Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1536
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 beliefs.
A third difference between The Decameron and The Heptameron is in their length. Boccaccio’s work includes ten full fictional days of storytelling, with ten tales told on each day. Boccaccio completed his Decameron many years before his death in 1375. Marguerite did not live long enough to complete her story collection as she had originally planned. The title comes from the Greek word “hepta,” meaning seven, because her first editor, Claude Gruget, found only seventy-two complete tales, which he organized into seven full days of storytelling and two tales for the eighth day. Modern scholarship indicates that Marguerite began composing these tales around 1543. Although she lived until 1549, her health during the last six years of her life was quite poor, which explains why she was unable to write one hundred tales for her characters.
Although many different topics are explored in the seventy-two extant tales that form The Heptameron, the most frequently treated theme is that of relationships between men and women and, more specifically, of the opposition between virtuous and immoral men and women. Marguerite was an idealistic Christian who believed firmly both in the reality of God’s love for human beings and in the very real possibility of mutual love between men and women. She understood, however, that many selfish people were unable to recognize that when physical love is not based on mutual respect and free consent, it is nothing more than sexual exploitation, if not rape. Many tales in The Heptameron deal directly with the exploitation of women by men. Among the forms of sexual exploitation denounced by Marguerite’s fictional narrators and commentators are rapes, attempted rapes, incest, adultery committed by clergymen, and the selling of sexual favors.
The first tale illustrates well how both the tale itself and the extended comments of the listeners help readers to arrive at their own moral interpretations. This story is told by Simontault, a married man who holds almost all women, except his wife, in low esteem. His lack of objectivity becomes clear both from the tales he tells and from his remarks on other tales. Readers soon learn to be skeptical of whatever Simontault tells them. Although none of the four characters in the first tale is morally virtuous, Simontault singles out the one woman in this story for especially harsh criticism and is much more lenient in his comments on the three male characters.
In this tale, a prosecutor’s wife is maintaining adulterous relationships with the local bishop, who buys her gifts with money that people contribute to his diocese, and with a rich young man named Du Mesnil. The woman tries to ensure that the three men in her rather complicated life do not discover the truth, but one evening the bishop stays beyond his assigned time and the impatient Du Mesnil sees him leave her house. When he rebukes her for sleeping with a bishop and not with him, she decides to get rid of Du Mesnil lest her husband learn of her double adultery. She tells her husband that Du Mesnil attempted to rape her, and the prosecutor hires someone to murder Du Mesnil. The prosecutor also has one of Du Mesnil’s servants arrested to prevent her from revealing the truth about the murder, which she witnesses. All the prosecutor’s efforts are in vain, and the king orders that the prosecutor and his wife be arrested for murder. They flee to England but foolishly decide to return to France, where they are soon arrested. He is sentenced to life imprisonment as a galley slave; she becomes a prostitute after her release from prison.
It is clear to readers that none of these four characters is morally admirable. The bishop violates his vow of chastity, commits adultery, and steals money from his diocese. Du Mesnil is also an adulterer, who believes that his mistress should sleep only with him. The prosecutor and his wife have no redeeming moral qualities. The narrator does not express moral disapproval of all four characters, however. He states that the bishop, Du Mesnil, and the prosecutor are all victims of an evil woman, whom he compares to Eve. He then claims that all women since Eve have made a determined effort to torment, kill, and damn men. Simontault’s misogyny and paranoia are painfully clear when he claims that unnamed women mistreated him with similar cruelty. Simontault is also rather masochistic, because he adds that he prefers the suffering imposed on him by physically attractive women to idyllic treatment at the hands of less-beautiful women who do not seek to dominate him sexually. Simontault is a psychologically unstable character who suffers from severe delusions.
Parlemente, whom most critics feel expresses the opinions of Marguerite herself, ridicules Simontault by suggesting that because he enjoys being dominated by women, he should not criticize women at all. She then asks a sensible woman named Oisille to tell a tale about a virtuous woman to counterbalance Simontault’s absurd conclusion that all women are like the murderous wife in the first tale.
In just the first few tales from The Heptameron, readers come to distrust both the various narrators and the commentators, and Marguerite helps her readers to arrive at their own moral interpretations of her tales. Throughout The Heptameron, there is an extraordinary thematic diversity. This short-story collection is a marvelously ambiguous work that has intrigued and challenged readers since its publication in 1559.
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