The Decameron

The Decameron

by

Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron: Day 7: Fifth Tale Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fiammetta picks up on Lauretta’s theme and offers another example of marital jealousy. In Rimini a Jealous Merchant loves the Jealous Merchant’s Wife so much that he imagines everyone else must love her, too. And because she tries to please him, he worries she wants to please other men as well. He is so protective that he won’t even let her stand near a window. To amuse herself and pay her husband back, she wants to give him a “just and proper motive” for his jealousy.
The Jealous Merchant illustrates the dangers of excess and demonstrates the paradox of jealousy in husbands (especially of honorable wives): perversely, he becomes suspicious that his wife will cheat on him because she is initially such a loving and obedient wife to him. His wife is trapped by gendered expectations and is driven to make good on his irrational fears only after she is punished for her obedience by being completely trapped inside her home.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Fortune favors the Jealous Merchant’s Wife, who finds and enlarges a crack that communicates between her house and the bedroom of their neighbor, a young man named Filippo. They can talk and touch each other’s hands through the crack, but nothing else. As Christmas approaches, she seeks permission from the Jealous Merchant to go to confession and attend mass. He wants to know what sins she’s confessing, but she refuses to confess to anyone but a priest.
The medieval church required all Christians to attend confession at least once a year, so the merchant’s wife is only asking to be able to meet the minimum requirements of her faith. Her need to ask for permission reminds readers that she is subject to her husband’s authority and doesn’t have full autonomy over her life, even in matters as private as her faith and her conscience. In answer to her extremely modest request, her husband’s immediate desire to know her sins (suggesting that he fears they are sexual in nature) betrays the excessive nature of his jealousy. Like the story of Tofano (VII, 4), the tale sets up a scenario where the jealous husband’s excessive behavior will provide the means of his downfall.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Faith vs. Religion Theme Icon
Because his wife’s desire to go to confession has made the Jealous Merchant suspicious, he disguises himself as a priest and waits for her in the chapel. The Jealous Merchant’s Wife recognizes him and vows to let him “get what he’s looking for.” She “confesses” that she is in love with a priest who can unlock every door in her house and who sleeps beside her every night. These words hit the Jealous Merchant like a stab through the heart, and he tries to get the name of the “priest.” She refuses, and, saying he will offer prayers to soften her unrepentant heart, he warns that he will send a seminarian to check on her soon.
Until the point where she recognizes her husband in his priestly disguise, there is no indication that the wife’s request to go to confession was a ploy to meet with her lover. Thus, the merchant’s excessive jealousy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, and his increasingly ridiculous actions allow it to come true. Moreover, it’s a sign of female vulnerability and subjection to male authority that the priests allow her husband to stand in as her confessor, even though this means that she won’t be properly fulfilling her duty; since her husband isn’t a priest, he's not qualified to hear her confession, assign penance, or absolve her (release her from responsibility) of her sins. And, although she is clearly describing her husband’s behavior, his excessive jealousy (which has already blinded him to the truth of her fidelity) blinds him to the implication of her confession: she recognizes his disguise and is intent on frustrating his attempts to keep her from other men.  
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Fuming with rage, the Jealous Merchant returns home and tries (unsuccessfully) to conceal his feelings from the Jealous Merchant’s Wife. Telling her he is going out for supper and reminding her to lock the doors, he plans to lie in wait for her alleged lover that night. But because she is certain that he will be watching the front door, she tells Filippo to access her house via the roof. After dark, while the Jealous Merchant hides near the front door, Filippo climbs over the roof and enjoys his night with the Jealous Merchant’s Wife. In the morning, the Jealous Merchant sends his servant, poorly disguised as a seminarian, to ask about his wife’s lover, and she reports that he failed to come the previous night. 
While the merchant succumbs to his immoderate jealousy—which only became founded after his behavior drove his wife to retribution—her happy night with Filippo demonstrates that love will almost always be able to find a way to achieve its ends. And it’s also notable that, as with her confession, the wife speaks nothing but the truth; her husband can’t understand her words because his mind is clouded by his excessive jealousy.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
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The Jealous Merchant lies in wait (while the Jealous Merchant’s Wife and Filippo enjoy themselves) night after night until he can’t contain himself any longer. When she once again refuses to say what she confessed at Christmastime, he tells her that he knows about her lover and demands the priest’s name. Noting that his jealousy has overpowered his intelligence, she says that she recognized him through his disguise; the priest she said she loved was, in fact, him. Who else can unlock all the doors in the house? Only someone blinded by jealousy would have been “witless enough not to understand.”
The merchant’s excessive jealousy doesn’t just overpower his intelligence and common sense, but it also generates other unrestrained behavior, like the excessive rage he feels when his attempts to catch his wife in the act fail. This tale reverses the stereotypically gendered expectations of men and women: it is the husband who is overpowered by his excessive emotions and the wife who remains rational, calm, and collected. While her words are no longer true in spirit—she has indeed found a way to be with her lover—she scrupulously avoids saying anything that isn’t true, and her commitment to the truth puts her husband in his place.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
The Jealous Merchant begins to understand that his jealousy made him act ridiculously, and he starts to look at the Jealous Merchant’s Wife as the model of virtue and intelligence, coming to trust her implicitly. So, although she continued to be discreet, she now had a much easier time of it, letting Filippo in, as it were, through the front door.
The jealous merchant accepts correction for his excessive jealousy, but his trust in his wife’s character is equally ill-founded, offering a warning against excesses in all their forms. While fulfilling the day’s theme—a wife tricking her husband—this tale also plays on antifeminist stereotypes that consider all women dishonest. In this vein, the jealous husband is rightly punished for his jealousy, but is just as much at fault for his excess trust in the end as his excess distrust at the beginning.
Themes
Men and Women Theme Icon
Moderation and Excess Theme Icon
Quotes