How many readers of the modern era are familiar with the term ‘picaresque hero’? The answer must be very few. However, nearly all readers have heard about a tragic hero. Even a big chunk of them can identify the key features that shape a tragic protagonist. But very few people know about picaresque heroes. So drawing a difference or contrast between a tragic and a picaresque hero is not easy.
A usual perception about a tragic hero indicates a moderately good man who goes down into a great misfortune. And it happens not because of the vice. The disaster is the outcome of hamartia. That means the protagonist’s destiny is decided or determined by forces that must remain outside the control of the human will. It is the inherent limitations of human faculties, which bring the ultimate ruin.
On the other hand, a picaresque hero is more identical to a roguish or dishonest character who usually belongs to a not-so-good social class. In a word, most of the time, it is a corrupt society where he lives using his wit as much as possible. So far, the surroundings of the most known picaresque heroes are presented with a realistic atmosphere. That means authors of the picaresque novels have preferred to adopt a typically real and natural style to portray the main character. Let’s dig a little bit more deeply into it.
The term “picaresque” indicates prose fiction that includes a form of satire. It unfolds the story of a character whose journey is mingled with realistic humor. Spain is the actual source from where the said satirical prose started its journey.
Experts generally categorize stories related to picaresque heroes in the group of prose fiction. The adventures of these characters often include satire and comedy to describe the modes and features of a corrupted society. It was 1810 when stories related to these characters gained popularity, although the concept started its journey much earlier in Spain. Like all other genres, picaresque novels too helped enrich modern literature.
It is a common tendency of almost every author to project a tragic hero or an ideal tragic protagonist as virtuous as well as a courageous man. And the hero always obtains a significant singleness of purpose. The hero even struggles hard against a ruthless fortune. It is undeniable that the exhibition of a virtuous person fighting hard with his fate unfolds enough scope to show the will-power and the ethical qualities. The famous Oedipus Tyrannus depicts one tragic conflict that portrays how the infirmity and blindness of human nature are responsible for the actual error that leads to absolute catastrophe.
However, a picaresque hero is in no way a virtuous person. He often emerges as a low character who resides in an infamous social structure. No hamartia is there to mold his fate. Wits are the ultimate tool that forces him to design his destiny. He is the architect of his future, and it is up to him to decide whether he should fit for a job or whether he should hold on to a job.
The most significant contrast between a tragic and a picaresque hero is that the latter never enjoys any improvement in his character. It means a rogue always remains a rogue. Even if he is put in a better social environment, he can’t afford any changes in his rogue characters. The primary thing is a tragic protagonist always tries to maintain a positive development in his thoughts. But a change of heart is a rare or almost impossible trait for a picaresque hero.
Moreover, because of the wit, a picaro often never reaches the point of criminality, although his character obtains immoral, dishonest behavior. And, most surprisingly this characteristic helps him to emerge as the sympathetic outsider. Unlike a tragic hero, he is more realistic with no exaggeration in his character. That means he lives in a society that never opens up any scope for imaginative or false rules. The picaro-related works of the eminent Spanish novelist Mateo Aleman y del Nero unfold the said features.
But a tragic hero may not be supremely perfect, but he is a human with noble nature. He is a human being of status and consequence. For example, all tragic heroes of William Shakespeare are great men. They are either kings or princes or commanders. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. In King Lear, Lear appears as the King of England. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth is a brave general who ultimately occupies the coveted throne of Scotland.
Another strong contrast between a tragic and a picaresque hero is the presence of satire. Stories about tragic protagonists don’t necessarily contain sarcasm. It depends upon the authors to decide whether satire is essential or not. If the plot requires then the writer may consider it. But, it has, so far, appeared that many picaresque novels had made satire an indispensable element.
The presence of realism is another relevant feature that differentiates a picaresque novel from the tragic one. All the picaresque novels contain plain language molded with an effective and practical realistic approach. In short, realism is a prominent part of portraying the surroundings and the character of a picaro. No scope of imaginative exaggeration is available in the plot. Contrary to that, nearly all dramas, novels, or stories of tragic heroes contain exaggeration. The tragic characters of Shakespeare are the most prominent examples of such hyperbole. Shakespeare has portrayed them as normal human beings, although they possess exceptional characteristics that appeal to readers. Even their tragic surroundings raise sympathy and interest among the readers.
There can be a long debate regarding the contrast between a tragic and a picaresque hero. Experts may indulge in obtaining different opinions about who, in real terms, the appealing hero. Readers can also possess different views. Some may consider the realistic approach of a picaro as the best element to portray the actual system of society. And, some others may prefer the ideal protagonist of tragedy as the driving force of positive thought in human life. However, the truth is two different characters unveil all the aspects of the society, which, in other words, help to understand and shape the future social structure.