Study Guide

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio in Structuralism

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The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

In the 14th century, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a book called The Decameron, which was pretty much the equivalent of a blockbuster action movie but with a Renaissance flair. A group of ten young people get together in a big house in the countryside to escape the Black Death, which is killing everyone in Italy (which it periodically did throughout the Middle Ages, to the great benefit of literature all over Europe). To pass the time, the young people tell each other stories. The Decameron is made up of these 100 mini-stories that the young people tell each other over ten nights. It's got sex, violence, comedy, despair, lusty priests, hapless travelers, the Italian countryside—everything you'd expect in the 14th-century version of Hollywood.

The Bulgarian structural literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov thought The Decameron could shed some light on the nature of literary study. Since on the surface the 100 mini-stories that make up the book seem totally unrelated, isn't The Decameron kind of like literature as a whole? Literature is also made up of loads and loads of individual stories—millions of 'em, and they all seem to be completely unconnected to one another. But Todorov was willing to bet his bottom ruble that if he could find the underlying rules structuring the stories in The Decameron, then that was probably enough to prove that there are underlying structures and rules that govern all of the stories that make up literature. Now that's science!

So Todorov set out to unearth the "deep structure" of all 100 stories in The Decameron. The conclusion? Despite their differences, all those stories share the same plot structure. He described this plot structure as "a shift from one equilibrium to another," or specifically a shift from culture (society) to nature (the individual) (Todorov, "Structural Analysis of Narrative," 75). What's all this equilibrium stuff? Is it part of that thing about studying literature as a science? Examples from a couple of the stories will shed some light on it.

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