The story begins with the narrator introducing himself as Lazaro de Tormes, son of Tomé Gonzáles and Antona Pérez, born in a village near Salamanca. Lazaro explains that his father was a miller who, when Lazaro was eight years old, was caught stealing from the mill and was exiled as part of his sentence. Tomé Gonzáles was later killed while fighting in a Church-backed military campaign against the Moors (a northwestern African Muslim people who had settled throughout Spain).
Lazaro’s origin story foreshadows the relationship between poverty, crime, and violence that will pervade the rest of his life story. Lazaro’s father dies fighting in a war against one group of people who are persecuted by the Church (the Moors), while he himself belongs to another group that is persecuted by the Church (the poor).
Lazaro’s widowed mother moves to Salamanca to look for work (the author gives slight innuendo that this work might be prostitution) and she eventually settles down in the home of the Comendador of La Magdalena, for whom she cooks and washes the clothes of his stable boys. There, Lazaro’s mother meets Zaide, a black slave who works in the stables. Lazaro, though initially mistrustful of Zaide, is quickly won over by the gifts of food and firewood that Zaide brings with him. Zaide and Lazaro’s mother spend many nights together and they eventually conceive a dark-skinned child, Lazaro’s half-brother.
The loss of Lazaro’s father leaves the family with diminished prospects of finding financial security. The fact that Lazaro’s mother remarries a black slave is representative of their reduced social standing. The care and generosity Zaide shows toward his new family are especially remarkable in light of the fact that he is of even lower social and economic standing relative to them.
Lazaro recalls how his younger half-brother would often become afraid of his own father’s dark skin and would run to his white-skinned mother in fear, not yet having realized that he himself was dark-skinned, too. Lazaro remarks that there must be many in this world who run away from others because they don’t see themselves.
Lazaro’s comment about his half-brother’s lack of self-awareness establishes hypocrisy as one of the central focuses of the text. Many of the characters Lazaro meets later in life behave immorally but regard themselves as morally superior to others.
Eventually Zaide and Antona’s relationship comes to the attention of the stable owners, who launch an investigation and discover that Zaide has been stealing from the stables. Zaide is whipped and basted with boiling oil in punishment for his crime. Antona, who is also put on trial, is given ten lashes and banished from the Comendador’s house, so she finds work at the Solana Inn, where Lazaro helps by fetching wine for the lodgers.
The subtext in this passage is that Zaide’s employers were searching for a reason to get rid of him because they disapproved of his relationship with a white woman. Zaide, like Lazaro’s father, resorts to petty theft to provide for his family and is eventually caught and punished for his crime. Importantly, Zaide is not portrayed in the book in a negative light because he is a criminal. Instead, he is portrayed as a kind and generous figure who stole to provide for those in need.
One day a blind man comes to the inn and, thinking that Lazaro could be of use to him, asks Lazaro’s mother to give the boy to him. Lazaro’s mother agrees, telling the blind man that Lazaro’s father was a good man who died for the glory of the faith, and so she asks the blind man to take good care of her son. The blind man tells her that he will take care of Lazaro as his own son.
The fact that Lazaro’s mother was willing to give her son away to a blind beggar shows just how desperate she was, and how difficult it would have been for a poor woman to provide for a child alone. The book is always making clear just how insufferable the conditions of poverty are. Here, poverty is shown to be a force that breaks up families.
The blind man realizes that he isn’t making any money in Salamanca and decides that he and Lazaro should leave the town, so Lazaro returns to the inn to say goodbye to his mother, who says she will never see him again and gives him her blessing to leave.
Lazaro leaves his mother at a young age, marking the beginning of a long and difficult journey of growing up. The poor, meanwhile, are always searching for ways to somehow make enough money to survive.
As the blind man and Lazaro are leaving Salamanca they come across a statue of a stone bull by a bridge. The blind man tells Lazaro to put his ear close to the bull so he can hear the sound coming from inside. As soon as Lazaro has done this, the blind man knocks Lazaro’s head against the stone horns, hurting him badly. The blind man remarks that anyone who wants to be his servant will need to know more than the devil himself, and Lazaro recognizes truth in what the blind man says, resolving at that moment to learn everything he can from the blind man about what it takes to survive on his own.
This experience is the first in which Lazaro’s innocence is taken advantage of, and it catapults him into a lifelong journey of learning how to outwit and deceive those who wish to outwit and deceive him. The fact that Lazaro is injured by a statue with horns takes on significance later in the text, as horns come to symbolize Lazaro’s fate as a cuckold, or a man whose wife is unfaithful.
Lazaro describes how the blind man is able to collect a fair amount of money by affecting an air of religious devoutness and reciting prayers and blessings in exchange for alms. Yet as skilled as the blind man is at his trade, and although he makes enough money, he keeps Lazaro very hungry all the time. The blind man wears a canvas bag around his neck with provisions inside it, and, though he keeps it locked, Lazaro learns to carefully unstitch the bag from the bottom and steal pieces of bread and meat before re-stitching the seam. Lazaro also learns to stealthily intercept the blancas that are offered to the blind man in exchange for his prayers; just as the coins are changing hands, Lazaro swaps them out for half-blancas.
Lazaro’s description of the blind man’s routine of saying prayers in exchange for alms is the book’s first example of a character’s false piousness. Though many figures in the book seem to have built their lives around religious beliefs, the author means to point out the hypocrisy of many such figures. Lazaro’s habits of unstitching of the canvas bag to feed himself and swapping out coins are the first of many instances in which he learns to deceive others in order to provide for himself.
During this time Lazaro also learns to steal swigs of wine from the blind man’s jug, but the blind man notices the jug getting lighter and learns to always keep his hand on it. Lazaro adapts by placing a straw in the top of the jug, but the blind man catches onto this, as well, and begins to rest his hand over the mouth of the jug. Finally, Lazaro pokes a hole in the bottom of the jug and covers it with wax, removing the plug whenever he wants a drink. When the blind man finally discovers this trick, he lifts the wine jug and brings it crashing down on Lazaro’s face, knocking Lazaro’s teeth out and injuring him badly. The blind man then cleans the cuts on Lazaro’s face with the wine. Lazaro takes his revenge by beginning to lead the blind man through muddy or rocky parts of the road whenever possible.
Wine becomes one of Lazaro’s only sources of pleasure at an early stage in life, and he devises many tricks in order to get into the blind man’s jug. However, wine’s intoxicating properties also have a dark side, and Lazaro’s tricks eventually backfire, causing him a great deal of pain and suffering. Wine’s dual nature is again symbolized through its use in washing Lazaro’s cuts, which is both painful and purifying.
In their travels, the blind man and Lazaro come to the town of Almorox where a kind stranger gives the blind man a bunch of grapes. The blind man agrees to split them with Lazaro, and the two agree to eat no more than one at a time. As they are eating, however, the blind man begins to eat two at a time and Lazaro, noticing this but saying nothing, begins to eat three. After the bunch of grapes is finished, the blind man admonishes Lazaro for eating three at a time, saying he knew this was the case after he himself started eating two at a time and Lazaro kept silent.
Here is another instance of Lazaro learning to deceive the blind man, though in this instance Lazaro thinks he has outwitted his master only to learn that his master was aware of Lazaro’s dishonesty. This interaction is emblematic of the type of society the author is portraying through Lazaro’s story—a society in which the efforts of people to constantly deceive each other are openly acknowledged and the real contest is not so much about who can win without debasing themselves, but rather who comes away from the game the richest.
In Escalona, Lazaro and the blind man stay in a shoemaker’s shop where ropes are hung from the ceiling. The blind man, hitting his head on the ropes, takes it as a bad omen and tells Lazaro it’s time to go, explaining, “It’s a bad dish which chokes without nourishing.” Later, arriving at an inn, the blind man is feeling his way along the exterior of the building, where horns have been mounted for mule drivers to tie up their animals. When the blind man’s hand touches the horns, he curses them as another bad omen, this time making a prophesy that the bad luck they symbolize will fall on Lazaro some day.
The blind man’s cryptic words about the rope in the shoemaker’s shop are a reference to the common practice of hanging, in which rope is used to kill by choking. When the blind man curses the horns at the inn, he is making a reference to horns as a common symbol for a cuckold (a man whose wife is unfaithful), foreshadowing that Lazaro’s fate is to be deceived by his most intimate partner. In both of these episodes the blind man seems to have some sort of prophetic power, as blind men in literature often do.
One night while they are staying in Escalona, the blind man is roasting sausages and cooking a stew. He gives Lazaro some money and asks him to go fetch some wine. Lazaro takes the money, but before he goes to fetch the wine he steals a sausage from the fire and replaces it with a soggy turnip that had been fished out of the stew. Then, when he is out of sight, he eats the sausage and drinks the wine for himself. When Lazaro returns, the blind man is furious to have discovered his sausage is missing and he sticks his nose into Lazaro’s mouth to see if he can smell the meat, causing Lazaro to vomit on the blind man’s face. This sends the blind man into such a rage that he beats Lazaro nearly to death.
Again Lazaro tries to deceive the blind man, and again the blind man is too clever to be deceived. Although Lazaro enjoys the temporary pleasure of eating the blind man’s sausage, he pays for it shortly afterward by taking a terrible beating as punishment. This further illustrates the author’s point that the cycle of crime and punishment—deception and retaliation—is a seemingly never-ending game which no one ever wins.
In the subsequent days, Lazaro is nursed back to health by the friendly innkeeper’s wife, who uses the wine Lazaro stole from the blind man to clean his wounds. The blind man jokingly makes another prophesy that Lazaro, more than anyone else in the world, should be grateful for wine because it has saved his life a thousand times. During this time Lazaro resolves to leave the blind man when the opportunity arises.
This marks the third and final prophetic statement made by the blind man in Escalona. More than just a literal statement about wine being of great importance to Lazaro’s life, the statement can also be interpreted to mean that Lazaro’s life will have a dual nature much like that of wine—bittersweet, with every pleasure having a dark side. Notably, it is a woman who shows Lazaro compassion by helping him.
They leave Escalona a few days later, passing through a town where the blind man stops to beg. As night falls and it begins to rain, the blind man decides that they should find an inn for the night. Lazaro, seeing his opportunity for both escape and revenge, leads the blind man through the rain and positions him so that he is standing directly in front of a large stone pillar at the center of the town square. Lazaro tells the blind man that he is standing on the edge of an overflowing gutter and that he has to jump over it if he wants to keep his feet dry. The blind man, believing Lazaro, backs up and takes one big leap forward, slamming his head against the pillar and splitting it open. Before fleeing town, Lazaro mocks the badly injured blind man, asking him why he had been able to smell the sausage but hadn’t been able to smell the pillar. Lazaro remarks that the injury may have been fatal, but he never found out what became of the blind man.
This episode is the climax of Lazaro’s time serving the blind man and it symbolizes a moment of both personal growth and moral corruption for Lazaro, as he manages to finally outwit the master who has taught him so much about deception and taking advantage of the ignorance of others. Although Lazaro is happy to take his revenge in this moment, he lives to regret the cruelty of this act in the final chapter, an acknowledgement of the bitterness of a life that moves people to commit such acts of violence against one another.