What is noteworthy about Gil Blas?

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Above all, it’s an entertainment: it’s fun to read. It was written for the readers’ pleasure, not for their education or enlightenment. Gil Blas is not aimed at an aristocratic audience and has nothing to do – except the rare interlude -- with the chivalresque school of literature of the time. It was written for the broadest segment of the reading public, that rising class of better educated town dwellers who were then gaining access to reading and literature.

Broad Appeal

To broaden its appeal to this public, Lesage makes the book as realistic as he can, pushing the conventions as far as he dare, ensuring that the characters are believable, the situations largely credible, more realistic and a little less fanciful than his more picaresque Spanish predecessors in which both Gil Blas and much of Lesage’s work had its roots. “My intention is to show men’s lives as they are,” he writes in his introduction.
angerIt also is not a philosophical tract, far from it. Gil Blas wears its morality lightly: indeed the hero spends much of the book tottering on the edge of immorality. Yet the story while avoiding all primness is refreshingly innocent. However humble a man’s origins, Lesage tells us, with loyalty, perseverance, humility and honesty, and a modicum of opportunism, and despite the vicissitudes of fate and fortune, our hero will prevail to emerge successful and rewarded.

Cautionary Tale for the Ambitious

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Lesage also innovated by extending the scope of the biographical novel. Gil Blas covers not just part of its hero’s life but a full seventy or eighty years, with all its twists and turns, from his birth and schooldays, his rise through the ranks of domestic service to positions of responsibility and authority at the top of the social hierarchy in the pay of noblemen, of an archbishop and ultimately as a key counsellor to Spain’s most powerful politicians before his bucolic retirement and (second) marriage in ripe old age. His memoirs are a lesson in how to build a career and become a success in life, however inauspicious your circumstances and humble your origins – a cautionary tale for the ambitious.

Narrative Continuity

Unlike the popular stories of the 1001 Nights (or Days), the picaresque novels, or even Don Quixote, Gil Blas marks a progression from the collections of disjointed tales or episodes of one sort or another with little relation between them that were then common. Gil Blas is a continuous story, one event leading naturally enough to the next. That is not to say that Lesage does not pander to popular taste for diversions and interludes. In fact, each book contains one of these asides. They were very much part of the literary traditions to which the 18th century reader was accustomed.

Fiction + History = Realism

Another surprise is that a number of genuine historical characters make their appearance in the second half of the story, notably the Duke of Lerma, the Count-Duke of Olivares, their associates, and the Spanish Crown Prince among others. The intention was to add a certain verisimilitude to the intrigue. Prior to that time fiction made no great claim to realism and was often clearly labelled fantasy. The study and writing of history was a recent innovation and was considered the height of realism. By adding true history to fiction, Lesage was clearly trying to make the novel more realistic and thereby to increase its appeal.

Character Development

duelIn addition to the greater narrative coherence Lesage also innovates in character development. Instead of a static figure whose character is little affected by the events he is involved in, Gil Blas evolves dramatically over the course of his lifetime in tune with his adventures and experiences. He is young, raw and iconoclastic at the beginning, slowly matures, wises up to the world around him in the middle, learns to profit from it, and becomes old, staid and conservative by the end.

From one Surprise to the Next

The story is written with notable economy: descriptions are brief, character sketches summary, set pieces restrained, adverbs shunned, superfluity abjured. Lesage’s dialogue, in keeping with his experience in the theatre, is often wonderfully sharp, and one of the book’s many treasures. Everything is sacrificed to telling it like it is or was, and keeping the story moving, hurrying along from one surprise to the next.

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