The Cambridge History of Literature (via Bartleby) says this work is important because it is a picaresque novel and as such “was the most remarkable work of its kind before the time of Defoe” (par. 1), “resembl[ing] the picaresque type indigenous to Spain” (par. 2). Specifically, these similarities are outlined as “the same firm grasp of the realities of life, the same penetrating observation and forceful expression; there are the same qualities of humour and satire, the same rough drafts of character-sketches; and the aim is that of entertainment rather than reform” (par. 3). The differences are noted as “its English mixture of tragedy with comedy, and again, in the fact that the animating impulse of its rogue-hero is not avarice but a malignant and insatiable love of mischief” (par. 3).
The editors of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die have included this text because they believe (at least A.H. does) that it “is perhaps the most brilliant Elizabethan novella” (32). The description continues, “Nashe tells the complex and disturbing story of Jack Wilton, an amoral young recruit in Henry VIII’s army in France.” What’s interesting to me here is the word “disturbing” because that is exactly what I found this text to be. Raymond Stephanson agrees in his “The Epistemological Challenge of Nashe’s The unfortunate Traveller” when he writes, “Every Reader of Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller must somehow cope with the disturbing effects of Nashe’s preoccupation with physical ugliness and disfigurement” (21).
Stephanson goes on to describe this disturbing quality: “Nashe exploits not only the literary anticipations of a practices reading audience, but also the emotional, intellectual, and epistemological expectations of his readers. Every anticipated sense of reality is challenged, violated, and broken down” (23-24). Of course, some argue that this is what makes the text good / great enough to be included on this list, arguing like Stephanson that “the work’s world-view of life is largely a statement about a lack of inherent form or meaning in the universe” (24).
The text relies heavily on rhetorical tropes, and Jack is not an easy narrator, “alternately prankster, satirist, travel writer, polemicist, historian, picaro, fictional autobiographer” (Stephanson 21). While Jack (and Nashe by default) may certainly be clever, I honestly have more enjoyable things to read. This text focuses on the crazy, the deformed, and the bizarre with rape and pillaging for fun. I don’t mind having my world view challenged, and in fact I welcome it. But, I don’t want to cringe through the reading. I don’t mind being uncomfortable when reading, but I prefer relating to the characters some way some how. That’s not possible with this book. And, in the end, I’m not sure what the point is. A.H. writes that “every description is undercut by a powerful irony, so that we are not sure at the end whether we are being told that travel is an enlightening or a pointless process” (32).
Stephanson says we can feel two ways about this book: “In the first instance, we will perceive Nashe’s vision of life as one that grasps the essential grotesqueness of the world; in the second, we will judge The Unfortunate Traveller to be an incoherent work, lacking in unity, and worth reading only because Nashe’s peculiar prose style. The choice is a question of how far we are willing to go, and that is an important question” (36). I almost feel guilty for saying this as if I were taking the easy way out, but I don’t recommend it. I don’t think it is worth reading. I don’t get it.
If you want to tackle it, The Unfortunate Traveller is available from Project Gutenberg and I wish you happy reading!
**Stephanson, Raymond. “The Epistemological Challenge of Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller.” Studies in English Literature 23.1 (Winter, 1983): 21-36.