Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron Review
In The Decameron, Boccaccio plays around with different levels of human virtue as he puts characters into some very strange and creative scenarios. In Day 8 Story 7 we see the Widow make a complete fool out of the Scholar. In the end he conducts a very extensive act of revenge upon her. In class I posed the question: How did the act of getting revenge affect the scholar and what was Boccaccio trying to depict about vengeance through this story? Many different views on vengeance were voiced. Some people believed that the Scholar’s act of retribution was uncalled for and too extreme. Others felt that that couldn’t stand because while it is unfortunate, it’s a natural reaction to want revenge. Some believed that Boccaccio was trying to portray that vengeance never ends well for anyone and should be avoided. The greatest point I saw Boccaccio making is that in the moment a person can easily be taken over by a desire for revenge and lose all sense of what is right or wrong. While vengeance may be relieving for a person they lose their sense of reality and there can be lasting effects on lives.
The major inequality in the story of the Widow and the Scholar is the difference between what the Widow did to the Scholar, and what he did in response. The Widow harmed the Scholar emotionally and physically when she locked him out of her house, leading him to believe that he was going to get the chance to spend time with her. Instead he spent the entire night outside in the freezing cold snow while she was inside with her lover making fun of him. He suffered damage from being in the cold all night, and great emotional distress. It is very easy to understand why the Scholar would be angry and want revenge. But what he did went above and beyond what he personally suffered.
Under the pretenses of helping the Widow with a spell to win back her ex-lover, the Scholar convinces her to immerse herself naked in water, and then climb up to the top of tower and deliver a spell, while he snuck up and removed the ladder. The Widow ends up having to spend all night, naked and freezing, and then remains outside the following day in the blistering sunlight. Whereas the Scholar was outside for one night, the Widow faced the elements naked and for much longer. She endured not only the cold as the Scholar did, but also blistering heat. Boccaccio even focuses on her recovery a lot more, emphasizing the Widow’s bug-infested blisters and how extensive they were, only allowing a brief paragraph to discuss how the Scholar needed to recover. All of these details were included by Boccaccio to purposely highlight the extreme that the Scholar went to in comparison to what the Widow did to him.
Throughout the Scholar’s scheme, the thought enters his mind a few times that maybe he should give up and have mercy on the poor woman. In one situation where the Scholar begins getting in touch with his humanity, Boccaccio writes, “but when he remember who he was, the injury he had received, and at whose hands, his wrath was rekindled,” (Boccaccio, 641). The anger he had about what the Widow had done only grew after he began his revenge, and there was no way he could pull himself out of it. He feels pleasure and sorrow as he listens to the Widow cry. Sorrow, because he still has a sense of morality within himself. But the pleasure he felt was stronger, because he was finally getting the revenge he had longed and planned for (Boccaccio, 643). Even thinking about the fact that one day the Widow would recover from this escapade inspired more anger within the Scholar. At one point he sees her completely naked in the moonlight, and feels his sexual attraction rising again, but even that can not break through his anger. He is so encaptured with anger and hatred that the only direction he sees is to continue going further with the cruelty. His rage really comes through when he meets the Widow’s maid, and can’t contain himself. He says, “I just wish … that I’d had you up there where I put her so that I could have punished you for your sins the way I’ve punished her for hers! But you can bet you’re not going to escape my clutches until I’ve made you pay such a price,” (Boccaccio, 652).
A question was raised in class concerning why the Scholar didn’t just take the opportunity he had created and rape the Widow. However, it is obvious by the fact that the Scholar went to such extensive lengths with his revenge that he wasn’t looking to simply gain something from the Widow. He wanted retribution but he also wanted to punish her. Raping her would have been revenge with his body. His extensive scheme took more focus, and thought. This is similar to Dante’s Inferno where the most punished crimes are those which required brain power and planning as compared to crimes of passion. By strategizing the Widow’s punishment, the Scholar is executing a more intense punishment.
In the end, after the revenge has been completed, the Scholar is able to move on and he hardly thinks about the Widow anymore. But because he went so over the top with his revenge, the Widow will never be the same. Not only was she physically punished with pain, but her beauty, which was something she found her identity in, was taken from her. This was the Scholar’s plan all along, as he stated, “While I practically lost my life as well as the use of my limbs, you will merely be flayed by this heat, and will wind up no less beautiful than a serpent who has shed her old skin,” (Boccaccio, 651). That mixed with the fact that she spent hours on end naked and humiliated, she has been deprived of her honor. Her confidence is taken and she is never able to fall in love again.
Boccaccio set Day 8 Story 7 up to show that revenge takes over a person and causes them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Not only did the Scholar right his wrong, he went above and beyond to punish the Widow and ruin her life, even though he had been able to recover. The hatred that was inside him would not allow him to stop. Even though The Decameron was written centuries ago, I see the kind of hatred that the Scholar encaptured all around me in the world today. Perhaps by digging more into The Decameron and really examining Boccaccio’s ideals of Compassion and Gratitude, we would find a way to implement those is today’s society.
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