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.

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