Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Fifth Day, Part One

Boccaccio's Decameron tells about a group of ten people who each tell a story every day for ten days -- one-hundred stories in all. The decision to spread this book out over the ten years of my reading plan has really paid off. Instead of trying to read it all at once and getting tired of it around story thirty-one, I look forward to coming back to it each year and enjoy every story. And it was easier to decide how to divide up this book over the decade than it was with any other book: read one day of stories per year.

Most of the stories I read the first four years are either bawdy tales of naughty monks and unfaithful wives or adventure yarns in which lovers face separation, pirates, slavery, and other torments of fortune only to reunite in the end . . . or die. The fifth day, this year's assignment, continues the pattern to a degree but deemphasizes these sensational elements in favor of psychological and moral dilemmas.

The first story contains several incidents in which men kill to "win" their respective ladies and then find the ladies duly impressed. Having grown up in the age of Gloria Steinem, the birth of the honorific "Ms.," and the critique of gender bias in our language, these passages challenge and puzzle me. Do I find it necessary, for instance, to put quotation marks of irony around "win" only because of the spirit of my age? Or am I responding to an absolute standard that says, "Thou shalt not treat a woman as an object to be won. Neither shalt thou call her a 'lady' "? Neither answer seems fully right. I certainly can't countenance the idea that killing should come so casually, although I don't object so much where the story involves killing a kidnapper. But I also wonder if the story accurately reflects feminine thinking at the time. Did all that knightly, chivalrous bloodshed really impress the women of the Middle Ages? Boccaccio was a man, and he puts this story in the mouth of one of the male characters in the framework tale, so I don't think we can take it at face value.

Aside from these posers, this story ended up one of my favorites from the fifth day mostly because of the development of the character of Cimone. He first dresses in an uncouth manner and talks like an idiot, shaming his father, until one day when he sees the beautiful, nubile Efigenia sleeping under a tree. Unlike so many characters in the first forty stories of the Decameron, Cimone does not attack Efigenia or begin to lust for her body. Instead he is transformed by the glimpse of Heaven he sees in her beautiful appearance. When she proves uncomfortable with him, he decides to leave town and go learn how to act like a gentleman. He starts to dress in a refined manner and to speak correctly, and then returns four years later to impress Efigenia (who if possible has grown only more lovely) not with homicide, but with civilization.

The second story involves a prisoner who, hearing that an enemy army is about to attack his captor, offers that captor some brilliant advice that wins him the battle. Just restring your archers' bows, he says, with fine cord, and refit your arrows with narrow notches. After each army fires off all its ammunition and the archers scramble to pick up arrows from the ground, you will be able to fire back your enemy's arrows, but he with his thicker strings will not be able to return the volley. The success of his plan gets the prisoner released, and the news of his involvement reaches the ears of his love, who finds him and marries him. All's well that ends well. Except for the knights who die from arrow wounds.

The third story calls Rome "the rump of the world as once it was its head," a reminder of the weakness that plagued the not-so-eternal city after showdowns with the emperor and the removal of the papal palace to Avignon. In the fourth, Boccaccio offers an unusual metaphor comparing a certain body part with a nightingale and astonishingly carries that metaphor through to the very end. And since I have more to say about the other six stories, I'll add "Part One" to the title of this post and comment more another day.

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