Friday, 20 March 2009

Patient Griselda

An excellent article by Colin Burrow ('She Doesn’t Protest'; reviewing J.G. Nichols' new translation of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio) discussing, amongst other things, the story of Patient Griselda:

Griselda marries Gualtieri, the Marquis of Saluzzo. He tests her by declaring that their first child—a daughter—must be put to death, likewise their second child—a son. Griselda obediently gives up both of them without protest and each is secreted away and raised rather than killed. In a final test, Gualtieri publicly renounces Griselda, claiming he has been granted papal dispensation to divorce and marry a better woman; she goes to live with her father. Some years later, Gualtieri announces he is to remarry and recalls Griselda as a servant to prepare the wedding celebrations. He introduces her to a twelve-year-old girl he claims is to be his bride but who is really their daughter; Griselda wishes them well. At this Gualtieri reveals his plan and Griselda joyously retakes her place as wife and mother.
Burrow's main point is that Boccaccio's bare-bones telling of this tale propels other writers to flesh it out. It's so baffling, on a psychological level; Griselda seems to have at her disposal none of the responses, emotional or practical, to which an actual living-breathing human being would have recourse. As if we should be talking about 'mentally defective Griselda', 'Lobotomised Griselda.'

Boccaccio's friend Petrarch wrote a Latin version of the story in which the inexplicably curel Gualtieri is implicityly identified with God, whose short-term impositions of suffering are offset by his amazing ultimate grace. Later readers generally responded to the tale not by allegorising away its unstated motives and emotions but by elaboratig them. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, and indeed all the explorations of the inner lives of suffering low-born heroines which were the staples of the early English novel, are among the offspring of Boccaccio's account of Griselda.
This is well put; but it's the emphasis on Griselda herself that is most bewildering aspect of this particular cultural tradition. Surely this is a story that invites the reader in not at the level of the perfectly blank, empty Griselda, but from Gualtieri's point of view; a story, moreover, not really about the man's obscure motives for his cruelty but about the actualisation of male desire. When you look at it that way you see how screwy it is. The notion that a man's ultimate fantasy is a Stepford Wife is one-eighty-degrees about. A better understanding is provided not by Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, but by Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale ... the former pretends to be about 'what men really want' when actually it presents something quite opposite. The latter pretends to be about what women really want, when in fact it is precisely about what men really want.

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