Analysis of Feminism in The Decameron Completed by University of Outline 1. Introduction 2. Feminists’ ways in Decameron 3. Degree of women’s Freedom in Decameron 4. Gender relations in Decameron 5. Conclusion 6. Works Cited This paper, by defining and analyzing various characters, themes, and tendencies in the Decameron by Boccacio, argues that the author propagates and supports the issue of feminism in this work. The first question about a book concerns its form, and the Decameron is, in form, an unusually systematic collection of novellas. A good deal of realistic literature had developed in the Middle Ages within the framework of the short story, from the Latin forms, to the French contes and fabliaux and the Italian novella. Of the literature that lies at the formal origin of the Decameron one must distinguish two types: firstly, the parable or tale with a moral, closest to the clerical setting. Secondly, the fabliau, pure entertainment without serious afterthought. A number of items of the first type derived from the Orient, a few from classical literature. What Boccaccio did to all this production was to treat the first type in the spirit of the second, and invest the second with the symbolic value of the first. In addition, the idea of a systematic collection produced with him for the first time a truly homogeneous and balanced ensemble. At the outset, this imaginative representation of everyday experiences, in a spirit of close, keen observation of human nature, had explicitly shown a inspiring purpose, quite similar to the moralistic views of the Indian narrative The author illustrates that the medieval consciousness constantly swings between two opposed yet complementary views of womanhood: the religious-monastic (woman is sin, crime, error, folly, wickedness) and the courtly (woman is the representation of all the best in life and the world). The one is the result of a realistic approach, the other of an idealistic one, but they are in actuality both abstractions, or, to put it differently, the realism of the former view is the way of looking at reality of one who searches for an ideal perfection conflicting with any given reality.
At the same time idealism of the latter view is the matter of a good that one recognizes in reality but projects upon a screen of perfection without which that limited good would not seem satisfactory. Boccacio shows feministic tendencies by giving women the central role in his stories and by empowering them more than man. In other words, there is nothing novel about making females the central theme of the novel. What is striking is the fact that the author depicts women as controlling the situation and as making their life and sexual choices based on their own perception but not influenced the male’s way of thinking. Boccaccio's feminism is, in its coherence, something different and new. He takes reality and woman as they are, in all their nature. His women characters are both, and even simultaneously, interested and disinterested, loving in order to give and loving in order to take, safe and dangerous, self-centered and generous, in brief 'good' and 'bad.' They are real according to nature, not to a artificial way of man-made, mentally construed and idolized perfection. From them can come happiness, as for Federigo, or extreme suffering, as for the scholar, for they can behave, according to the situation, like Monna Giovanna or like the widow respectively. They are not all of one mold, and the same woman may vary according to circumstances. The absolutism of the Middle Ages, both in the positive and in the negative direction, is gone. Man is finally able to face the play of natural instincts and take them for what they are. The two viewpoints could be occasionally found side by side in medieval literature: Jean de Meung's noted antifeminism at the same time that he was completing a poem on courtly procedure where the pursuit of the beloved lady was the way of all happiness.
But in Jean the two attitudes are essentially juxtaposed. In the Decameron this juxtaposition gives way to harmonious mixture. To be sure, we must not forget that the Decameron represents a unique moment of balance in Boccaccio's career, standing as it does at an ideal middle-point between the early attempts to follow the lead of the stilnovisti and the outburst of rampant misogyny in the Corbaccio. Bocaccio makes constant references to the real feelings expressed by women that are based on their own choices and are not influenced by male’s dominance. For instance, the author shows that love is a delightful and playful experience, but not in the sense that it is mere play, nor is it to be taken lightly. The fact that love in Boccaccio so often ends in a serious manner, in tragedy or in the permanent tie of marriage, deserves meditation. The scene of the Decameron is not a natural environment for playboys. On the other hand, and not only in the Decameron, Boccaccio showed the powerful realism of his psychology of love by justifying our need for change as part of our nature. In Filostrato, VIII, st. 30, we had read that “A young woman is changeable, and desires many lovers”. And this whole work was, indeed, a realistic study in the delusion of faithfulness and the need for sentimental change. In Teseida, XII, we had witnessed the easy oblivion of the dead hero by his fiancee Emilia, and her rather casual settling for a new, festive wedding with Palemon. This apparently excessive capacity of adjustment to the circumstances of life was, more deeply, a lesson in the sympathetic understanding of what had traditionally been disposed of as chronic, criminal immorality. But once all this has been given its due consideration, one must further acknowledge that, although women are described as reckless characters more frequently than men, even among women uncertainty of character is rather the exception.
Such is VII, 6, where Madonna Isabella is about to be caught by her husband with two men in the house. The desire for change may often be in the background, but comes to the foreground only occasionally. The extraordinary pains the lovers frequently have to endure in the pursuit of their goals are not mere exercises in virtuosity; they are the real proof of the dead seriousness of the business they are in. There is a heroic tone to this comedy of love, that seems to purify even the boldest adventures, if the protagonists are willing to risk so much, and do not hesitate to put up with anything. Love is no business for the timid: it is for the likes of Madonna Filippa, endowed with a great soul, as those who are truly in love usually are. This position of the author is all the more interesting in a genre traditionally dedicated to light-hearted skepticism and indulgence, in contrast to the ideals of absolute, everlasting, and unique passions dear to higher literary forms. In the Decameron, the endless betrayals of husbands are not, in the last analysis, changes of heart and mind, but rather the actual rejection of a conventional bond that has never meant anything deep for the heart and the senses. We have shown how Boccaccio's intuition of nature evolves out of the world of courtly love, not juxtaposed to it. Boccaccio sides, with unconditional sympathy, with all manifestations of the senses against conventional morality (VI, 7), with adulterers and sinning nuns and monks, and condemns only when hypocrisy attempts to hide nature ( VII, 3; VIII, 4; IV, 2), or when perversion contaminates the free choice guided by nature ( VIII, 1), or finally when men attempt to prohibit women from having their own judgements( V, 10, and the attacks in the Epilogue). We may now feel ready to conclude that almost every feature of the Decameron’s ethics of free love is connected with his desire to present feministic views in his work.
The praise of adultery and the consequent scorn for marriage are constantly referred to in the novel in order to illustrate that the greatest happiness is in being able to make a free choice. Besides particular non-courtly elements, the general atmosphere, the spirit itself of the Decameron cannot be thought to have come from the courtly tradition. The feminine type that sweeps triumphantly through the work is extremely remote from the midons (my lord) who had polarized the feudally conditioned idealism of Provencal society. Above all, Boccaccio originally presents all attitudes, old or new, as willed and imposed by nature, far from the stylized and conventional ideology of the medieval world. Furthermore, he exceeds the stiffness of the courtly heresy in its most consistent expression, as he significantly seems to forget a relevant consequence of church doctrine. The granting of favors by the lady was necessary and valuable inasmuch as it increased the lover's feeling of freedom, as a free reward for his true merits. Hence true love could not be found in marriage, where favors are to be reciprocally returned as a duty. In such an unusual manner, on the contrary, marriage does end many of Boccaccio's love stories, because marriage by free choice and mutual consent is, for him, the logical crowning of love, whereas it is to be contempted as love's enemy when it comes about by social imposition. Wherever they conform with the natural order, Boccaccio is ready to accept social institutions. Finally, Boccacio uses examples of immorality to show readers that even though improper behavior expressed by females (and males alike) can’t be justified, these deeds are based on the notion of free choice and, thus, constitute the greatest freedom one can ever imagine.