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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

Contemporary Florence, during the terrible Black Plague, is the setting chosen by Boccaccio for The Decameron, which historians generally agree was written between 1349 and 1351. A desire to escape the horrors of the city prompts a group of ten young people (seven women and three men) to retreat to a country villa. There, they amuse themselves by telling each other stories.

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The structure of The Decameron begins with a frame. The author addresses his readers, whom he presumes to be women, in his prologue, declaring his intent. He offers The Decameron as a pleasant distraction to those tormented lovers whose woes are more difficult to endure. He then apologizes to the “charming ladies” for the book’s unpleasant but necessary beginning. A graphic description in realistic detail of the devastation of the plague in the city of Florence follows. The device of the frame was used by Boccaccio in earlier works, but on a smaller scale, as in Labor of Love. The frame in The Decameron provides a specific location and date to the story, while offering a realistic and reasonable explanation for such a collection of unchaperoned young people in a remote place. It further serves to unify what would otherwise be a loose collection of seemingly unrelated tales. The frame characters are the ten narrators, each endowed with intelligence, breeding, charm, and some distinguishing feature. Once settled in their country villa, it is proposed that each of the ten preside as queen or king for one day, choose a topic for that particular day, and invite everyone to recount an appropriate tale: thus, the significance of ten by ten, or one hundred stories, which explains the title and also satisfies medieval numerology.

The first day is ruled by Pampinea, the oldest, who assumes throughout the book a somewhat mature, motherly stance. There is no appointed topic of the day, but many of the stories told represent the tenor of the book as a whole. The tale of the debauched and irreverent Ciappelletto, who confesses falsely on his deathbed with such seemingly deep contrition to sins so minor as to render him a saint in the perception of those around him, is one of the most famous stories in The Decameron. Vice and virtue intertwine in the work as in life, and Boccaccio chooses to begin with a symbol of ultimate evil.

Filomena rules the second day, and her theme is those who overcome adverse fortune to their advantage. Representative is the story of Andreuccio, a simple-minded horse trader from Perugia, whose misfortunes in the city of Naples teach him to sharpen his wits—an apt lesson for any merchant.

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The third day, under the reign of Neifile, is dominated by stories of lust, although the proposed theme is the successes of people who seek to achieve through their own efforts. The use of ingenuity and guile to achieve seduction is common to most of the stories of the day, and members of the clergy are not spared as protagonists in this collection of characters.

The theme of the fourth day, ruled by Filostrata, is in striking contrast to its predecessor. The theme of unhappy loves is designated, and the stories that follow are, for the most part, of a pathetic, if not tragic, nature. One example is the story of Ghismonda, who eloquently defends her love of a man of low breeding to her disapproving father by stating that his is the only true nobility, one of character. Ghismonda ultimately kills herself after her father has the lover’s heart cut out and sent to her in a goblet.

The fifth day is ruled by Fiammetta, who calls for stories of lovers whose trials have ended happily. The most moving story is that told by Fiammetta herself: the tale of Ser Federigo and his beloved falcon, which he ultimately sacrifices to please his lady. The focus in this episode is utmost chivalry, a reminder of the traditions dominating contemporary literature, and perhaps a personal comment on nobler times.

The theme for the sixth day, announced by Elissa, is the use of clever retort as a means of avoiding danger or embarrassment. The witty Filippa, who avoids the death penalty for adultery by eliciting an admission from her husband that he was never denied her charms and by exclaiming that she should not be punished for donating her leftovers to others, is exemplary.

The seventh, eighth, and ninth days, ruled by Dioneo, Lauretta, and Emilia, are devoted to tricksters: women who try to fool their husbands or men who play tricks on others. Human astuteness is praised, even if the emphasis seems to be on the comic. Many of the tales concern the Bruno-Buffalmaco pranksters, who never tire of victimizing their simple-minded companion, Calandrino, who is even duped at one point into thinking that he is pregnant.

The stories of the tenth day, according to Panfilo, are to be of those who acted liberally or magnanimously, in love or other matters. The theme on the tenth day is to treat only those actions motivated by generosity or lofty ideas. The last story is that of Griselda, who appears as a symbol of womanly virtue, of humility and goodness, and who thereby offers a poignant contrast to the very first tale and the figure of Ser Ciappelletto.

Viewing The Decameron as a whole, it is not surprising that critics have referred to it as “The Human Comedy” while comparing it to Dante’s masterpiece. Human nature is examined and reexamined throughout, from the tragic to the comic, from noble to base, but always with a tolerance that is the force behind the comic spirit that only Boccaccio could create.

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