The Social Standing of Women in The Decameron
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 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). Another example from The Decameron is the story of Madonna Agnesa and Brother Rinaldo. Rinaldo, a priest, aims to Liu 2 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. Women, given the time period, rarely held social or political power, and had their lives governed by the patriarch of their family. In turn, they were required to build resiliency and cunning in order to look out for their own best interests. Scene as lower than men, women would use their assets, such as their sexual prowess and their wit, in order to get what they need or want. Especially with men, the female characters would provoke a sense of coquetry in men to entice them. Take for example, the case of Monna Sismonda, from day seven story eight: she 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. There are many stories in The Decameron where the main characters 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 Liu 3 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. 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.
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