At the time in which Lazarillo de Tormes was written, the supremely powerful Catholic Church had begun the Spanish Inquisition, a violent campaign to purge religious diversity from Spain. The novel critiques the moral authority of the Catholic Church to embark on such a project by exposing the gap between the professed values and the actual behavior of Spanish Catholics.
The author uses the form of the picaresque novel—a genre characterized by plots composed of distinct episodes that are each their own story—to enumerate the types of religious hypocrisy afflicting Spain. Lazarillo de Tormes is divided into sections devoted to Lazaro’s time with different masters, each of whom embodies a different kind of hypocrisy. The blind man Lazaro serves at the start of the book is outwardly pious, but his cruelty and stinginess toward Lazaro stand in stark contrast to the religious values he pretends to embody. The priest is by far Lazaro’s cruelest master; as the figurehead of the church, he is supposed to be a paragon of charity, selflessness, and love, but he starves Lazaro, which shows his selfishness, opportunism, and greed. The friar is presumed, as a monk, to have recused himself from worldly matters, but he seems to spend all his time running about on errands of a sexual nature. The seller of papal indulgences—an already morally suspect position to hold in the clergy—lies, cheats, and burns the faces of several other clergymen in order to sell people articles that are meant to pardon them for their sins. Finally, by the end of the book, Lazaro has entered into a tacit agreement with the archpriest (a high religious office, and presumed to be celibate) to keep the archpriest’s mistress as Lazaro’s wife for a small fee, implicating all parties not only in adultery but in some form of prostitution. Each of these examples shows that Catholic clergy and outwardly-pious members of the lay public were not acting in accordance with their professed values—values that they were also hypocritically demanding of others. The fact that Lazarillo de Tormes was published anonymously can be explained by these frank depictions of religious hypocrisy—the author’s perspective was regarded as heretical and it resulted in the book being banned throughout Spain.
While Lazarillo de Tormes focuses on religious hypocrisy, there are other forms of social hypocrisy that come to light in the course of the novel. This includes class hypocrisy—it’s the poor that tend to be generous, rather than the wealthy and powerful who preach generosity—and racial hypocrisy. The novel hints at violence done to racial minorities, from the Church-backed war against the Moors to Lazaro’s initial mistrust of his mother’s black lover Zaide, and it’s a moment of confusion about race that most powerfully brings to light the underlying dynamic of the social hypocrisy that pervades the book. Early in the novel, Lazaro recalls his dark-skinned half-brother (son of Zaide and Lazaro’s mother) crying out in fear of his own dark-skinned father, not yet understanding that he himself is not white. In response, Lazaro wonders to himself how many people in the world run away from others because they can’t see themselves. In this light, Lazarillo de Tormes can be seen as a text that seeks to bring the Spanish public to an understanding that their cruelties towards others stem from their own internal contradictions and confusions—perhaps, by more clearly understanding themselves, the Spanish can create a more just society.
Social and Religious Hypocrisy ThemeTracker
Social and Religious Hypocrisy Quotes in The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes
And therefore nothing of this sort should be destroyed or thrown away unless it is utterly detestable, but on the contrary such things should be brought to the knowledge of everyone, especially if they are utterly harmless and even likely to bear some fruit.
If it were otherwise, there are very few who would write for just one reader, because it is hard work, and those who undertake it hope to be rewarded, not in money, but in having the efforts seen and read and, when possible, praised. That is why Cicero says: “Honor is the nurse of the arts.”
I was very small at the time but I was struck by what my little brother had said, and I thought, “How many there must be in the world who run away from others because they do not see themselves!”
It is a joy to me to recount these childish matters to Your Excellency, to show how much virtue there can be in those who are born to low estate and drag themselves up, and how much vice in the great who let themselves be dragged down.
“Honestly, I waste more wine washing this boy in one year than I drink myself in two. Lazaro, to put it at its very least you owe more to wine than you do to your own father. He only gave you your being once, whereas wine has brought you to life a thousand times. … I’ll tell you, if there’s anyone in this world to whom wine will be a blessing, it will be you.”
All I can say is that my new master had collected all the stinginess in the world and was hoarding it. Whether he had been born with that character or had put it on with his priest’s cassock I don’t know.
“I’ve had two masters. The first one nearly starved me to death and when I left him I took up with this one who’s virtually brought me to the edge of the grave. If I quit this one now and land myself with another one who’s even worse, there’s only one thing that can happen to me: I’ll die.”
“Stuffing is a pursuit for pigs, and men who have any self-respect should eat moderately.”
“Oh, I know what you mean alright!” I said to myself. “And to hell with all the medicinal qualities and other virtues which every master I take up with manages to find in my hunger.”
“Oh Lord, how many of this sort must there be scattered through the world, suffering things for the moldy misery they call honor which they would never suffer for thee!”
“He’s poor,” I said to myself, “and nobody can give what he hasn’t got. Whereas that miserly blind man and that niggardly skin-flint of a priest had both done alright for themselves in the name of God, the one with his hand-kissing and the other with his line of patter, and they starved me half to death. So it’s perfectly fair to be down on them and to take pity on this one.”
When they tried this out the first time, I must admit to my shame that I was frightened by it like most of the others, and thought it was just what it appeared to be. But afterwards, when I saw how my master and the constable laughed over the affair and made fun of it, I realized that it had all been worked out by my industrious and inventive master.
I did so well at this trade that at the end of the four years which I spent at it, by carefully putting aside my money I’d saved up enough to outfit myself decently in a suit of second-hand clothes…. Once I was respectably dressed I told my master to take back his donkey because I didn’t want to follow that trade any more.
“I’ll swear by the consecrated host that she’s as virtuous as any woman living within the gates of Toledo, and if any man says otherwise, I’m his enemy to the death.”