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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of King Francis I of France, played an important role in the intellectual and spiritual life of France during the first half of the sixteenth century. She and her brother were Catholic, but she was much more tolerant of Protestants than was her brother. She befriended and protected such eminent French Protestant writers as Jean Calvin and Clément Marot. Although Marguerite wrote numerous excellent poems on religious and philosophical topics, she has remained famous for her creative series of short stories that Claude Gruget called The Heptameron when he prepared her manuscript for publication in 1559, ten years after her death.

Italian culture was influential in France in the sixteenth century, and eminent Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, came to France and enriched the country’s cultural life. Many French intellectuals, including Marguerite herself, read Italian; the works of such important fourteenth century Italian writers as poet Francesco Petrarch and prose writer Giovanni Boccaccio were admired and frequently imitated by sixteenth century French writers.

Love was the principal theme in Petrarch’s refined sonnets written for his beloved Laura and in Boccaccio’s collection of one hundred short stories, Decameron (1349-1351; English translation, 1620), but Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote about love from different perspectives. Petrarch described love in an idealistic manner, and his love for Laura was based on true mutual respect and admiration. The tales in The Decameron often describe much less sympathetic characters, and love frequently is depicted in a violent and rather degrading manner. Boccaccio wrote a treatise on the dignity of women, and the moral commentaries that follow each tale in The Decameron make it clear that he did not approve of the mistreatment of women by men. Although these tales are told from many different fictional perspectives, it is Boccaccio himself who proposes the moral lesson for each tale, and his attitude toward the various characters is quite clear to his readers.

Marguerite chose to imitate Boccaccio’s masterpiece in a creative manner. The fictional framework of The Heptameron is deceptively simple. Ten well-educated French characters, five men and five women, are visiting an elegant spa at Cauterets in the Pyrenees, when flooding caused by heavy rains blocks the roads and forces them to stay in the mountain village. Once they realize that it will be impossible to leave Cauterets until the roads become passable, the travelers decide to pass the time by taking turns telling stories to one another for as many days as they are forced to stay in Cauterets. In her prologue to The Heptameron, Marguerite explains that her imitation of Boccaccio will not be servile, because her characters promise to tell stories about actual events, not fictional events, as Boccaccio did so masterfully in The Decameron. Although numerous references in The Heptameron are made to actual people, including Marguerite and her brother King Francis I, it has never been determined with certainty the degree to which her tales are historically correct. Most critics prefer to treat her tales as fictional stories in which historical characters are mentioned.

A more significant difference between The Heptameron and The Decameron is that in The Heptameron , Marguerite has her listeners comment on the tales that they have just heard. Thus, several different interpretations are proposed for each tale. The narrator presents a specific perspective for the events in each short story, but at the end of each tale, the listeners intervene and propose differing reactions to the same characters. Frequently, the comments of the listeners are longer than the tale itself, and the reader is in the intellectually stimulating position of either choosing from several proposed meanings for a specific tale or rejecting all these interpretations and selecting one more in keeping with his or her own moral and ethical...

(The entire section is 1,879 words.)