Irony in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron

Irony, by definition, is when an audience’s (or reader’s) expectations are upset; what one assumes will happen in a story occurs in a different fashion, engendering varying emotions in the recipient of the tale. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the narrator tells of a lascivious man, Ser Cepperello, and his confessions to a friar from his death bed. Though he lies to the clergymen concerning his spiritual life, his words are accepted as truth that only a saint could utter. The reader, knowing the narrator’s previous comments concerning Cepperello, must now figure out how to deal with the notion of falsehood (or what seems to be falsehood) being spread as gospel truth. Throughout the text, the narrator employs irony to defy the reader’s expectations and force them to reexamine their assumptions as to what they read.

The narrator desires to present contradictory views of Cepperello’s character in order to incite dramatic irony in the reader. Dramatic irony consists in the reader knowing something about the action that characters in the story are unaware of. In describing Cepperello at the beginning of the tale, the narrator says: “Of women he was as fond as dogs are fond of a good stout stick; in their opposite, he took greater pleasure than the most depraved man on earth.” Cepperello has no restraint in regards to his sexual desires. He satisfies them as willingly as possible, even engaging in illicit homosexual desire with the “opposites” of women. This lust culminates in him being the most “depraved” man in the sense that he has sinned against the Christian God and has merited eternal condemnation. He is spiritually dead. On the other hand, when the friar inquires for a confession of sin, Cepperello, in regarding his virginity, says “ ‘I am a virgin as pure as on the day I came forth from my mother’s womb.’” Cepperello claims to be sexually abstinent even as the reader knows that this “confession” is a blatant lie. He asserts that his spiritual state is as worthy of being accepted by God as the holiest Christian. But such lying establishes a disconnect between the viewpoints of the reader and the writer. The reader must now ask which view is truly correct and which is not. Can the narrator who introduced Cepperello as a godless sinner be trusted as a reliable narrator?  Or is Cepperello indeed the liar the narrator establishes him to be early on? The answer remains hidden, difficult to decipher.

Yet the reader assumes that Cepperello, though he may be deceiving the friar as to his lifestyle, harbors a dark secret just waiting to be revealed. Cepperello says, “I have one sin left to which I have never confessed, so great is my shame in having to reveal it; and whenever I remember it, I cry as you see me doing now, and feel quite certain that God will never have mercy on me for this terrible sin.” The phrase “so great” establishes the suspenseful tone of the sentence. Apparently, his sin is so great that it will even bar him from God’s mercy, like the unpardonable sin. The reader is left in anticipation of what his iniquity must be, waiting for the dreadful revelation. But he is disappointed; Cepperello merely says “You are to know then that once, when I was a little boy, I cursed my mother.” The magnitude of Cepperello’s past sin does not even come close to being the dark answer the reader anticipates. Indeed, the answer is so anticlimactic and unexpected that the friar exclaims, “Does this seem so great a sin to you?” Cepperello’s answer is ironic, for, at least in the views of the friar and reader, it is nothing more or less than a needless trifle and not a heinous crime against God. But once more, the reader reexamines their thoughts. Maybe cursing one’s parents is a dire sin, more so than the friar thinks.  In this way, Cepperello’s answer forces the reader to evaluate their own conclusions about sin.

After Cepperello dies, the narrator poses the question as to whether or not Cepperello was redeemed by the grace of God or not. At the end of the tale, he says, “For albeit he led a wicked, sinful life, it is possible at the eleventh hour he was so sincerely repentant that God had mercy upon him and received him into His kingdom.”  From a theological standpoint, this seems to be a heretical idea; since the Church based assurance of salvation on one’s holy deeds, why would the idea be presented that a simple death bed confession would be all that is needed to be saved? Do good works matter at all, in this context? If this is the case, then appearances can be deceiving, for though a person appears unholy in the eyes of God, they may very well be on their way to Heaven. This would be unmistakable irony. The reader must figure out the dilemma for his or herself in the midst of paradoxical values that seem to overlap and conflict. Knowing what guarantees one entrance in to the kingdom of Heaven becomes more difficult when the requirements are blurry.

By using irony in his text, the narrator leaves the interpretation of Cepperello’s life in the reader’s hands. They must decipher for themselves not only what kind of a man Cepperello is but also what values they will insist on after they have finished reading his story. When they view conflicting ideas up close, they are forced to examine their own values and determine what they leave the text with. Yet also, maybe, in the process, they will discard assumptions that do not give Cepperello credit or that tend to disown him merely because of his sinful existence. When one takes another look at one’s values, the conclusions they reach may engender a deeper, more sympathetic understanding for those deemed unworthy in society’s structure.

Choices

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost’s poem. “The Road not Taken,” is about choices. Each day we have to make decisions as to what course of action to take. No matter what the issue is, we must decide what the best option is and go through the path in all faith.
The speaker beholds his choice when he notices that “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Each road represents a decision the speaker must make. He wishes that he could pursue both paths but painfully admits “sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler.” If he were able to choose both paths, he would be a complete “one” or singular individual; he would have nothing to regret or reflect on after he has made his choice. But since he must choose one path and not the other, he must become a divided traveler, doomed to wonder if the decision he made was the right one. Only time will tell.
And figuring out which path looks better does not help the speaker come to his decision any sooner. The first path “bends in the undergrowth” after he looks down it “as far as [he] could.” He cannot really know, based on hypothetical inquiries, whether or not the decision he makes will be beneficial or not. He can’t look into the complete future to know for certain. The other path looks better due to its grass, yet, since people have walked down the paths mostly equally (or because both decisions are somewhat appealing), they “looked worn really about the same.” But in the end, the speaker takes the second, “grassy” path. At first, he thinks he can choose the first path for another time but soon remembers how “way leads on to way.” Once he has made his choice, his life will undergo a series of events in time, forcing him to reach a point of no return. He will not be faced with the same choice again. The consequences of his actions will permanently affect his future decisions.
The last stanza is interesting, for the speaker uses the future tense to describe what he will feel when he reflects on choosing the grassy path. He will look on his past with a “sigh,” but whether or not it is a sigh of accomplishment or regret remains to be seen, for he is still, in the poem, traveling the path he has chosen. Only in the future will he know whether or not it was worth it. And the decision is not a minor one, for, no matter what the outcome, it “will have made all the difference.” What path he chooses will alter the course of his life forever.
But the fact that Frost presented this poem to a group of college students may hint that the choice the speaker made was a good one. It is “the one less traveled by,” meaning that it is not the most popular choice to make. Society deems it unworthy, at least in some respects. But because he made that decision, his life turned out well. What better way to encourage college students to pursue their dreams than to admonish them to take the most disciplined road to success?
Yet it may not be such a good choice after all. Again, the word “sigh” doesn’t hint at the speaker’s tone. What if the famous poet wanted to warn the students that the decision to go to college is not the best one to make, and, only by looking back will they realize that it wasn’t really as important as society taught it to be? One can relate to the current rise of disdain for public education and wonder. Either way, we must all suffer the consequences of our actions. It is inevitable. Let us hope that they are the best ones.

The Conflict between Freedom and Restraint in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the last few decades of nineteenth century Victorian England, the moral disposition that Queen Victoria had ushered in with her rule began to be challenged. Individuals questioned the authenticity of morality in both public and private life. It is not a mistake that two literary works close in time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) both present characters who fail miserably to control the evil inherit in their own hearts.

Stevenson’s work presents a man named Dr. Jekyll who concocts a potion that transforms him into a hideous being: Mr. Hyde. Up to this point, the local officials, including the narrator, Mr. Utterson, have searched for Edward Hyde, wanting to prosecute him for crimes he’s committed in London (the beating of a little girl and murder of an old man). One night, they discover Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Dr. Jekyll’s lab coat, and a slip of paper containing Jekyll’s full confession.

In his narrative, Jekyll explains how he felt with his dual identity:

“Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome.” (Stevenson 64)

Jekyll has two sides to his personality; on the one hand, his refined, socially accepted persona “shines” with the aura of truth and righteousness that Victorian society so highly esteems. He desires good works for the benefit of the common good. Yet at the same time, this trait may be a mask at best, for his darker instinct, after he takes the potion, is “plainly” discernable. No one can mistake its identity. Its presence is undeniable. But does that mean that Jekyll’s upright character is merely a fabrication to deceive others as to his true intentions? Is Hyde a more accurate manifestation of the doctor’s soul?  If he had been true to his holier side, he would have rejected the monster’s image outright, not “welcome” it as he does. It seems as if Hyde serves as a relief from social responsibilities; after using all his moral energies living up to the expectations of others, he finds pleasure in expressing what he’s kept hidden all along. His “idol” ego, the secret desire to be seen and worshipped by others, runs free at last, ready to experience the world.

Yet the monster leaves an imprint of “decay” on Jekyll’s features, hinting that disastrous consequences await the doctor who has decided to unleash his dark side. Jekyll still believes evil to be “the lethal side of man.” Both his own life and the lives of others soon become victim to the doctor’s wicked half. As his experiments with Hyde increase, Jekyll realizes that the situation has gotten out of hand. Knowing that his reputation as the morally upright doctor is in jeopardy, he seeks to undo what he has done. Jekyll says,

“I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensation of an approving conscience. But time at last began to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as if Hyde struggling for freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.” (Stevenson 70)

When Jekyll attempts to repent from his past decisions, he finds that his efforts fail. Though living a more saintly life comforts his conscience, the desires he thought he had obliterated return full force, even stronger than the solace of a guiltless mind. In addition, his moral reformation soon becomes less attractive, a matter “of course.” Living free from remorse becomes a drudgerous, boring routine, exciting no fun in his life. Because of this, Hyde returns to wreak havoc on Jekyll’s life. Over the course of “time,” believes Jekyll, individuals regress back into their sinful ways, no matter how sincere their repentance. Trapped between two competing desires, Jekyll comes to the only conclusion that makes ultimate sense: suicide. He ends his narrative with the phrase, “Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson 78). With the singular identity of “Henry Jekyll”, ironically, the depressed doctor struggles to rid himself of what he finds most repugnant even as secretly longs for it: a divided identity. Being hopelessly split in this way, he has no choice but to give up in despair.

Oscar Wilde’s tale of the youthful Dorian Gray is similar to Jekyll’s plight in many respects. Dorian, having a portrait of himself splendidly fashioned by a friend, Basil, wishes that his youth would never end. His desires stem from over-the-table conversations with another acquaintance, Lord Henry. Lord Henry encourages Dorian to view life as a Hedonist; the only aim of life is to live as freely as possible without any regard for morality or social constraint. At first, following Lord Henry’s philosophy proves enjoyable to Dorian but soon has its consequences. In his rush to live as wildly as possible, he breaks the heart of his girlfriend, Sibyll Vane. Sibyll commits suicide as a result, causing Dorian to seriously reflect on his decisions. Though he eventually dismisses his guilt concerning Sibyll, he soon becomes sucked into a whirlwind of licentiousness and debauchery, living like a man with no moral center whatsoever. But the strangest thing is that he never ages as he grows older. His youth remains as fresh as ever, as if he is magically enchanted.

And there soon arises another intriguing mystery for Dorian; Basil’s portrait, once showing Dorian’s beautiful features, now reveals a hideous likeness of Dorian containing putrid flesh and decay. Dorian decides to reveal this unpleasantness to Basil one night. Horrified at what he sees, Basil says, “ ‘Pray, Dorian, pray. What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also’” (Wilde 138).  Basil believes that the portrait serves as a message: Dorian has lived an immoral life and is in need of salvation. His soul is in a corrupt state, destined for eternal damnation. For Basil, salvation is found in Christianity, where an individual repents from their sins and begins pursuing a holier existence. There is confidence in Basil that, though Dorian has indeed lived sinfully, he can just as easily reform his ways and become a better person.

Basil’s solution is so despicable in Dorian’s eyes, however, that he ends up killing Basil for even suggesting it. The narrator describes Dorian’s anger, “The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything” (Wilde 138-139). Basil’s worldview seeks to hunt down and destroy that which opposes it, naturally engendering anger in what defends it. Dorian seems to suggest that when people are preyed upon due to their natural instincts, they’ll rebel. When individuals are constrained they sense danger and respond in self-defense. Otherwise, they will lose touch with their true selves. Dorian confesses to Basil that there is a “heaven and a hell” in all of us, complimenting Jekyll’s symbolic division with Hyde. He may feel horrified at the portrait’s grotesqueness, but that is not enough to change his mind about how he lives.

Only time will do that, just like time changed the disposition of Jekyll into returning to his sinful slavery. But in Dorian’s case, time leads him, long after Basil’s murder, to reconsider his actions, not to relish them. He even begins to give the Bible credit as he has his final conversation with Lord Henry, blaming him for his destructive philosophy, and warning him with a rhetorical question: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” The words of Christ confirm to Dorian that he has been wrong all along, that there are real and lasting consequences to the choices he has made. The young man comes to the conclusion that he must reform himself. At least until the book’s end.

Dorian arrives at the secret chamber where Basil was murdered. He thinks about his decision. The narrator says, “In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognized that now. But this murder-was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never” (Wilde 191). After finally assessing his situation, Dorian defends his evil ways: as a respectable man in society he was merely being an untrustworthy hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another. He wasn’t being true to himself. And the only reason he wanted to be good was in hope of possible pleasure, which he never received. Confessing to Basil’s murder would be an insult to his true nature, an insult to why he is the way he is. There is no need for reformation. In his anger, Dorian destroys the picture, for it reminds him of his intolerable secrets. But in so doing, he kills himself, revealing a magical connection between Dorian the portrait and Dorian the actual man. In dismantling the picture, Dorian dismantled his own persona.

What do we glean from both of these literary classics concerning the matter of freedom and restraint? One side stands for the desire to be morally and ethically pure, a blessing not only to one’s own self but also to others. It is one’s duty to be socially responsible and to follow the ways of truth and righteousness. But then again, this quest can grow wearisome to the one who wants to experience life to the fullest, the individual whose only happiness consists in being as free from unnecessary rules as possible. Conflict ensues when desires change, putting people in perpetual mazes. The struggle is desperate. We either accept ourselves as the mysteries we are, or, in our attempt to be singular and perfect, destroy ourselves. Jekyll cannot live without Hyde and vice versa. The only conclusion is that we must learn to live with ourselves, for if we don’t, then we set up our own demise.

An Exhortation to Bond

Mending Wall

BY ROBERT FROST

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Robert Frost takes another opportunity in using poetry to highlight human relationships in his poem “Mending Wall.” This by far was the most difficult poem by Frost I’ve encountered so far.  I used some information on the internet to give me more understanding about it. From what I understand, the poem deals with the theme of human separation and a desire to conquer it.

The poem’s opening line says that there is “something that does not love a wall.” The “wall” in question serves as the focus of the poem, the primary symbol the speaker discusses. When the speaker attempts to repair a wall with a gaping hole, he invites his neighbor to help him repair it. The speaker mentions that “we keep the wall between us as we go.” The wall here serves as a metaphor for separation; there is something that divides both of these characters, and it goes beyond physical limitations. The neighbor looks at the speaker and says “good fences make good neighbors.” In the neighbor’s eyes, he can serve his fellow man best by separating himself from the community at large. He does not wish to unite himself into the common bond of society; he wants to be an individual who depends on his own personal intuition for happiness.

The speaker is unsettled by his neighbor’s view. He wants to convince him that being sociable is more fulfilling than being isolated. He thinks to himself, “Spring is the mischief in me/ And I wonder if I could put a notion in his head:/ Why do they make good neighbors?” The springtime represents a light-hearted state, one full of a renewal of life. It is open and vibrant. But the word “mischief” contrasts itself denotatively as an evil scheme for some foul purpose. Yet in this context it is more playful than anything else; he wants to simply trick his neighbor into thinking of life in a different way. he wants to convince his neighbor that his life philosophy is irrational, at best.  However, the neighbor will not submit to the speaker’s exhortation: he moves “in darkness,” in the cold dictates of his own heart, repeating his resolution “good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker has failed in his mission.