Winner of the MLA Howard R. Marraro Prize in 2016, Marilyn Migiel's The Ethical Dimension of the Decameron explores how the Decameron elicits an ethical response from its readers. When Migiel refers to ethics, as clearly stated in Chapter 4, she means that we should "restore to the Decameron the fine ethical texturing that might get lost in reading and translating...and...acknowledge our ethical obligation to examine the role we play, even unwittingly, in propagating discourses about gender, sexuality and class" (54). As Migiel writes in her first sentence, "one of the great innovations of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron is that it aims to complicate our moral views and our ethical responses" (3). This premise leads to seven chapters and a conclusion exploring how Boccaccio challenges his readers to think outside conventional morality and to entertain a Ciceronian dialogue about choices and right action. Writing in a lively and clear style, Migiel engages with how other Boccaccio scholars read particular tales, with the various Decameron translations and how the translation often imposes a narrowed-down reading, and with her own students' responses to the various tales, all in their unique ways showing the diverse ways specific texts or whole tales have been read.
Migiel maintains that the author raises the issue of connections among reading, writing, and ethics from the beginning of the work, when Boccaccio gives the Decameron the surname prencipe Galeotto and then repeats this in the explicit at the end of the tenth day. Prencipe Galeotto immediately recalls two adulterous and illicit relationships, the first told in the Lancelot about Lancelot and Guinevere, and the second Dante's story of Paola and Francesco, who, condemned to the circle of the lustful (Inferno 5), were reading the Lancelot that day when they read no more. With this double reference, Boccaccio puts the whole issue of the ethics of reading into play almost as a signpost to one's experience of the Decameron. That books are capable of converting one has been inscribed into the western tradition by that most famous of all reading experiences, when Augustine took up the book, tolle, lege, tolle, lege (Confessions 8.12) and in doing so, transformed his life. With these concrete references and implied connections, we are prepared to think about the process of reading as something that cannot be pure pleasure.
With this preparation, Migiel then delves into her case studies. The first chapter, "Wanted: Translators of the Decameron's Moral and Ethical Complexities," goes back to the scornful attitudes expressed by De Sanctis that had labeled Boccaccio as superficial, and the Decameron a work without any serious intentions. She also points out that although we might think such viewpoints are largely from the past, still "deeply entrenched ideological views" of the work continue to "hinder an accurate understanding of its ethical project (18-19). Singling out Victoria Kirkham as a decided exception to this critical genealogy, she insists correctly that these need to be questioned. Migiel identifies these views as the following: the Decameron "focuses on entertainment"; it "focuses on formal questions (about order and organization) rather than 'substantive ones'"; "the Decameron makes no distinctions along the lines of gender and sex"; "speech acts in the Decameron are focused so as to achieve a single purpose" (19). Taking on the various translators of the Decameron to feature how they sometimes miss the point, Migiel uses the first exchange between Pampinea and Dioneo to highlight how their ethical stances influence their reading to make them put "too much emphasis on joviality" (25) even in their reading of Pampinea's subdued recognition of Dioneo's captatio benevolentiae.
The following chapter, "He Said, She Said, We Read: An Ethical Reflection on a Confluence of Voices," focuses on Decameron 1.10, the story of Maestro Alberto from Bologna, to argue for the role of readers in shaping an ethical response to the narrative. She concludes the chapter to focus on how ideological assumptions having to do with power relationships invariably shape responses that, in fact, often miss the mark. Once more featuring how important the probing of the many English translations are in shaping our ethical responses to Boccaccio's work, Chapter 3, "Can the Lower Classes Be Wise? (For the Answer, See Your Translation of the Decameron)," examines Decameron 3.2, a story in which a stable-hand falls in love with a queen and manages to sleep with her under false pretenses, that is, by imitating her husband. Pampinea's observation about her characters is that they (king, queen, and stable-hand) are all wise, and she also makes the men evenly matched, which seems to raise questions about installed class distinctions. Translators all laud the wit, shrewdness, and brains of the stable-hand, as indeed does Pampinea, but Migiel's reading against all the translators and indeed against Branca himself proposes that "readers have missed the fact that this story is really about wisdom and discretion...whereas readers have fallen into the trap of seeing the story as about the stable-hand's cleverness" (46). The focus here is on the discretion in maintaining the secrecy (on the part of the king, the wife, and the stable-hand) of what under most circumstances we would call a rape. This is a very troubling story, and in fact, Pampinea, the teller of the tale and the critics overlook this egregious fact. Rather, they focus on the stable-hand's ingegno and the king's intelligenza (51-52).
Chapter 4, "Some Restrictions Apply: Testing the Reader in Decameron) 3.8," the story of Ferondo whose jealousy gets him entrapped in a plot to send him to Purgatory while his wife and the abbot enjoy each other's company for nine months. The tale presents a model case for questioning any "totalizing evaluations" (55). This is a brilliant discussion of Boccaccio's masterful ability to combine ethical probing and parodic humor. Despite the evident stupidity and jealousy of the husband, a parody of the old jealous husband, and of the punishments of Dante's Purgatory, Migiel's reading startled this reader into recognizing how venal the wife really is, her motive not necessarily sex but certainly the expensive gifts the abbot offers her. Chapter 5 looks at Decameron 7.4, the story of Tofano, another jealous husband, and Ghita, a wife who decides to prove his insane jealousy correct. Here Migiel observes that the brigata praises Ghita and feels that Tofano got what he deserved. But, as she points out, this conclusion requires "neutralizing opposing views" (74). Careful reading, like noting the differences between the viewpoint of the story's rubric and that of Lauretta, the story's narrator, might upset this easy resolution, Migiel points out. Introduce the subtle reference to Dante by the author, post aveva fine la Lauretta al suo ragionamento (echoes Purgatorio 18.1-3), and yet another viewpoint appears, one that opposes Dante's ethical notions of Love to the cavalier positions proposed by the tale's listeners. This makes a solid argument about the ethical attention readers must bring as they delve into what superficially appear to be clear meanings.
Chapter 6, "New Lessons in Criticism and Blame from the Decameron," examines the reported event, specifically examining "wronged wives." The chapter begins with Madonna Zinevra (2.9) and her elegant rhetorical "condemnation of lies" (97) by the one who had defamed her, and moves to Catella (3.6), who laments ahi quanto è misera la fortuna delle donne, a phrase certainly suited to Zinevra's mistreatment at the hands of men, and more particularly of her husband who set out to kill her. Migiel argues that to tease out the ethical sense, "exemplary moments that invite praise or blame" are not as important in understanding Boccaccio's method as "the dialogue among the narrators that emerges as they are drawn to certain narrative moments" (105). Chapter 7, "He Ironizes, He Ironizes Not, He Ironizes...", takes its lead from Linda Hutcheon's and Stanley Fish's theories of irony, and Timothy Kircher's insistence that "everything in the Decameron hinges on the possibility of irony, which leaves its readers room for independent perspectives toward the same phenomena or story" (119). Migiel probes precisely which texts in the Decameron open themselves to ironic response with a sustained interpretation of Decameron10.4, Lauretta's story of Gentile de' Carisendi who was in love with a pregnant married woman. Presumed dead, Gentile enters her tomb, discovers her alive, and brings her to his home to revive her. Given that this tale is among those of Day 10 when the theme is magnanimity, such a strange tale offers much potential for irony. In a question d'amour, one might certainly ask who deserves this woman. One might also be wondering about necrophilia, since Gentile enters the tomb and caresses the body. Bringing home a pregnant woman who is the wife of another man is equally disturbing. Migiel advances a wide-ranging analysis of this problematic tale to once more insist that too often critics gloss over what is clearly troubling to support readings that are "balanced and harmonious" (134). This observation has particular relevance to a reading of all the tales in Day 10, she insists, because a persistent polarity characterizes the critical response: the day's tales are either ironic or they conclude the Decameron on a triumphant note, when in fact, Boccaccio ironizes, does not ironize, teaches, does not teach. Indeed, following the leads of Millicent Marcus, Bruno Pagnamenta, Hollander and Cahill, she notes, "depending on the evidence from Day 10...we can arrive at widely different judgments" (137).
Given the argument that has prevailed throughout the monograph that Boccaccio elicits our ethical responses to his novelle, yet they remain permanently suspended when we seek definitive interpretations, it should not surprise us that the conclusion refuses to be conclusive. This is the heart of Migiel's argument: the Decameron lures us in, creates a metafictional environment that sets up a framework for multiple responses, yet deeply steeped in Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric, Dante's Commedia, and Ciceronian rhetoric, for example, his narratives still elude conclusive readings. Migiel makes us wary of translations that elide Boccaccio's complexity and overlook startling details that might radically alter how we read a story.