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From: "Nigel Price" 
Subject: (urth) Picaresque
Date: Sun, 22 Dec 2002 17:50:02 -0000

Patera Nutria wrote:

>>I won't argue that picaresque tales are not
>>still around. I'm happy to be corrected.
>>      However: "The word picaresque derives
>>from the Spanish picaro, which means rascal
>>or crafty good-for-nothing" (Michael Alpert,
introduction [p.7] to *Two Spanish Picaresque
>>Novels*, pub. by Penguin.)
>>*Tom Jones* is a decent example, from the same
historical period (roughly).
>>         But that's just a detail.

From close observation of my daughters' pet rats, I know that grooming is
vital for their health and well-being. I hope that the esteemed myopotamic
pastoral rodent can therefore forgive me if I indulge in some almost
completely irrelevant nit-picking about a recent comment of his!

For while Patera Nutria is certainly correct about the origin of the term
"picaresque", I would strongly want to dispute that "Tom Jones" is a good
example of the form in English.

While "picaresque" narratives are typically about rogues, their
distinguishing structural feature is that they are loosely plotted and
episodic. Generally, the central character moves around the place and meets
different people and encounters various, often unrelated, adventures. Some
critics therefore regard it as a "bridge" form from the chivalric romance to
the novel. The argument in a nutshell would be that the picareque story
usually makes some attempt at characterisation (though often carricatured
and grotesque), and thereby rises above the archetypal approach to character
used in the mediaeval romance and its renaissance literary descendants. On
the other hand, unlike the novel, the plotting of the picaresque tale is
loose and unstructured.

Although there are plenty of episodes in "Tom Jones", and yes, he does
travel round the countryside, the plotting is highly rigorous and precise.
True, there are one or two stand alone sections, like the Man on the Hill
episode, but the others are inter-related in a most sophisticated manner. I
remember Buchan scholar Dr David Daniel comparing the plotting in "Tom
Jones" to the precisely meshing of components in a gearbox or aero engine -
very unlike the loose plotting in a picaresque story. At best, one could say
that there are picaresque elements in "Tom Jones".

So while I would agree that Vance's Cudgel stories are good examples of
modern picaresque, I would perhaps suggest Thomas Nashe's "The Unfortunate
Traveller" (1594) as a better example of the genre in English than "Tom
Jones". It's not an easy or pleasant read, but an important step in the
development of the modern novel. The description of the masacre of the
German Anabaptists is vividly horrific and an interesting insight into
popular sentiments towards Non-Conformists in Elizabethan England.

FWIW, everything that Fielding says in "Tom Jones" about Wiltshire mud is
absolutely true.

Minety, Wiltshire


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