The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Decameron can help.

The Decameron: Day 7: Eighth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next storyteller is Neifile, whose tale concerns Arriguccio Berlinghieri, a wealthy merchant who tries to climb the social ladder through his marriage to a nobleman’s daughter named Monna Sismonda. His business frequently takes him away from home, so she takes a young man named Ruberto as her lover. When rumors about the affair reach Arriguccio, he becomes jealous and begins to keep a close eye on his wife. 
The earlier tales of Tofano and Ghita (VII, 4) and the jealous merchant and his wife (VII, 5) have dealt with examples of excessive jealousy. In contrast, Arriguccio’s jealousy seems to be reasonable since it arises only after he’s heard rumors of his wife’s affair. However, since in each of the preceding tales, the husband was punished for his jealousy, the audience is primed to expect that things aren’t going to go well for Arriguccio if he tries to interfere with the overwhelming power of love. The opening comments about Arriguccio’s class climbing (which are reminiscent of the wool merchant’s marriage to the Florentine noblewoman in III, 3) foreshadow a class conflict in the tale between the newly rich Arriguccio and the established family of his noble wife.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Monna Sismonda comes up with a system to communicate with Ruberto: she ties a string around her toe at night and drops it out the window. If, when Ruberto tugs on it, she lets it drop, the coast is clear and he can come to the door; if Arriguccio Berlinghieri is home, she pulls the string back in, warning Ruberto to leave. This system works flawlessly until one night when Arriguccio happens to get tangled in the string. Curious, he attaches it to his own toe. When Ruberto tugs on the string, it comes untied and falls out the window, so he waits by the door, while Arriguccio arms himself and rushes to see who pulled the string.
Like Monna Tessa and Federigo in an earlier tale (V, 2), Sismonda and Ruberto’s clever system of communication works until it doesn’t. Unlike the earlier lovers, Sismonda doesn’t realize that her lover is about to fall into a trap. Sismonda’s plan further demonstrates her intelligence—even though she’s using it towards the questionable end of cheating on her husband.
Themes
Intelligence Theme Icon
Hearing him coming, Ruberto runs off with Arriguccio Berlinghieri in hot pursuit. Eventually, Ruberto turns to face Arriguccio, and the two begin to fight. Monna Sismonda wakes up alone in her bed and guesses what has happened. She persuades her maid to take her place, promising to repay her for any suffering she undergoes, then hides herself elsewhere in the house. With the fight beginning to draw attention, Arriguccio breaks off and goes home, where he mercilessly beats the maid and cuts her hair, thinking she is his wife. He swears and warns her that he’s going to get her family to take her away and punish her for besmirching her honor, and his.
Sismonda again demonstrates her quick thinking when she grasps the implications of the missing string and empty bed. Nor does her intelligence betray her now as she comes up with a plan to divert her husband’s attention and give the appearance of her innocence (although she is, in fact, guilty of cheating on her husband). She is vulnerable to Arriguccio’s violence thanks to a patriarchal assumption that a man’s honor (or lack thereof) depends on his wife’s sexual chastity above almost everything else. She protects herself from this violence by exploiting her maid, who is doubly vulnerable to violence and to the authority of her social superiors. If Arriguccio’s jealousy seemed reasonable before, his anger and violence towards the woman he believes to be his wife is now excessive, suggesting that something will happen soon to punish him for his lack of self-control. The audience is thus primed to expect that his desire to see Sismonda publicly punished or humiliated will backfire on him.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
After Arriguccio Berlinghieri storms off, Monna Sismonda moves the maid (arranging for her medical care), makes the bed, dresses herself, and sits on the landing with her sewing. She’s there when Arriguccio returns with her brothers and Sismonda’s mother, to whom he told the entire story, including that he’d beaten Sismonda and cut her hair. Her brothers are enraged over the accusations, but Sismonda’s mother worries that Arriguccio may have trumped up charges to cover his own indiscretions or beaten her for another offense. They are all surprised to find her, unharmed, sitting calmly on the landing.
Sismonda positions herself as the picture of innocence on the top of the stairs, preparing to pull off her trick on her husband. Her vulnerability to the men in her life is highlighted by her brothers’ anger over her alleged affair, which burns as fiercely as her husband’s. The only voice moderating this emotional excess comes from another woman, her mother, who points out alternative theories. Yet, the men, burning with antifeminist anger and concern over the implications of Sismonda’s actions on their own honor, can’t be soothed until they find her unharmed in her home.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Get the entire The Decameron LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Decameron PDF
To make a long story short, Monna Sismonda’s brothers tell her Arriguccio Berlinghieri’s allegations. She claims that this is the first time he’s set foot in the house that night; when he protests that he was there and that he beat her and cut her hair, she offers her own self as contrary proof. Realizing that he can’t prove his claims, Arriguccio falls silent, allowing Sismonda to claim that he’s an intemperate drinker and womanizer. She suggests that he did everything he said—but thinks he was doing it to a prostitute in a drunken stupor.
This story closely parallels that of Tofano and Ghita (VII, 4), including the way in which the wife turns her husband’s immoderate actions (in this case, Arriguccio’s savage physical violence) against him. Sismonda’s unharmed body undermines Arriguccio’s claims and allows her to paint herself as the victim. Thus, using her feminine wiles (and inadvertently proving antifeminist fears about women’s dishonesty and wives’ inevitable infidelity), she escapes harm.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Sismonda’s mother attacks “yokels” (like Arriguccio Berlinghieri) who think that they can make it as noblemen just because they’re rich. Warning him that there will be hell to pay if he insults their sister again, Sismonda’s brothers leave. Confused by how the tables were turned on him, Arriguccio wonders if he dreamed the night’s events, and—in any case—leaves Sismonda to her own devices from then on.
While Arriguccio, as a man and husband, may be at the top of his marital hierarchy, it’s clear from his mother-in-law’s takedown that he’s inferior to his wife and her family in the social hierarchy. In a work that considers character more important in demonstrating a person’s merit than wealth or status, Arriguccio has failed on both counts: his wealth hasn’t ensured that he has any class, and his jealous accusations against his wife—according to all appearances, false ones—have shown that he doesn’t have the character of a nobleman either.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Class and Character Theme Icon
Quotes