The book begins with a short prologue addressed to “Your Excellency.” The narrator does not introduce himself in the prologue or identify the person to which it is addressed. While noting that some may find the text’s contents disagreeable, the narrator says that he believes there is value in bringing even unappealing truths to light.
The prologue establishes that the narrator’s primary aim in telling his story is to expose the truth, however ugly. However, as the story unfolds, what seems like a simple promise to tell the truth will become more and more complicated. By noting that some readers may find the text disagreeable, the narrator is foreshadowing the book’s heretical content, such as negative depictions of clergymen, for which it was banned after its initial publication in Spain.
The narrator admits that, although his storytelling is clumsy at times and his life as a poor boy was not particularly remarkable, he wrote the story with some hope that he would be rewarded by having it seen and read by others. He hypothesizes that everything is done out of a desire for honor and recognition.
The narrator’s clumsy storytelling style is attributable to his status as someone of low class, having had no formal education. A low-born protagonist is the defining feature of the picaresque novel, a genre which many critics argue actually was originated by this book. The narrator’s assertion that everything is done for fame and recognition is particularly notable in relation to the fact that the book was published anonymously, implying that the narrator, in contrast with the author, is only concerned with worldly matters and his own reputation.
The narrator suggests that he is telling his story from the beginning instead of starting in the middle so as to respond to the addressee’s prior inquiry into a certain matter, the specifics of which he does not make clear. He concludes by stating that he hopes his story will confront its wealthier readers with the harsh realities and adversities faced by those who are born with less than them.
The prologue establishes the fact that the book has been written as a letter with a particular purpose in mind—a purpose which, while clear to both the letter’s writer and its addressee, remains unknown to the reader. The unanswered question of why the letter was written imbues the book with a sense of mystery that remains unresolved until the book’s last page.