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Boccaccio, Decameron: Days 5-10
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To recap,
In class on Thursday we covered the following issues, among others:

  • Genre: Boccaccio mentions, on p.3, four genres we ought to bear in mind when reading the 100 stories that make up the "content" of his book: "stories, fables, parables,...histories."
          "stories": we may think of the Eastern collections that were popular in Boccaccio's time, a feature of which was the trope of a"frame" narrative involving [a] storyteller[s] who would then tell the stories in the collection....just like Boccaccio's structure. The Arabian Nights is probably the best-known example of this genre.
          "fables": the French fabliaux, "brief comic tales in verse, usually scurrilous and often scatological or obscene....the time is the present, and the settings real, familiar places; the characters are ordinary sorts -- tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses." (The Riverside Chaucer, p. 7.)
          "parables": Latin exempla, which we have discussed in relation to Augustine and Dante. The exemplum, lit. "example," was a didactic text which told the story of an exemplary person in order to instruct readers in the right way to live, etc. Usually the writer of an exemplum was not its hero, but both Augustine and Dante subverted this tradition, as we know.
          "histories": at the time, the Italian historical chronicles, which were kept--like modern histories--as a record of events (usually relying, however, on the personal memory of the scribe, rather than exhaustive research).

    Four different genres, four different places of origin, four different motives for writing, four different justifications for reading. How is each one relevant to Boccaccio's book?

    Boccaccio also gives us, upfront, a couple of other clues about how to read his book. The title, Decameron, evokes St. Ambrose's work (you remember St. Ambrose: Augustine's mentor), Hexamaeron, a series of commentaries on Old Testament texts. The irony is obvious, but is there any serious intent behind this association?

    As for "Prince Galahalt," the subtitle, this comes under the heading of "Dante subversions," for which you should continue to be on the lookout.

  • Structure: We identified a double frame:   Frame 1: "Boccaccio" (the "I"-narrator)
                                                                     Frame 2: the brigata (narrators of the stories)
                                                                     "Content": the stories themselves

    Note that Boccaccio (the guy who wrote the book, and who has been dead for 600 years) is not the same as "Boccaccio," his "I-narrator" representative in the text. Boccaccio counts on his readers' maintaining this distinction, which enables him to put an extra layer of irony between "reality" (where we live) and his narrative's outer frame. The real Boccaccio, for example, was probably not spurred to write this book in order to cure impressionable young ladies of the ills of love. However, this is what "Boccaccio" lists as his motivation...

  • Themes [underlined here; the hyperlinks take you to dedicated pages on the DecameronWeb]: humanity (of which major components are compassion and ingenuity) is dismantled by the coming of the plague to Florence. Although possible explanations for the plague are offered on p. 5 (divine retribution; ill fortune; wind from the East), it is basically an undiscriminating scourge, the precise opposite of Dantean contrapasso. The brigata, fleeing the plague, become a sort of Noah's ark, charged with reconstituting humanity.
    Love is also an important theme: "Boccaccio," inspired by a recent falling out of love, offers a retelling of the brigata's stories as a cure for love.

  • Women: Women play many roles in the Decameron: they are "Boccaccio" 's inspiration and intended (/purported) audience, in Frame 1; they are narrators, in Frame 2; and they are protagonists in many of the stories themselves ("content"). We need to talk some more about this: how are we to reconcile these three rather different portrayals? Why does Boccaccio insist on the role of women? Why does he "write for" women?

    Women play leading roles in the following stories, which you might like to investigate: 2:7 (Alatiel), 2:9 (Zinevra), 2:10 (Bartolomea), 3:1 (nuns), 3:10 (Alibech), 4:1 (Ghismonda), 4:2 (Monna Lisetta), 4:5 (Lisabetta), 5:4 (Caterina), 6:1 (Madonna Oretta), 6:7 (Madonna Filippa), 6:8 (Cesca), 7:2 (Peronella), 7:6 (Madonna Isabella), 7:8 (Sismonda), 7:9 (Lydia), 8:7 (Elena), 9:6 (Niccolosa's mother), 9:10 (Pietro's wife, the "mare"), 10:5 (Madonna Dianora), 10:10 (Griselda).

Additional Study Questions

  1. The "love thang" (as opposed to the sex thang), which we haven't spent class time on yet: What is "love," in the Decameron? Does it mean the same in Frame 1/Frame 2/the stories? What is its role in the fabric of the narrative?
  2. Discuss the topography of the Frame 2 narrative. Why does it begin and end in a church? (Why that particular church, I'll try to remember to tell you in class--or you can do a little research on your own.) What is the symbolism of the departure from the city? of staying in a villa? of their further peregrinations? etc.? You might also consider, in relation, the topography of one or more of the stories.
    Does the book decribe a definite trajectory? If so, what is the shape of this trajectory?
  3. What role does storytelling play in the brigata's journey (literal and metaphoric)?
  4. What is the "take-home message" of Griselda's story (10:10)? Why is it last? Is it significant that the members of the brigata cannot agree among themselves on the interpretation of this story? Why?
  5. Tomorrow, while we'll try to discuss any stories that particularly caught your fancy, we will want to focus particularly on the following, so be prepared: 1:1 (Ser Cepperello/Saint Ciappelletto), 2:7 (Alatiel's regained virginity), Day 4 intro ("goslings"), 4:1 (King Tancredi and the excised heart), 6:1 (Madonna Oretta's clever retort), 10:10 (Griselda), and the "Author's Epilogue." One thing you can be thinking about in relation to these selections is: What is the role of language in these texts? Is there more than one kind of language? Is language always composed of words? What relationship(s) between words and things are adumbrated in these stories? You could also consider in this regard the Valley of the Ladies episode (Day 6).

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