Giovanni Boccaccio Essay - Critical Essays

Giovanni Boccaccio Short Fiction Analysis

Giovanni Boccaccio’s short fiction, one hundred novelle, or tales, is collectively and contemporaneously his longest work of fiction, known as The Decameron. That fact must be kept foremost in mind in any serious analysis of the tales. In other words, Boccaccio’s individual short stories are best understood when examined as part of a much larger work of fiction which has an elaborate cornice, or frame, striking symmetry, and selective and oft-repeated themes.

The word decameron, Greek for “ten days,” refers to the number of days Boccaccio’s fictional characters (three young men and seven young women) dedicate to swapping tales with one another in the tranquil Tuscan countryside away from the plague-infested city of Florence. The work’s subtitle, “Prencipe Galeotto” (Prince Galahalt), refers to the panderer Galahalt, who brought Guinevere and Lancelot together, and emphasizes that Boccaccio’s book— dedicated to women—is written, not unlike many of his early poems, in the service of love. As the narration of the first day begins, three men—Panfilo (“all love”), Filostrato (“overcome by love”), and Dioneo (“the lascivious”), alluding to the love goddess Venus, daughter of Dione—come by chance one Tuesday upon seven women, who are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight, in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The year is 1348, and the Black Death is the macabre background for what happens in the course of the telling of the tales. The seven women—Pampinea (“the vigorous”), Fiammetta (whose name echoes that of Boccaccio’s beloved), Filomena (“lover of song”), Emilia (“the flatterer”), Lauretta (in homage to Petrarch’s beloved Laura), Neifile (“new in love”), and Elissa (another name for Vergil’s tragic heroine Dido)—anxiously wish to remove themselves from the diseased and strife-torn city and repair to the healthful and peaceful countryside. The young men agree to accompany the ladies, and the following day (a Wednesday) the group leaves for a villa in nearby and idyllic Fiesole. Better to enjoy what is essentially a fortnight’s holiday, Pampinea suggests that they tell stories in the late afternoon when it is too hot to play or go on walks. It is decided that one of them will be chosen as king or queen for each day, and he or she will select a theme for the stories to be told on that day. Only Dioneo, who tells the last tale each day, has the liberty of ignoring the general theme if he so desires. They then proceed to tell ten stories per day over a two-week period, refraining from tale-telling on Fridays and Saturdays out of reverence for Christ’s crucifixion and in order to prepare properly for the Sabbath. On a Wednesday, the day following the last day of telling tales and exactly two weeks from the day the group left Florence, they return to their respective homes.

The emphasis on order and propriety, the presentation of the countryside as a locus amoenus, the repetition of the number ten (considered a symbol of perfection in the Middle Ages), and even the total number of tales (one hundred, equal to the number of cantos in Dante’s The Divine Comedy) are all aspects of the work which contrast sharply with the disorder, impropriety, and lack of harmony which characterized Florence during the 1348 plague. The author graphically depicts, in the opening pages of the book, examples of the social chaos caused by the plethora of plague-induced deaths. The pleasant pastime of telling tales in the shade of trees and the skillful ordering of the stories serve, in other words, as an obvious antidote or salutary response to the breakdown of society which resulted from the deadly pestilence which swept Italy and much of Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Further supporting the notion that The Decameron presents an ordered universe as an alternative to the chaos and anarchy created by the plague is Boccaccio’s insistence that his storytellers, though they may occasionally tell ribald tales, are uniformly chaste and proper in their behavior toward one another.


The stories told on each of the ten days which make up The Decameron explore a predetermined subject or theme. On the first day, everyone is free to choose a topic—one is the character “Abraam giudeo”...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)