Comparative Literature 30B: Topics for the First Essay

Due Date: August 14 , 2008

General Instructions: Write a five-page (1400-1600 word) essay on a topic related to Boccacio’s Decameron, Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, or de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna. This essay should have a clear, unified topic and an identifiable, arguable thesis statement backed by solid evidence. Your personal response to the material can guide your thoughts, but you must establish your claims using evidence and argumentation considered valid within the discipline of literary criticism or literary history. If you use secondary sources, make sure they are of reasonable quality (no personal web sites, Cliff Notes, Encarta, Wikipedia or their equivalents ) and cite them properly. If you decide to use one of the suggested topics, make sure you narrow its focus and make a strong thesis.

  1. Choose one of Boccaccio’s stories in the Decameron and describe how and why the narrative frame assists in interpreting the story. Who tells the story, and on which day? What story preceded it, and what followed it? What indications does Boccaccio give that the story should be read in a certain way—ironically, skeptically, or disingenuously? Be careful to avoid merely stating that the frame affects our interpretation without saying why or how.
  2. Compare two stories in the Decameron or the Heptameron—or one from each—with substantially similar thematic or plot elements, such as forbidden love, adulterous husbands and wives, good and bad luck, and so forth. What is the significance of the differences between the stories? Why does the particular theme or element you find in common bear repeating? What point does the juxtaposition of the two stories make?
  3. Choose a particular story in the Decameron or the Heptameron where a character seems to be the voice of the author. What indications do you see that this is the case, and why does the author decide to address his or her audience so directly at that moment? Remember, you need to do two things in this topic. First, make the case that the character is speaking for the author, and second, decide what it means that he or she has done so at that particular moment.
  4. Boccaccio’s Decameron contains a remarkable number of important women for a work of its time, including many highly self-motivated, outspoken, and overtly sexual characters. Choose one or two women characters in the stories and discuss how they create an idea of what women were, or what they should be, for Boccaccio. One caution: Be careful when comparing them with female stereotypes of the middle ages and early Renaissance—avoid making arguments about what most people expected from women without actual support from historical information (that is, secondary sources) or the text itself.
  5. Choose a story or two from either the Decameron or Heptameron—or use Fuente Ovejuna—to develop an idea of the responsibilities and privileges of a lord or ruler with regard to the sexuality of his subjects. Can rulers have their subjects as sexual partners with impunity? How should wise rulers behave in this regard? Consider both the abstract aspects of morality—whether the activity is good or moral in itself—and the pragmatic consequences of a liaison across the master/servant divide.
  6. What’s so funny? Choose an especially funny story in either the Decameron or the Heptameron, and explain the workings of its humor. What about the timing, the characterization, the sudden reversals, the dialogue, or the comic juxtapositions makes the story work?
  7. All three of the works we have studied so far contain elements of political subversion, yet none of these authors were imprisoned or executed for political crimes. Choose a story or two from the Decameron or Heptameron or examine Fuente Ovejuna for the aspects that promote subversion and those that mitigate it. How would you defend an author from charges of subverting the authority under which he or she lived? Can you convict or acquit your author? Be sure to examine both sides of the case.
  8. Your own topic involving a work or works from the course so far, based on an important theme or concept.