Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
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.
Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Work. Edited by Dennis J. McAuliffe, translated by Richard Monges and Dennis J. McAuliffe. New York: New York University Press, 1976. Offers critical biography and critical analysis of The Decameron. Details of Boccaccio’s life and culture are chronologically correlated to his body of work; analysis emphasizes literary traditions.
Deligiorgis, Stavros. Narrative Intellection in “The Decameron.” Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1975. Organized by day, treating each successive story in its turn. Provides a comprehensive view of the work’s themes and its narrative framework.
De Sanctis, Francesco. “Boccaccio’s Human Comedy.” In Critical Perspectives on “The Decameron,” edited by Robert S. Dombroski. 1972. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. Analyzes the purpose, tone, and focus of The Decameron. Includes an incidental comparison of Boccaccio’s style and emphasis in The Decameron to Dante’s.
Lee, A. C. “The Decameron”: Its Sources and Analogues. New York: Haskell House, 1966. An annotated list of possible and probable sources for the individual tales told by the characters in The Decameron, plus parallels where the same stories are told by different writers of other ages and cultures. Careful collation and synthesis; a helpful index.
Mazotta, Giuseppe. “The Decameron: The Marginality of Literature.” In Critical Perspectives on “The Decameron,” edited by Robert S. Dombroski. 1972. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. Discusses The Decameron as a vehicle for interpreting history, as well as for using secular literature as a means of coping with mutability and death.