Primary objections to Lazarillo were to its vivid and realistic descriptions of the world of the pauper and the petty thief. This was in contrast to the superhuman events of chivalric novels such as the classic from the previous century, Amadís de Gaula. In Antwerp, it followed the tradition of the impudent trickster figure Till Eulenspiegel.
Lazarillo introduced the picaresque device of delineating various professions and levels of society. A young boy or young man or woman describes masters or "betters" with ingenuously presented realistic details. But Lazarillo speaks of "the blind man," "the squire," "the pardoner," presenting these characters as types.
Significantly, the only named characters are Lazarillo and his family: his mother Antoña Pérez, his father Tomé Gonzáles, and his stepfather El Zayde. The surname de Tormes comes from the river Tormes. In the narrative, Lazarillo explains that his father ran a mill on the river, where he was literally born on the river. The Tormes runs through Lazarillo's home town, Salamanca, a Castilian university city. (There is an old mill on the river, and a statue of Lazarillo and the blind man next to the Roman bridge [puente romano] in the city.)
Objections to characters not being "high-born" continued to be made in the literature of other countries for centuries. It resulted in censorship of novels by Pierre Beaumarchais, one of whose plays was used for the operatic libretto of The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The 1767 première of the German comedy Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Lessing as well as the 1830 première of the French drama Ernani, by Victor Hugo caused riots simply because these dramas featured middle-class characters, rather than nobles or religious figures.
Lazarillo is the diminutive of the Spanish name Lázaro. There are two appearances of the name Lazarus in the Bible, and not all critics agree as to which story the author was referring when he chose the name. The more well-known tale is in John 11:41–44, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The second is in Luke 16:19–31, a parable about a beggar named Lazarus at the gate of a stingy rich man's house.
In contrast to the fancifully poetic language devoted to fantastic and supernatural events about unbelievable creatures and chivalric knights, the realistic prose of Lazarillo described suppliants purchasing indulgences from the Church, servants forced to die with their masters on the battlefield (as Lazarillo's father did), thousands of refugees wandering from town to town, poor beggars flogged away by whips because of the lack of food. The anonymous author included many popular sayings and ironically interpreted popular stories.
The Prologue with Lázaro's extensive protest against injustice is addressed to a high-level cleric, and five of his eight masters in the novel serve the church. Lazarillo attacked the appearance of the church and its hypocrisy, though not its essential beliefs, a balance not often present in following picaresque novels.
Besides creating a new genre, Lazarillo de Tormes was critically innovative in world literature in several aspects:
- Long before the Emile (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) or Huckleberry Finn the anonymous author of Lazarillo treated a boy as a boy, not a small adult.
- Long before Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe), Lazarillo describes the domestic and working life of a poor woman, wife, mother, climaxing in the flogging of Lazarillo's mother through the streets of the town after her black husband Zayde is hanged as a thief.
- Long before modern treatment of "persons of color", this author treats sympathetically the pleasures and pains of an interracial family in his descriptions of life with his black stepfather and negrito half-brother, though their characterization is based on stereotypes.