Gil Blas

Gil Blas

[Fr. zheel blah]
This is about the novel. For the French literary paper see Gil Blas (periodical)

Gil Blas (French: L'Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane) is a picaresque novel by Lesage from 1715 to 1735. It is considered to be the last masterpiece of the picaresque genre.

Plot summary

Born in misery to a stablehand and a chambermaid of Santillana in Cantabria, Gil Blas is educated by his uncle. He leaves Oviedo at the age of seventeen to attend the University of Salamanca. His bright future is suddenly interrupted when he is forced to help robbers along the route and is faced with jail. He becomes a valet and over the course of several years is able to observe many different classes of society both lay and clerical. Because of his occupation, he meets many disreputable people and is able to adapt to many situtions thanks to his adaptability and quick wit.

He finally finds himself at the court as a favorite of the king and secretary to the prime minister. Working his way up though hard work and intelligence, Gil is able to retire to a castle to enjoy a fortune and a hard-earned honest life.

Literary significance and reception

Gil Blas is related to Lesage's play Turcaret (1709). In both works, Lesage uses witty valets in the service of thieving masters, women of questionable morals, cuckolded yet happy husbands, gourmands, ridiculous poets, false savants, and dangerously ignorant doctors to make his point. Each class and each occupation becomes an archetype.

This work is both universal and French within a Spanish context. However, its originality was questioned. Voltaire was among the first to point out similarities between Gil Blas and Marcos de Obregon by Espinel, from which Lesage had borrowed several details. Considering Gil Blas essentially Spanish, Father Jose de Isla claimed to translate the work from French into Spanish in order to return it to its natural state. Llorente suggested that Gil Blas was written by the historian Solis, arguing that no contemporary writer could have possibly written a work of such detail and accuracy.

Allusions in other works

Gil Blas is referred to by Jonathan Swift in Directions to Servants, a satirical piece, dated 1731, with recommendations for the servants of rich masters to take the most advantage and have the least trouble in their daily tasks. In the chapter aimed at "the intendent and the administrator", Swift specifically instructs the reader to look up what Gil Blas has to say on the matter, as a more qualified source thus acknowledged.

Gil Blas is also mentioned in Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French, in which poet Owen MacCarthy mentions having it with him "on [his] ramblings, years ago." Flanagan uses Gil Blas to connect the poor Irish citizens and their French allies in the 1798 Rebellion, illustrating that the Irish may not all be as simple as Arthur Vincent Broome, the loyalist narrator, presumes. This allusion to Gil Blas also connects the somewhat roguish MacCarthy to the picaresque protagonist Gil Blas.

In a letter to William Dean Howells (July 5, 1875), Mark Twain tells of just completing the manuscript for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written in third-person) and deciding against taking Tom into adulthood: to do so, he says, "would be fatal . . . in any shape but autobiographically—like Gil Blas." Walter Blair (Mark Twain and Huck Finn) thus concludes that Twain's new novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which, picaresque-like, "would run its protagonist ‘through life,' had to be written in the first person; Gil Blas was the model."

Operatic adaptations

Théophile Semet composed a comic opera in five acts (1860).

Alphons Czibulka composed Gil Blas von Santillana, with libretto by F. Zell and Moritz West. It was first performed in 1889.

Publication history

  • Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 1-6 (1715)
  • Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 7-9 (1724)
  • Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 10-12 (1735)


External links

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