarillo does so, the blind man cracks his head against the bull. 

It is a moment of rude awakening from the innocence of childhood, and a recognition that he is on his own (solo soy) and that he has to watch out for himself.  The episode also sets the tone for Lázaro’s tale of victimisation and survival, most evident on a physical level in the first two tratados (in his constant fight to stave off starvation) and then in more subtle form in later chapters (in his efforts to understand the world of appearances).

We sympathise with Lazarillo when he is beaten and outwitted by the blind man, and take vicarious pleasure when he finally outwits his master, persuading him to leap across a water-filled gutter straight into a stone post. 

Likewise we are on Lazarillo’s side as he engages in a battle of wits with the avaricious and gluttonous priest whose eyes dance in their sockets as if they were balls of mercury.  We feel for Lazarillo when he is knocked unconscious by the clergyman at the end of the tratado and then cruelly dismissed.

In Tratado 3, Lazarillo meets a well-dressed squire in search of a servant.  Finally, things appear to have improved for him.  But it turns out that the squire is so impoverished that he can’t even feed Lazarillo.  Not that it matters, because by now Lazarillo can fend for himself, and in fact it is he, the servant, who feeds his master!

Clearly, we don’t have to feel sorry for Lazarillo on this point, although we might be puzzled about why he stays with the squire.  Perhaps it’s the fear of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, which he alludes to.  Also, he is entering a world which, in his earlier preoccupation with food, he has not had time to consider: the world of appearances.

The squire is an actor and Lazarillo takes something of a back seat in this tratado as he observes his master make his way in the world. The squire, propelled by an exaggerated sense of honour (which does not permit him to undertake any form of manual labour or commerce), has to live by his wits. He is successful in deceiving people… up to a point, but when reality threatens he beats a retreat. Predictably, when the owners of the house and bed he has rented appear and demand payment, the squire flees abandoning Lazarillo to face the music.

If Lazarillo suffers no beatings in Tratado 3, what is he trying to convey to VM (and to us)? Well, it is clear that he shows himself to be a generous and compassionate fellow.  He feeds his master and feels sorry for him: “Considering everything, I liked him … and I felt sorry for him … and I often went without so that he might have something to eat.” This is surely impressive given Lazarillo’s earlier experiences, and of course underscores the irony at the end of the tratado when he is abandoned by the squire and threatened with imprisonment. After all he has done for the squire, this is how he has been treated!

Lazarillo’s role of observer carries over to Tratado 5 in which his fifth master, a pardoner, and his accomplice, a constable, dupe a village into buying Papal indulgences (the purchase of which ensured that the buyer’s soul would serve reduced time in Purgatory). 

The two put on such an act that everyone is easily deceived, including Lazarillo! The pardoner is the most immoral of all the masters Lazarillo serves and as a result Lazarillo carefully distances himself from the fraud. He includes himself among those deceived and wonders, as he watches the pardoner and constable share a laugh at their success: “how many frauds of this kind have these swindlers committed on innocent people.

Still, he remains with the pardoner for another four months, but keeps quiet about any possible participation in his master’s swindles, preferring instead to conclude by drawing attention to the “hard times” he suffered!

Of the 4 editions of the book published in 1554, the Burgos edition is considered the oldest.  The Alcalá edition adds a substantial paragraph at the end of Tratado 5, detailing a couple more tricks played by the pardoner on gullible villagers.

So far, then, Lazarillo’s life has been difficult.  Subject to physical abuse, ridicule and deception, he has received no moral guidance from any of his masters. His first step towards success and respectability is when he buys second hand clothes and a used sword after four years working as a water seller (Tratado 6).

Then he gets a “civil service” job as town crier (Tratado 7), and it has turned out so well that “almost everything goes through my hands, and if anyone in Toledo wants to sell wine or something, he won’t get anywhere if Lázaro de Tormes isn’t involved.”

Finally, with the connivance of the Archpriest of St Salvador, he marries the latter’s mistress, seeing that he will benefit from such an arrangement.  This is the “caso” referred to in the Prologue, a “ménage a trois.

We are so caught up in Lázaro’s story that we probably overlook the possibility that VM is not at all interested in Lázaro but rather in the activities of the Archpriest, and that Lázaro’s life story is completely irrelevant! It’s even easy to imagine VM skipping most of the letter, impatient to get to the caso!

The situation suits all three, and is something Lázaro wants to protect, to the point that if he feels anyone is about to comment on his wife, he cuts them short with threats of death. Lázaro ends up, then, a cynical opportunist, a compliant cuckold, something of a bully, and susceptible to bribery.  Beneath a veneer of respectability, he is fully integrated into the world of appearances and deceit.  Nevertheless, it appears that VM has heard rumours about the threesome and wants to know about it in detail.

We don’t know what VM thinks of Lázaro’s letter, but readers generally react sympathetically.  Lázaro is persuasive and his cynicism and opportunism at the end can be attributed to the lack of moral guidance in his life.  He is but the corrupt fruit of a corrupt society.  As he describes it in Tratado 7, he is prosperous and enjoying good fortune. 

Does VM’s letter endanger the cozy arrangement between Lázaro, his wife, and the Archpriest, and thereby jeopardize his security and well-being?  Lázaro can’t very well threaten VM as he can his neighbours, so he must take another approach … seek his sympathy.

In such circumstances, how far can we trust Lázaro’s version of events?  How reliable is Lázaro if he is driven by self-interest?  Everything we know about him is filtered through his eyes, even the words of others.  The author of a little known picaresque tale (La pícara Justina) at the beginning of the 17th century sums up the problem: El que cuenta vida propia está a pique de mentir (“He who narrates his own life is close to lying”).

The beginning of the 17th century saw a relative
explosion of fictional picaresque autobiographies
in Spain.  One writer who studiously avoided
writing a first person fiction was Cervantes, whose
work is characterised by multiple points of view.

The autobiographical “I” cannot, by its very nature be objective, and here we come to a significant innovation by the unknown author of Lazarillo de Tormes to Spanish Golden Age fiction: the self-conscious unreliable narrator. That is, he is both author of and character in his text.

The fact is that Lázaro –the letter writer—is a liar, and the proof is in the text itself.  In Tratado 3, the squire asks Lazarillo about his life.  Lazarillo’s reaction is illuminating: “I gave him a longer account than I wished,  for it seemed more appropriate to prepare the table… Nevertheless, I satisfied him lying as best as I possibly could, telling him the good things about me and keeping quiet about the rest….

In view of this, is it not possible that Lázaro has emphasised his victimisation and compassion and been quiet about more unseemly matters? What would his masters have to say about him? Has he given more away than he thought? Does he have an inflated opinion of his social improvement when his position as “pregonero” (“town-crier”) was considered a most odious job.  Has he satisfied VM’s curiosity? And finally, how safe is that “haven” mentioned at the end of the Prologue? 

Lázaro’s situation In Tratado 7 is uncomfortably similar to that of his childhood in that in both cases his well-being and security depend on illicit relationships: in Tratado 1 between his mother and her lover, Zaide, and in Tratado 7 between his wife and her lover, the Archpriest. Is Lázaro’s relationship with his wife any more stable than his mother’s with Zaide? If VM is not persuaded by Lázaro’s explanation of the caso, will Lázaro end up “on the street”?

There are no definite answers to these questions, and the book’s inconclusive ending is made for a continuation.  An anonymous one did appear in 1555, the year following Lazarillo’s publication, but it met with very little success owing probably to its far-fetched premise (Lazaro is transformed into a tuna fish) and likely allegorical meaning. 

A second continuation was published in 1620 in France, the work of a possible religious refugee who taught Spanish in Paris, Juan de Luna.  Together with his own work, Luna also published a “corrected” version of the original Lazarillo. Luna later went to England where he took up holy orders as a Protestant minister.

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
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)