Epidemic escapism in Boccacio’s ‘Decameron’

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I’ve been meaning to get back into reading for a while, but college has instilled in me an over-reliance on external structure to support any and all activities I engage in. So I decided to find myself a reading list. Over the second half of 2020, I will be attempting to read one book a week from a list the Strategist curated by asking upcoming authors to recommend a book they have turned to for solace during the present pandemic.

The first book I picked up off this list was chosen solely due to its availability (free of cost) on the Kindle store: John Payne’s translation of Giovanni Boccacio’s “The Decameron.” This work of Italian fiction, first published in the mid-14th century, is set near Florence at the time of the Black Death. It revolves around a party of seven women and three men that run away to a castle in the countryside to flee a city full of disease and despair. 

Reading “The Decameron” in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a beautifully unsettling experience. Boccacio’s world simultaneously feels familiar and strange, and has many a time forced me to reflect upon the way I think about the present pandemic.

Despite taking place in a time and place different from the one I live in, Boccacio’s premise feels close to home as I text my New Delhi friends about the possibility of escaping to the soft, sandy beaches of Goa later this summer once our internships are over because that’s one of few places where the case count remains low. 

That Boccacio’s party of ten, which he refers to as the ‘brigata,’ chooses to spend their days telling one another stories doesn’t seem odd either when I think of the various modern versions of storytelling — Netflix shows, podcasts and creative nonfiction essays, to name a few — that I have turned to in the last three months. 

A large part of the book is spent within the 100 stories that members of the brigata tell each other during their fifteen-day retreat. Most days have a set theme that guides the discourse for the day, and one sees inevitable parallels between the subject matter they choose and recurring themes in the Zoom ‘check-in’ calls I hold with my friends today. Even 700 years later, humans thrive off of conversations that call out authoritative institutions, contemplating morality and, unsurprisingly, sex. I see reflections of the brigata’s critique of the hypocrisy of the Church in present-day political discourse as well as of their countless stories of lovers and mistresses in the significant spike in viewership at nearly every erotic film website since the beginning of the lockdown.

While the frequent parallels I drew made me feel at home within this book, at some points the differences in societal structures and value systems between then and now made the world of “The Decameron” feel distant too. This distance was particularly felt in the way the book portrays the place of women in society. 

As detailed in an article from the John Hopkins University Press, at the time this book was written, men were generally advised not to let women around them learn to read unless they were to become nuns. Boccacio actively challenges this limitation of female literacy with matters of immediate utility by explicitly stating that he intends for this book to serve as a source of entertainment for female readers. The same article views this act on Boccaccio’s part as ‘empowering.’ On the other hand, Boccaccio’s male characters frequently treat their wives and daughters as commodities. His work seems to exist at crossroads when read through a post-feminist lens. 

Another manifestation of this is the way “The Decameron” treats female sexual pleasure. On the one hand, we see stories that celebrate women who actively seek out sexual relations with the men to which they are drawn. Female sexual desire is not only acknowledged but often portrayed as greater in strength than that of males, according to this article. The article goes on to say that through a discussion of sexual desire, Boccaccio reveals a masked power women have that men don’t. This analysis might suggest that “The Decameron” portrays the sexual liberation of women. This conclusion, however, doesn’t track when one considers the host of stories that disregard female consent during sexual activity. 

I like to think of the past as ‘backwards,’ the present as ‘forward-looking’ and progress as linear. 

The way in which “The Decameron” jumps around between stories that display varying levels of progressiveness frequently unsettled me. I looked to academic critique but found that even in that world there exists disagreement on this subject. An honors thesis from the University of Connecticut notes that arguments can be made for Boccaccio being both a revolutionary feminist and a traditional thinker belonging to a misogynistic society.

The same thesis also notes that Boccaccio’s intentions behind this book were not the creation of a feminist text nor the enactment of social change. He explicitly outlines the objective of his writing in the preface to this book, saying (as per John Payne’s translation):

“I purpose, for the succour and solace of ladies in love […] to recount an hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you like to style them, in ten days’ time related by an honorable company of seven ladies and three young men made in the days of the late deadly pestilence, together with sundry canzonets sung by the aforesaid ladies for their diversion. In these stories will be found love-chances, both gladsome and grievous, and other accidents of fortune befallen as well in times present as in days of old, whereof the ladies aforesaid, who shall read them, may at once take solace from the delectable things therein shown forth.”

This statement suggests that Boccaccio primarily aims to entertain. It also acknowledges that the main aim of this book is to act as a collection of short stories and that the party of ten that relates these stories serves only as a contrived setting within which the 100 stories can be told.

While Boccaccio meets the aim he sets out for himself, I find myself resisting the way in which he actively undermines the world he barely builds in his outside story. There are hints of romantic interests and relations amongst the group of storytellers, but these plot lines are never developed. 

This cannot be viewed as a shortcoming of his storytelling, as Boccaccio explicitly states that this is intentional. However, it feels odd to me as a 21st century literature enthusiast. Perhaps this is because of the kind of nested fiction to which high school accustomed me. I remember my 9th grade English teacher explicitly defining a ‘nested narrative’ as a set-up where an inner story serves to reveal some truth in an outer story through implicit or explicit parallels. Most stories I have read support this definition and actively lean into the fact that narration takes place on two levels to develop characters or significant themes. 

I find myself waiting for this in “The Decameron.” I want Boccaccio to reveal that this one guy whose stories always seem to revolve around unrequited love actually has a one-sided crush on one of the women in the brigata or that this story that just heavily condemned adultery was told by someone who’s cheating on their partner. I crave this kind of scandal, but unfortunately Boccaccio is long-dead and we may never know what secrets the members of the brigata carried. 

This lack of mirroring between outer and inner narratives aside, “The Decameron” is a gripping book for anyone that is willing to go through the ordeal of deciphering old English. The language, at least in the translation I read, contains many words that have long since fallen out of use and sentence structures that feel unnecessarily convoluted. A careful reading requires patience. 

There are, however, many ways to skim through the book but still get much out of it. A positive side-effect of the lack of any plot or character development whatsoever among the members of the brigata is that one can start reading from any part of the book without worry for spoilers. Each short story is self-contained and prefaced with a one-line summary of its contents. These summaries provide an easy way for the reader to decide which tales they’d like to skip over and which ones feel spicy enough to dive into. 

I personally made the decision of reading the entire book cover-to-cover, in part because it gave me the authority required to review the book and in part because I’d feel like I was cheating on my book-a-week challenge if I didn’t. Also worth noting is the fact that I tend to unhealthily romanticize difficult endeavors and think of them as somehow inherently worthy. Cognitive distortions aside, getting through this long, dense and frequently tiring text did, if nothing else, convince me that there is no book I cannot finish reading within a week as long as I am determined, focused and willing to sacrifice copious amounts of sleep.

Contact Smiti Mittal at smiti06 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Smiti Mittal, originally from New Delhi, India, contributes to News, Satire, and Podcasts. Contact her at smiti06 'at' stanford.edu.