Gil Blas (French: L'Histoire de
Gil Blas de Santillane [listwaʁ də
ʒil blɑ də sɑ̃tijan]) is a picaresque novel by Alain-René Lesage
published between 1715 and 1735.
1 Plot summary
2 Literary significance and reception
2.1 Allusions in other works
3 Operatic adaptations
4 Publication history
6 External links
Gil Blas is born in misery to a stablehand and a chambermaid of
Santillana in Cantabria, and 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.
Frontispiece and title page of a 1761 English translation of "the
Gil Blas ".
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 adjust to many situations, thanks to his adaptability and
He finally finds himself at the royal court as a favorite of the king
and secretary to the prime minister. Working his way up through 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 Obregón by
Vicente Espinel, from which Lesage had borrowed several details.
Gil Blas is essentially Spanish, José Francisco de Isla
claimed to translate the work from French into Spanish in order to
return it to its natural state.
Juan Antonio Llorente
Juan Antonio Llorente suggested that
Gil Blas was written by the historian Antonio de Solís y Ribadeneyra
by arguing that no contemporary writer could have possibly written a
work of such detail and accuracy.
Allusions in other works
"Gil Blas" is mentioned in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. The
central character is showing the Autodidact some photos. One of them
is of Santillana. The Autodidact reacts "the Santillana of Gil Blas?".
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
Gil Blas has to say on the matter, as a more qualified source
Vasily Narezhny imitated Lesage in his 1814 novel A Russian Gil Blas
(Russian: Российский Жильблаз).
"Gil Blas" is alluded to in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs.
The character Wanda von Dunajew ascribes the cause of her own free
thinking to an early introduction to classical works; these include
Gil Blas, which she read at the age of ten.
"Gil Blas" is referred to in Honoré de Balzac's Facino Cane. The
protagonist promises to spare the narrator "tales of adventures worthy
of Gil Blas".
In Oliver Wendell Holmes's
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1857),
the Autocrat begins Section IX with the famous quote from Lesage's
Preface: [Aqui esta encerrada el alma del licenciado Pedro Garcia:
"Here is enclosed the soul of the lawyer Pedro Garcia"], signaling
that his own readers, like the two bachelors of Salamanca who discover
Garcia's gravestone, will need to "fix on the moral concealed" beneath
the surface of his recollections if they are to receive any benefit
In a letter to
William Dean Howells
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
In his plan for the novel The Life of a Great Sinner, Dostoyevsky
notes that the concision of this work will at times mirror that of Gil
Gil Blas is also mentioned in Chapter III of Dostoyevsky's A
Gentle Creature, in which the narrator asks, "Why, didn't she tell me
that amusing story about
Gil Blas and the Archbishop of Granada
herself the day before yesterday? We were discussing books. She was
telling me about the books she had been reading that winter, and it
was then that she told me about the scene from Gil Blas."
In A Rogue's Life by
Wilkie Collins the rogue declares '...I am as
even-tempered a rogue as you have met with anywhere since the days of
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe considered it among "the finest narratives in the
world". Also he mentions the archbishop in
Gil Blas in the short
story "The Angel of the Odd": the angel makes a low bow and departs,
wishing, in the language of the archbishop, "beaucoup de bonheur et un
peu plus de bon sens."
Italo Calvino's main character in
The Baron in the Trees
The Baron in the Trees reads the
book and lends it to a brigand.
Gil Blas is also mentioned in Thomas Flanagan's 1979 novel The Year of
the French, in which poet Owen MacCarthy mentions having it with him
"on [his] ramblings, years ago." Flanagan uses the book 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.
David Copperfield (chapter 7) relates the story of
Gil Blas to
Steerforth and Traddles. Poor Traddles' teeth chatter and are
overheard by the brutish head master Creakle who goes on to
"handsomely flog" Traddles "for disorderly conduct."
One of Thomas Edison's closest early friends, Milton F. Adams, was
referred to as a modern
Gil Blas for his life of travel and
dissolution as a "tramp operator", roaming from place to place and as
far away as Peru as an itinerant telegraph operator.
The House of the Seven Gables
The House of the Seven Gables Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his
description of Holgrave (chapter XII), says 'A romance on the plan of
Gil Blas, adapted to American society and manners, would cease to be a
romance.' His implication is that the normal experiences of a young
American, such as Holgrave, are so extraordinary in comparison with
those of Gil Blas, that they make the latter's adventures seem
ordinary. Hawthorne then writes, 'The experience of many individuals
among us, who think it hardly worth the telling, would equal the
vicissitudes of the Spaniard's earlier life; while their ultimate
success... may be incomparably higher than any that a novelist would
imagine for a hero.'
According to Vincent Cronin's biography, the first thing that the
Napoleon did on arriving in Paris was to buy a copy of Gil
In Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in Chapter
XXVII (page 232 of
The Harvard Classics
The Harvard Classics edition), the author describes
the passengers aboard his ship the Alert, as it sailed along the
California coast in 1836 from Monterey to Santa Barbara. The author
writes: "Among our passengers was a young man who was the best
representation of a decayed gentleman I had ever seen. He reminded me
much of some of the characters in Gil Blas." Describing Don Juan
Bandiniand, he writes: "He was of the aristocracy of the country, his
family being of pure Spanish blood, and once of great importance in
Mexico... Don Juan had with him a retainer, who was as much like many
of the characters in
Gil Blas as his master. He called himself a
private secretary, though there was no writing for him to do, and he
lived in the steerage with the carpenter and sailmaker..."
Gil Blas was also the name of a nationalist Brazilian literary journal
in 1920, reflecting the gallic leanings of Brazil's literary scene in
the early 20th century and the resonance of the picaresque character
in Brazilian culture.
In the fantasy novel
Silverlock by John Myers Myers, the character
Lucius Gil Jones is a composite of Lucius in
The Golden Ass
The Golden Ass by
Apuleius, Gil Blas, and Tom Jones in The History of Tom Jones, a
Foundling by Henry Fielding.
On page 55 of his The Social History of Bourbon,
Gerald Carson notes
that the education of young men in antebellum Kentucky meant they
“read law with the local judge, studied medicine at the Louisville
Medical Institute, wrote stilted verses in the neoclassical fashion,
Gil Blas and books on surveying, farming, and distilling.”
In his Preface to 'The Ambassadors',
Henry James mentions the
narration methods of 'Gil Blas' and 'David Copperfield' as
alternatives to the narrative technique he actually used in 'The
Washington Irving's A Tour On The Prairies includes a section
describing a wanderer on the American prairie frontier who he refers
to as a "
Gil Blas of the frontier".
Thomas Jefferson included
Gil Blas in his list of recommendations to
Robert Skipwith of books for a general personal library.
According to Schopenhauer, it is one of the few novels showing "what
is really going on in the world".
In O homem que sabia javanês, short story by Lima Barreto, written
in 1911 and published by Gazeta da Tarde. The allusion is between the
character Castelo and Gil Blas.
In the 1892 novel 'Ask Mama' published by Bradbury, Agnew & Co.
the mule of '
Gil Blas is referred to when, referring to his horses,
"as a buyer he [Major Yammerton] made them out to be all faults, as a
seller when they suddenly seemed to become the paragons of
An episode from
Gil Blas was the basis of two separate French operas
in the 1790s, both with the same title:
La caverne (1793) by Le Sueur
La caverne by Méhul (1795).
Gil Blas was the title of a five-act farcical opera by John Hamilton
Reynolds adapting Lesage's novel, perhaps assisted by Thomas Hood, and
first performed on 1 August 1822. It was famously five hours long on
its first night at the
Royal Strand Theatre
Royal Strand Theatre on the Strand and was then
cut to three acts and the title changed to The Youthful Days of Gil
Blas. According to Reynolds's biographer, Leonidas M. Jones, no text
of the play survives.
Théophile Semet composed a comic opera on
Gil Blas in five acts
Alphons Czibulka composed
Gil Blas von Santillana, with
F. Zell and Moritz West. It was first performed in
Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 1–6 (1715)
Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 7–9 (1724)
Gil Blas de Santillane, Books 10–12 (1735)
Gil Blas de Santillane pub London Chez M.M, Lackington,
Allen & Co 1798 4 Vols
^ “Cooper's Wyandotte,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York:
Stone and Kimball, vol. VII, 1895, pp. 3-18
^ From chapter IV In the biography Edison His Life and Inventions by
Frank Dyer and Thomas Martin.
^ Jefferson, Thomas (1952) [letter written August 3, 1771]. A Virginia
Gentleman's Library. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg.
^ The Essays of Arthur Schopenahuer.
^ Leonidas M. Jones, The Life of
John Hamilton Reynolds (University of
New England Press, 1984), p. 243.
^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1908.
English translation by Tobias Smollett Online reading and multiple
ebook formats at Ex-classics
See paintings about
Gil Blas displayed at British public galleries