Poetic Justice in Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and References to Dante’s “Inferno”
Poetic Justice, with her lifted scale,
Where in nice balance, truth with gold she weighs,
And solid pudding against empty praise.
In the Seventh Story of the Eighth Day in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the storyteller states “Many of the stories already narrated have caused us to laugh a great deal over tricks that people have played on each other, but in no case have we seen the victim avenging himself”. The poetic justice of Boccaccio’s version of hell lies in the fact that the tortured becomes the torturer and vice-versa. The poetic justice is enhanced by the fact that throughout the story the characters of Rinieri and Elena switch from God-like to Satan-like roles. This essay will also highlight some points in the story which are very similar to ideas in Dante’s Inferno.
Boccaccio immediately sets up a comparison between Elena and Lucifer with his portrayal of her as “dressed (as our widows usually are) in black” and his description of Rinieri’s immediate infatuation with her at precisely the moment when he was “in need of a little diversion” (i.e. idle hands do the devils work). It should also be noted that Rinieri found Elena, like sin, very tempting and intriguing: “[She] seemed to him the loveliest and most fascinating woman he had ever seen.” Rinieri’s perception of Elena as beautiful in the beginning of the story is sharply contrasted by Boccaccio’s image of her charred bloody body later on in the story, when Elena is described to be “the ugliest thing in the world”. This transformation of Elena, from Rinieri’s point of view, from a beautiful goddess to an ugly devil is symbolic of mankind’s tendency to find certain sinful deeds beautiful and tempting at first, and later to be repulsed by the ugliness of the same actions. Boccaccio further shows the error in Rinieri’s lust after Elena by writing that Rinieri thought that if he could hold Elena “naked in his arms” he would truly be able to claim “he was in Paradise”, when actually his pursuit of this devilish woman leads him to a hellish night. The comparison of Elena to the devil continues when Boccaccio describes her as not “keeping her eyes fixed upon the ground…[she] swiftly singled out those men who were showing an interest in her.” This passage calls to the readers mind the image of the devil in hell looking upward to the earth, constantly looking for prospective sinners.
In contrast, Rinieri is portrayed as an honest, somewhat faithful figure at the beginning of the story. Boccaccio’s use of Christmastide as the time of Rinieri’s hellful night and his reference of the scholar as “the happiest man in Christendom” are subtle clues that the scholar is an innocent, almost God-like figure whom is about to be tricked by the antichrist, or Lucifer. But Boccaccio lets the reader know that God (as represented by the scholar) will certainly prevail in the end when he writes in reference to Elena “Ah, what a poor, misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!” This passage also implies that God favors the intelligent, and that evil is inherent in the ignorant, as represented by the unintelligent, devilish Elena.
On the other hand, it is possible to think of Elena as the God-like figure at the beginning of the story; her lover addresses her in a very Augustine-like fashion as “the true source of my well-being, my repose and my delight, and the haven of all my desires”. When she observes her lover dancing in a ridiculous fashion to ward off the cold Elena remarks “Don’t you think it clever of me to make men dance without the aid of trumpets or bagpipes?” This is similar to the way in which God punishes the sinners in Dante’s Inferno; they are freezing to death, and they are suffering in hell without the use of fire. Elena also questions her lover in this style that Dante questions the sinners in hell while her companion (in Dante’s case, Virgil) keeps watch: “You keep quiet while I talk to him, and we’ll hear what he has to say. Perhaps it will be just as funny as it is to stand here and watch him.”
The scholar’s punishment for his lust for Elena is poetic justice as exemplified in Elena’s pitiless remark to him, “You always claim in your letters that you are burning all over because of your lust for me.” The scholar, like Dante, eventually emerges from hell with the coming of the dawn. At this point in Boccaccio’s story, the transformation begins between Elena’s role as a torturer, to her role as one who is tortured. Rinieri’s lust for revenge overpowers his lust for Elena, and like the souls in the Inferno with the frozen tears, he “turns inward” and thus “increases [his] agony” (33.96). From then on, Rinieri seeks out his revenge methodically, poetically and with a “devilish cunning”.
The punishment which Elena receives is poetic justice on several different levels. First of all, Rinieri promises her that her lover will come to her in tears “asking you to forgive and take pity on him” when the reader knows that it is Elena who will be doing the weeping and pleading. It is also poetic that the scholar, who was frozen for his lust, seeks revenge by burning Elena for her cold cruelty.
There is a clear invocation of Dante in the way that Rinieri is pitiless towards the suffering Elena. Like Dante, he taunts the “hapless woman” by reminding her of what her “brothers, kinsfolk, neighbors and Florentine people in general [will] have to say, when it is known that [she] was found in this spot completely naked”. Rinieri also reminds Elena that he could ruin her by the power of his pen and tells her “you yourself, to say nothing of others, would have been mortified by the things I had written that you would have put your eyes out rather than look upon yourself ever again”.
In the end, both Elena and Rinieri escape from their respective hells and learn something from the torment they have received. Boccaccio, like Dante, has used hell as a didactic tool; at the end of the story he writes that Elena “wisely refrained from playing any more tricks or falling deeply in love with anyone”. But it would be shallow to assume that the only moral of this story is that one should refrain from trickery. This story can be interpreted to give a countless number of lessons, and perhaps the true poetic justice for Boccaccio is that scholarly readers will spend hours trying to find them all.
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