The Decameron

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title, Greek for “ten days,” refers to the time the fictional characters (three men and seven women) spend in telling tales to one another in the peaceful Tuscan countryside away from the plague-infested city of Florence. In the introduction Boccaccio, a firsthand witness to the Black Death, graphically describes the agonizing end that the bubonic plague inflicts on its victims and the ensuing social chaos that results from the death of so many citizens. The narrators’ departure from the city represents a yearning to escape death, and the highly structured ordering of the 100 stories reflects a desire to restore order in a world gone mad.

Although each of the ten days covers a topic (such as “unhappy lovers” or “tricks wives have played on husbands”), two major themes characterize the book as a whole. The first exalts love, especially physical love, and initially appears in the work’s subtitle (“Prince Galahalt”), a reference to the panderer who brought Guinevere and Lancelot together. Boccaccio dedicates his book to women and writes it in the service of love. The second theme emphasizes what man can accomplish by means of his intelligence. Foreshadowing Machiavelli, the author equates virtue not so much with piety as with cunning. The element tying these themes together and unifying the book is the realism with which Boccaccio tells his stories, whether of amorous monks at play or smart bourgeois merchants at work.


(The entire section is 483 words.)