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  • Figuring Gender in the Picaresque Novel: From Lazarillo to Zayas
  • Anne J. Cruz

The picaresque genre’s narrations of the misadventures of rogues have tended to privilege the masculine gender of its protagonists, and the male-centered plot of these canonical novels is further evinced not only in the maternal abandonment suffered by the young boy and his contact with a series of amoral father figures, but through the mature pícaro’s failed amorous relations with women. While most critical studies have diminished the significance of women’s roles in these novels, aptly calling her “la gran desconocida” [the great unknown], Julia Martínez-González points out that the pícaro’s mother in particular has received little attention. Yet, while the female figures are often overlooked by critics and repressed by the male protagonists, they assume a key part in the novels and their function takes on overt significance in those whose protagonists are pícaras. Indeed, a major issue addressed by both the female and male picaresque is the representation of gender difference, since the genre, due both to the “homosocial economy” of its canonical male exemplars (Davis, “Breaking” 138) and to the numerous novels with female protagonists, illustrates the many theories that circulated regarding the behavior and treatment of women in the literary and moral discourses of the early modern period. Thus, no matter how devalued, the feminine element refuses to disappear from this new genre.

Lazarillo de Tormes sets up one of the genre’s main characteristics by drawing attention to the child’s degraded family origins: born to a thief and a prostitute, Lazarillo attempts to cover up his parents’ behavior by ironically portraying them in the best possible light. The father’s death is ambiguously ascribed either to his service in the war against the [End Page 7] Turks at Djerba or to his desertion of his post as muleteer, a job traditionally assigned to moriscos, who often sided with the enemy. His widowed mother takes up with Zaide, a Moor who feeds the starving family by stealing from his employer. By handing over the young boy to the blind man, she launches Lazarillo on his picaresque career, “Hijo, ya sé que no te veré más. Procura de ser bueno y Dios te guíe. Criado te he y con buen amo te he puesto; válete por ti” (25). Her illicit relations with the heretic Moor, a thief like her previous partner, further corroborate her debased nature, significantly prefiguring all women’s dissoluteness. The mother’s negative portrait, in fact, is mirrored in the novel’s last tratado in the image of the Archpriest’s servant and lover, whom Lázaro takes as his wife, as the pícaro’s desecrated marriage to the adulterous servant ensures the novel’s circular structure by linking her with his own prostitute mother.

Lázaro’s faithless wife substitutes metonymically for Lazarillo’s absent mother, since the adult pícaro receives from the former the food and shelter that as a child he had been denied by the latter.1 It is well to remember, however, that his wife had previously abandoned three children (133). By conflating the wife’s sexuality with her desertion of her progeny, the narrative retraces the mother’s behavior: both women assume the dual roles of prostitute and unnatural mother. Because the wife’s continuing service at the Archpriest’s house ensures the pícaro’s welfare, when he is interpellated by Vuestra Merced, Lázaro shields her false honor by swearing on the holy host that she is virtuous (134). Yet Vuestra Merced’s interrogation – the letter on which Lazarillo’s “case” is famously centered – is meant to uncover the truth about the ongoing sexual liaison between his wife and the churchman. The shadowy inquisitor is scarcely interested in a humble town crier’s cuckoldry. To the degree that Vuestra Merced wishes to investigate the cover-up the marriage provides for the Archpriest’s illicit sexual transgressions, Lázaro’s purported innocence will nonetheless be seriously questioned by him. The wife’s misconduct, as well as Lázaro’s corrupt complaisance, threatens to return the pícaro...


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pp. 7-20
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