The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 5: Second Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Emilia is much more pleased to tell her story today since it is proper for true love to be rewarded—rather than punished as it was in yesterday’s tales. In Lipari, a noble girl named Gostanza loves Martuccio Gomito, but her father refuses to allow their marriage because Martuccio—although “handsome and well-mannered”—is poor. He turns to a life of piracy, intent on returning to Lipari a rich man. He’s blessed by fortune, but when he becomes greedy, she punishes him, and he is captured by Saracens (a medieval European term for Muslims), who take him to Tunis and throw him into a prison cell to languish. On Lipari, everyone believes that he drowned.
Emilia’s tale features another noble-bourgeoise couple; there’s a class difference between the two, but it’s not too big to be bridged. The audience is primed to expect a happy ending on Day 5, and Martuccio’s good character is mentioned in his introduction, so the refusal of Gostanza’s family to allow a marriage foreshadows not tragedy, but an adventure that will allow Martuccio to show off his noble temperament and prove his worth. It also points towards control over female sexuality: despite his worth and their mutual affection, Martuccio and Gostanza are still reliant on her father’s permission to marry. Although it may seem that “piracy” isn’t a career path for a “well-mannered” young man, other tales have shown that the line that separates trade and piracy is thin (see the Genoese pirate-traders in II, 6, for example) and have demonstrated that even pirates can be decent men (like Paganino in III, 10). Fortune only turns against Martuccio when his ambition makes him greedy, and his capture sharply rebukes this example of excess.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Gostanza is heartbroken at the news of Martuccio Gomito’s death. She wants to die, too, but lacks the courage to take her own life directly. She steals a small fishing ship and goes to sea, throwing the oars and rudder overboard and casting herself on the mercy of the waves. She expects to quickly die in a shipwreck, but while she lies weeping in the bottom of the boat, she is gently carried to Susa.
Gostanza demonstrates cleverness when she strikes on a suicide plan that works around her fear of harming herself. Because she has no way to control it, the rudderless boat puts her at the mercy of fortune—which quickly takes her to North Africa to set the stage for her reunion with Martuccio. The rudderless boat is often used this way in medieval romances, as a vehicle for fortune or Divine will to carry people where they need to be. But because it’s also a means for bloodlessly executing or exiling noblewomen, it also symbolizes Gostanza’s vulnerability to the dictates of the men around her, like her father.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
In Susa, a poor woman (later identified as Carapresa) discovers Gostanza. Carapresa speaks Italian, and she coaxes Gostanza into coming home with her and eating. She explains that she’s from Sicily, and she works for some Christian fishermen in Tunisia. Because Carapresa’s name means “precious gain,” Gostanza takes her rescue as a positive omen. After a while, Carapresa brings her to a kindly Saracen Lady, who bursts into tears at Gostanza’s sad tale and then takes her home, where she treats her kindly and teaches her the language.
By this point, it’s clear that fortune is on the lovers’ side, even if they can’t yet see it. Not only is Gostanza carried to Tunisia (where she can be reunited with Martuccio), but she’s delivered into the care of a kind woman who also happens to be a Sicilian expatriate. Although Gostanza could have ended up like Alatiel, cast away in a country where she didn’t speak the language and where she was vulnerable to violence and rape (II, 7), she is protected. This points towards the racism at play in the book (and in late medieval society generally): because Alatiel wasn’t a Christian woman, her vulnerability and loss of virtue could be deployed for humor, but because Gostanza is a virtuous, noble, Christian maiden, she’s protected from shame and dishonor. However, this tale also shows some upright and noble Muslim characters, notably the kind Saracen lady who protects Gostanza and teaches her the language. Although they start from a place of cultural separation, the woman’s tears and mercy on the castaway girl speak the universal language of compassion and pity, which had strong, gendered associations with women in medieval culture.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Mulay Abd Allah, the King of Tunis, is at war against Granada. Martuccio Gomito, also having learned the Tunisians’ language, hears about the war and offers military advice. The king humors him and likes his suggestion of making special bows and arrows with thinner strings and notches, meaning that the Tunisians can reuse the Grenadians’ arrows, but the Grenadians won’t be able to use the Tunisians’. When the Tunisians win the war, the king frees Martuccio and gives him an elevated government role.
Medieval society was separated into three groups: the clergy, or those who pray; the nobility, or those who fight; and the peasantry, or those who work. Thus, Martuccio’s clever military plan not only shows him to be intelligent, but also associates his character and bearing with Gostanza’s social group. In this way—especially when his plan works—both demonstrate his personal worth. And when Mulay Abd Allah gives him a government job, he acknowledges and confirms it.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
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Time had been cooling the flames of Gostanza’s love, but when she hears that Martuccio Gomito is alive and a rich man in Tunis, her passion is rekindled. She begs the Saracen Lady to help her get to him. The woman and her relatives convey Gostanza to Tunis where they secure her an interview with Martuccio. Gostanza rushes to embrace him, bursting into tears. Martuccio marvels to find her alive, and after they tell each other their misadventures, they bring their story to the king. Mulay Abd Allah declares that they’ve earned the right to marry, gives them splendid gifts, and sends them home, where they marry and spend the rest of their lives in peace and tranquility.
If she thought Martuccio were still alive, Gostanza’s cooling passion would be a mark against her character. But in the context of a lover’s death, the slow reduction of her affection comes across as a realistic example of time healing old wounds. And, as soon as she learns he’s alive, the flames of her love rekindle, demonstrating her constancy. As a mark of his respect, the gifts that Mulay Abd Allah gives to the couple confirm their social standing. But they also give Martuccio the riches he initially lacked to be respected by Gostanza’s family.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon