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Society and of the church emerges from Lazarillo de Tormes

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Towards the end of the 15th century, the general public was becoming increasingly literate and books more readily available due to cheap printing. Although the normal reading tendencies leaned toward history, biographies and travel books, there is a sign that an interest was emerging in a more realistic presentation of society and its problems. Not surprisingly, when Lazarillo de Tormes was written, albeit anonymously, it was a popular book with reprintings, additions of extra parts and even other editions. The picaresque figure, which featured in this slapstick comedy, intertwined with a number of themes ranging from hypocrisy, deceit, religious satire, poverty and hunger through to corruption, fortune and honour.

Whether it represented an accurate account of society at that time, or was rather a “technique of selective exaggeration” is questionable, nevertheless its popularity was due to the fact that the people could relate to the story and its themes, whilst laughing aloud at Lazarillo’s accounts of misfortune and conniving. With this essay I will examine the individuals of the novel, group them into classes from the poverty stricken to the Aristocrats, and give examples of their behaviour, therefore highlighting how society appears riddled with deceit and corruption, although to give every example would be impossible as the story is riddled with nuances and puns.

At the very beginning of the novel, included in the prologue, we see already here that Lazarillo has given us his parameters of society and religion. He speaks of the soldier-who is risking his life for real honour, and the theology student and the knight- who prefer “parecer” to “ser”. We have presented to us a range of people which spans the social scale. There is the soldier at the bottom rung of society, the student in the middle and then at the top we have the knight.

Firstly I will present the lowest group class which contains Lazarillo, his parents, step-father and step brother, and the beggar.

Lazarillo, our main character, provides us with many outlooks on society and religion. Fortune rules his world, and in his opinion, everyone else’s as well.

“Y tanbĂ­en porque consideran los que heredaron nobles estados quán poco se led deue, pues fortuna fue con ellos parical, y qĂşanto más hizieron los que, siĂ©ndoles contraria, con fuerça y maña remando salieron a buen puerto.

The lessons that he learns through his masters provide him with the view that there is no moral basis to society: morality depends on wealth that depends on chance. It is a kind of intellectual apology for saying-“It’s not my fault that I’m me”.

Another of society’s views emerges from Lazarillo’s surname-de Tormes. At this time there existed the Limpieza de Sangre, whereby the real Christians and the Jews were at loggerheads. These racial tensions were due to the real Christians (Cristianos viejos) were claiming to be better than other groups, and that the only ways Jews would be allowed to stay in Spain would be to covert to Christianity (los conversos). These conversos, so as to escape persecution would change their surnames, creating them from the place where they came. Therefore, when Lazarillo tells us his name comes from the river in which he was born, it may instead deliberately have been used to represent this view on Jews(ironically this would give him away as many Jews were born in Tormes). There are those such as David Rowland and A.Deyermond who may have us believe that Lazarillo’s first name can be associated with the biblical story of Lazarus the beggar, who lay at the rich man’s gates, and that he may have been Christian, but the way in which Lazarillo relates God with fortune, rather than any religious or Christianic sense, gives us the idea that he was not exactly a devout church goer and therefore more likely to be a Jew.

The theme of “parecer” and “ser” is seen in the third tratado when Lazarillo sits down to eat the calves foot in front of his master. Lazarillo would have us believe that he didn’t offer food as not to hurt his masters pride, even though he has not eaten for eight days, a romantic idea

“Y yo tenĂ­a tanta lástima de mĂ­, como del lastimado del mi amo, que en ocho dĂ­as maldito el bocado que comiĂł. A lo menos en casa bien lo estuuimos sin comer. No sĂ© yo cĂłmo o dĂłnde andaua y que comĂ­a.

In reality, reading between the lines we know that just before entering the house Lazarillo has eaten four pounds of bread to make sure that his master wouldn’t snatch it from him( a lesson already learned), and he then contentedly sits to eat the calves foot in full view of his master, so as to torture and humiliate him. This little lesson causes the reader to squirm in his seat whilst acknowledging and relating to it. What we would have others perceive of us is different to what we really are.

The next foresight we have of Lazarillo’s character is that him that life is a cycle. This is excellently illustrated by the two situations in which Lazarillo finds himself, one at the start and the other at the end of the novel. His mother’s lover guarantees him food and lodging, his wife’s lover does the same, his end is in his beginning. A very ironic point being made here by the author.

Another theme which takes a shot at society comes from e remark made by Lazarillo’s little stepbrother – remove the beam from your own eye, before removing the splinter from the eye of your brother, in other words judge not lest ye be judged. When the Lazarillo’s stepbrother flees from his father shouting “coco”, he doesn’t realise that he is as black as his father. It causes society to question its actions and attitudes towards others, by firstly examining the virtue of oneself.

The themes of deceit and immorality shine through brightly when it comes to his first amo, the beggar. Being blind he will use any form necessary to get what is needed for him. The church is also drawn into this as the blind man orates psalms and prayers to those who believe it will cure them of their ailments.

“DecĂ­a saber oraciones para muchos y diversos efectos….y ganaba más en un mes que cien ciegos en un ano”

Lazarillo is in this way taught corruption and cynicalism by example. This representation of the beggar makes us see that by the deceit of others, he can bring fortune to himself.

The second group I will examine is that of the “middle class”, as dictated by Lazarillo. This involves the escudero, the corrupt constable and the pardoner, the priest, the friar, the chaplain and the sergeant.

Leaving leaves his master for dead Lazarillo moves on to meet his second amo, un clérigo( Priest). He literally starves Lazarillo, which forces him to craftily have a key made so as to steal the communion bread, and actually pray for the death of parishioners so that he might eat well at their wakes. The Priest serves only to reinforce the lessons of deceit and corruption taught by the beggar.

“Y porque dije de mortuorios, Dios me perdone, que jamás fui enemigo de la naturaleza humana sino entonces, y esto era porque comĂ­amos bien y me hartaban. Deseaba y aun rogaba a Dios que cada dĂ­a matase el suyo”.

The Priest represents also a strong element of hypocrisy here. Instead of tending to his flock, he takes off them, for example eating and drinking to excess at their wakes. Only by blinding himself to the absence of charity in his actions can the priest continue to regard himself as a charitable person.

The escudero, like all his masters, is not what he seems. He teaches Lazarillo that honour is all. In keeping up appearances, he seems to be living well whereas we know he lives in a hovel without food. Again it is “ser” and “parecer”. The escudero would gladly accept squalor, double-dealing, flattering and bad-mouthing to please a master, if he could find one- but on the surface he appears a true gentleman. Honour is a social conspiracy in which Lázaro has learnt to play his part. We see from this tratado that people need to choose between integrity and survival.

The corrupt constable and the cynical pardoner are strong symbols of deceit and corruption not only in society but in the church as well. This tratado however, deals with a corrupt society as well, buying their pardons rather than go to church and confess to the priest. The pardoner and his partner reveal how intelligent and unprincipled people can carry on in this crooked society by manipulating appearances and disregarding the harm that they exact upon their fellow human beings.

The friar and the sergeant have very minor parts in the novel and not very much is said about either. The sergeant appears to be a noble character with good morals, “a sane man in a crazy world”. He is placed there to show that society is not all bad although he doesn’t have much effect on the overall story. Even Lazarillo manages to spoil the passage. At the first sign of trouble, he runs away leaving the sergeant in the lurch, a show of his opportunistic nature. The friar on the other hand is another corrupt cog in the machine of the church. He is a womanising convivial rascal, a priest without vocation who hated church services and monastic life. It is not known for certain what the last sentence in tratado 4 is inferring, but some have said it refers to the friars homosexuality and the use of Lazarillo as his “whipping boy”.

The chaplain in tratado 6 is an immediate reflection of corruption in the church – a priest that runs a business! In the same tratado, Lazaro’s self-deceptions emerge as being similar to the squire’s, whereby he imitates the false appearance of someone he earlier exposed. In a society which demands an outward show of respect for traditional concepts of honour, Lazarillo earns enough money selling water to buy himself clothes, and to dress “muy honradamente” and call himself an “hombre de bien”. He believes himself to now be an honest man, ironically, as his final posting in life is one of his most corrupt.

We come now to the final group, constituted of the archpriest and Vuestra Merced.

Lazarillo, in the last tratado has become a town crier, the lowest rung job available, despicable and disreputable. He is approached by the Archpriest to marry his maid.

This tratado not only deals with the ArchPriest, who is amoral, corrupt and deceitful, but also deals with his friend, Vuestra Merced, who is the instigator of this novel. He is the one who has asked for the account of “el caso”, and whether or not he wanted Lazarillo’s life story, he has it. We ourselves have to come to conclusions about V.Merced as we neither see nor hear directly of him. We can look upon him as a moral man, considering he wants to know what is going on with this “mĂ©nage a trois”, or we could say that he is just another member of the corrupt society, who has his fingers in all pies and won’t let anything slip him by?

Essentially, by raising this question we can look back at every figure in the play and come up with at least three different versions of why they do what they do. The problem which will remain unsolved , is to know how much the anonymous author took in this aspect of his work?

The view of society depicted is dishonest, two-faced, hard up and demeaning. The immediate picture is of the corroding and subversion of all human relationships. It is quite difficult to talk of these themes solely in society, as the church seems to be inexorably linked throughout most parts of the story. The fact that they seem to go hand in hand is a point which cannot be missed by the reader, and one can only wonder whether the author intended it so as an anti-clerical statement or whether it come from personal experience? The in-depth way in which this novel is written causes it to be an artefact of great complexity and subtlety that therefore creates the problem of which way to take it. To cast society in one mould and say that it dehumanised Lazarillo, would then take away the possibility that he is just a mask wearing trickster, an ambiguity which extends to whether LazarĂł’s words reflect the assimilation of a debased language system or the conscious manipulation of that system . It causes you to ask yourself, is this how society really works? Under a charade of morality and religion? In the end it all comes down to the readers own interpretation of the story.


1. JosĂ© F Gatti, IntroducciĂłn al “Lazarillo De Tormes”.

2. Francsico Garrote PĂ©rez, CĂłmo leer el Lazarillo de Tormes.

3. A.D.Deyermond, Critcal Guides to Spanish Texts-Lazarillo de Tormes, Grant & Cutler Ltd, 1975.

4. W.A.Coupe,A.K.Krailsheimer,J.A.Scott,R.W.Truman,The Continental Renaissance 1500-1600, Penguin Books.

5. Richard Bjornson,The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction, The University of Wisconsin Press.

6. R.O.Jones, A Literary History of Spain-The Golden Age Prose and Poetry(The 16th and 17th centuries). Ernest Benn Ltd/Barnes and Noble Inc.

7. University of St.Andrews, Forum for Modern Language Studies,W.C.Henderson & Son Ltd.1965.

8. David Rowland, The Life of Lazarillo De Tormes with introduction notes by Keith Whitlock.Aris & Phillips Ltd. Warminster.

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