Love Does Not Define Social Class In The Decameron
In every household, there are many unspoken rules and norms which members structure their behavior around. According to the Marxian Class Theory, the development of these norms, ideological consciousness, are dependent on the social class of the members in a given household. This theory was developed by Karl Marx, who also believed that classes are defined by relations concerning labour, possession of property, and means of income. The combination of these facets implies that an individual’s social class is predetermined. They also show how an individual’s actions are predetermined due to their social class. Typical behavior to the ordinary working-class is found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with characters living within the constraints of their social status. This essay will analyze the treatment of the characters of The Decameron based on their social class, to which Boccaccio rejects many components of the Marxian Class Theory. Since the methodology and actions of the characters do not match those of their social class, Boccaccio utilizes the constraints of one’s social class to not only foster kinship between two of the characters within a story, but also to show that a wealth and power do not define a character’s morals or intelligence. Boccaccio commonly uses a trope of which one character becomes enamored with someone from a different social status. The pair is willing to risk their lives and social status in order to be together.
Many characters in The Decameron were depicted as having acted outside Liu 2 the norms of their class status in order to get their “happy ending.” Day three, story five of the novel gives the story of a poor man named Ricciardo, also referred to as Zima. His aim is to win the love of a married woman of higher social class. Zima’s ability to adopt noble language and customs aided him in his success to win her love. Although he was poor, Zima was able to attract attention to himself by eloquently conveying his feelings to the woman he loved: I shall love you to all eternity. Wherefore you may rest assured that you have nothing, be it much or little worth, that you may hold so wholly yours and whereon you may in every wise so surely reckon as myself, such as I am, and that likewise which is mine… Since, then, I am yours, even as you have heard, it is not without reason that I dare to offer up my prayers to your nobility, wherefrom alone can all peace, all health and well-being derive for me, and no other whence; yea, as the humblest of your servants, I beseech you, dear my good and only hope of my soul. (Boccaccio 265) By doing so, Boccaccio demonstrates that the innate urges of attraction and lust transcend the confines of predetermined social restrictions. His diction—such as referring to himself as a servant—clearly displays the discrepancy in class between his and the noble woman’s. Zima’s confession also proves the point that he does not care about the restrictions and boundaries social classes set. Whether the woman had “much or little worth” (Boccaccio 265), Zima would still give her his love.
Boccaccio utilizes confessions like Zima’s to shed light on social constructs that are innately limiting to the human experience. It is a significant example of the manner in which Boccaccio is able to showcase the “lovers” of simpleton versus bourgeois ideals. In his paper, “The Class Structure of Gender and Delinquency,” author John Haga describes the “proletariat” class, or working class, which helps Liu 3 define Zima’s status in society. Knowing that the lady is of high social class, Zima must find creative ways in order to entice the lady into focusing her attention onto him. According to Hagan, someone from the working or “proletariat” class will more commonly act out of their social norms in order to entice the subject of their affections, due to many social experiences faced by an individual. Compared to a married man, who is part of the bourgeois class, Zima had to prove to the noble lady that his intellect and commitment far surpassed that of his adversaries. His actions were countercultural to the norm of the setting, as many within his position would have accepted rejection before even attempting to appeal to an individual of a different socio-economic status on the bases incompatibility and general faux-pas. This is an act of defiance as Zima is breaking from his “class interest”: unified awareness of the extent of actions allowed in the social class (Cleaver). When Boccaccio’s bourgeois characters are depicted in a favorable manner, they are typically unable to leverage their financial status to gain favor with the subject of their affection, despite the success of their proletariat counterparts (Insana).
By comparing the plot of this story to Marxist beliefs, one can note that characters of lower social standing, although “stuck” to where they are placed, must showcase more of their talents and skills in order to be recognized and break off from their class interests. Financial wealth is a major determinant of social class, but within a class, gender dynamics often govern social roles due to gender norms. During the medieval times, many women held little to no power. In The Decameron, most women held a lower social standing than men. Men were allowed to work and own any property, while “women were not allowed to have a significant role in society, other than that of a wife and mother,” author Sujay Kulshrestha mentions in her paper: “Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron’ and the Roles of Men and Liu 4 Women.” Though they may not hold a significant social status, the women in these stories hold greater power within gendered relationships between man and woman (Kulshrestha). In The Decameron, the female characters are portrayed as smarter and wittier than the men, such as the story of Monna Sismonda, from day seven, story eight. In this narrative, the main female lead, Monna Sismonda, outwits her husband and his scheme divulge her affair by primitively assigning her servant to pose as her in bed, which leads to her brother’s distrust the validity of her husband’s claims (Boccaccio 528-535). As a female, Sismonda was defined to be a mother and a caregiver. Women were not seen as smart or cunning, so having Monna Sismonda being able to trick the men of her life, Boccaccio is able to emphasize that class standards cannot truly confine the individual. On a similar note, Boccaccio also uses Monna Sismond’s story to display the ingenuity and craftiness of women.
Monna Sismond’s smarts allowed her to avoid being caught having an affair and to steer clear of any trouble thereafter (Boccaccio 528). In turn, they were required to build resiliency and cunning in order to look out for their own best interests. Using their assets, such as their intelligence and sexual prowess, they entice men in order to get what they need or want. Monna Sismond was able to use her beauty and charm to deceive not only her husband, but also her brothers that were incapable of committing acts of adultery, which in turn, allowed her to gain control of the situation, putting herself at or slightly above the status of the other male characters during that time. Though confined to her social class, Monna Sismonda breaks her barriers and acts out of her class interest to get what she desires: love. Boccaccio emphasizes the point that actions could be done out of class interest in order to achieve what one desires most. Though class constructs were very firm in Marx’s definition of social class, many characters decide to act out by outsmarting or tantalizing other characters in order to get what they want – typically for love. The story of Madonna Agnesa and Brother Rinaldo from day seven, story three is another example Boccaccio wrote. Rinaldo, a priest, aims to charm his neighbor’s wife through a convoluted plan of befriending several other characters in order to finally meet her (Boccaccio 561-562). The audience is led to believe that Madonna is not only oblivious to Rinaldo’s machinations, but also unwittingly playing into them as well.
She reveals her cunning expertise when she explained to the friar and her husband; as she predicted and outmaneuvered him in his own ploy. As such, Boccaccio’s tales—proven by Madonna and Monna Sismonda’s stories—depict the amount of wit and intelligence that women have over the men of the book. Marxian Class Theory, as mentioned earlier, explains how the class is predetermined by the amount of property and ownership one has. Many of the characters in The Decameron were categorized by their class, so many of the protagonist plot schemes in order to achieve their happiness. Being stuck in either the “bourgeois” class or “proletariat” class, many characters must act out of their class interest in order to get what they desire—typically love and passion. Boccaccio truly shows that attraction and lust are not confined to one’s social class. The Marxian classes only contain society into two groups, leaving little to no room to move up in class. Many characters attempt to break from the standard they are restricted in, in order to fully get what they desire. Some may use their sexual prowess or their intellect to break through their class interest. The presence of Marx’s social hierarchy plays a large role in the behavior of characters in The Decameron. Whether it is through intelligence or cunning, the protagonists in each story manage to escape the thresholds of their social class, breaking multiple barriers.
Alternatively, Boccaccio depicts women as enduring; they are able to withstand the adversity placed upon them due to social status and gender norms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story told on Day 10, tale 10 regarding Gaultieri and Griselda. It is apparent from the start that Gaultieri intends to marry Griselda not for her character, but for placating the critics, and stating explicitly that her lower social status would work to his own advantage, as it would spite said individuals (Boccaccio 814). It is evident that Gaultieri uses his bourgeoisie status to manipulate Griselda to comply with his demands. In this situation, it is in Griselda’s best interest to play the role of a wife and mother, as Gaultieri plots to test her loyalty and patience “by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable”(Boccaccio 817). In the numerous trials that Gaultieri subjects his wife to, she displays great patience to the point in which it becomes irrefutable to Guarneri and the audience to Griselda’s character and her resilience. Griselda had no power to change the situation she was in, there for it was in her best interest to try to endure the struggles and come out stronger from it. This increased tolerance for adversity may stem from a basic lack of options: if women are facing some sort of hardship, they have no power or status to try to eliminate their problems. As a result, Boccacci utilizes Griselda’s characterization to portray the gendered differences and expectations that galvinate women to become more resilient.
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