Monday, June 15, 2009

Picture This Picaresque

picaresque--a form of narrative usually episodic in nature, featuring a male or female protagonist who is of uncertain origins or from a lower social ranking and who is not motivated to a work ethic but rather earns his keep by skulduggery, wits, and deception; often satiric and ironic in nature, the picaresque form allows a close look at a type of society that is, by comparison with the protagonist, even lazier and more corrupt.

The protagonist of the picaresque tale--the picaro--is usually seen to be more upright and moral than those in whose company he is cast. He (or she, because DeFoe's Moll Flanders certainly fits the picaresque rubric) emerges more victorious and with greater integrity at the denouement, a dramatic demonstration that too much virtue is unbearable. Thus consider Huckleberry Finn, in the eponymous novel wherein his behavior is put in constant question, by himself and by others, causing him at the end to pretty much write off the societal norms and potentials he sees about him as he lights out for the territory ahead.

True enough, the Horatio Alger novels sold extremely well in their day, their prototype protagonist becoming a secular saint of grit, good cheer, hard work, and politeness. Equally true, such gritty individuals as Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo from The Midnight Cowboy attracted their share of devotees, largely because readers can recognize more of these characters in themselves than can recognize examples from the Alger novels.

The picaro or picara may appear to be short on wit or incentive as in Jaroslav HaĊĦek's The Good Soldier Schweik, and thus more vulnerable. Ironically, such a character nevertheless emerges ahead of the game, the winner by a narrow-but-discernible margin over "them," the characters representing the less marginalized segments of a society. For all practical purposes, William Goldman's screen version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an episodic trope of two bank robbers and the woman they both love, dancing picaresquely across the American West and parts of Bolivia, meant to convey the message that individuals at that historical time didn't have many opportunities for advancement and adventure. Similarly, the book and the screen version of Monte Walsh presented an episodic romp of a man whose primary ability in life was his talent for managing and breaking horses.

Picaresques have appeared in times of war and peace, in such specific locales as the American West, branches of the military (in war and in peace), and in the academic world such as the one portrayed by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim and the more extended worlds of academe as set forth by David Lodge. The underlying formula might be expressed as: Roguish character makes good in spite of himself. It is in many ways a thumbing of the authorial nose at the Horatio Alger or virtue rewarded tale. An underground legend of such a picaresque character persists in Richard Farina's compellingly antic Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, featuring Gnossos Papadopulis, who rides in--and then out--on a motorcycle.

Picaresque novels are deceptive because they seem to rely on the comedic, which is by definition one or two steps removed from humor because of its physicality. Such tales deftly move beyond the physical into the visceral, the intensity of the sad revelations of humor taking us by surprise to the point of burning the characters and the story into our memory. A number of The Canterbury Tales make this segue from the comedic to the more deeply felt; notable among these are The Pardoner's Tale and The Knight's Tale, each of which pays off in revelations of self-awareness in the principal characters at the expense of their self-esteem.

1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

Picaresque is probably my least favorite novelistic form or strategy but it seems as though it may have more layers than I imagined!