Marguerite De Navarre and the Challenge of Ethical Criticism: History, Literature, and Exemplarity in the Heptameron

By Zalloua, Zahi | Romance Notes, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Marguerite De Navarre and the Challenge of Ethical Criticism: History, Literature, and Exemplarity in the Heptameron


Zalloua, Zahi, Romance Notes


IN the prologue to the Heptameron, Marguerite de Navarre sets up an implicit opposition between history and literature, juxtaposing a concern for truth with a concern for rhetorical embellishment. While the form of her presentation recalls Boccaccio's Decameron, the content of Marguerite's Heptameron purports to be wholly different. It is not "la beaulte de la rethoricque" but "la verite de l'histoire" (9) which matters most to this Evangelical female author. (1) But what are the function and the ultimate value of privileging truth over fiction? The desire for realism reflects Marguerite's aversion to a highly refined style. Like Montaigne after her, Marguerite is all too aware of the falsifying nature of rhetoric--how it alters its source and deceives its readers. Yet by emphasizing the truth-value of her stories ("si ne diray rien que pure verite" [11]), Marguerite is especially privileging a certain model of exemplarity, one which takes examples drawn from history rather from literature (from imagined worlds), allegedly to produce a more persuasive didactic message: that is, the reality or actuality of the examples carries more weight than their mere potentiality. (2) In this respect, when Marguerite derides la beaute de la rhetorique she is banishing from the Heptameron only one type of rhetoric, a rhetoric that is primarily concerned with delighting its audience. As a coping strategy, a means to deal with the trauma of the plague that had just devastated the city of Florence, Boccaccio's storytellers told tales for the sole purpose of entertainment. Such is not the situation of the Heptameron. If the stories recounted in Marguerite's text are intended to entertain the ten stranded noble men and women, who are waiting for a bridge to be rebuilt, the entertaining side of each tale must be contained and given a secondary importance, second to the truthful, sobering ethical and religious nature of its subject matter. Against the backdrop of Boccaccian discourse, Marguerite's primary rhetorical task, then, is clearly not to please (delectare) but to teach (docere) her readership.

But what does Marguerite's Heptameron teach us? Or, rather, does it actually teach us anything? It has become something of a commonplace in contemporary Renaissance studies to see the Heptameron as imbued with interpretive aporia, where clear and meaningful authorial judgment often elude the reader. This, in turn, has rendered difficult the work of ethical criticism, the work of the critic whose readerly duties are to identify and evaluate ethically pertinent passages, assess their ideological effects on the reader. That is to say, an emphasis on the Heptameron's ambiguity usually comes at the expense of its ethical worth.

Moreover, even when textual ambiguity is not ignored, getting the message of Marguerite's Heptameron--deciphering its ethical meaning-requires that any hermeneutic obstacle be ultimately recognized as intentional or strategic, a rhetorical move towards the affirmation of a spiritual, humanist, or feminist ideal. For example, it has been argued that Marguerite, in accordance with early modern Christian skepticism, catalogues the fallen state of human beings in a way that points to a higher spiritual ideal. Through her devisants (her fictional storytellers and commentators), she affirms, as one critic put it, "the ethic of a total and complete trust in God with a distrust of all things human" (Benfell 71). On the other side of the interpretive spectrum, some feminist critics have argued for an "autobiographical" reading of the Heptameron, seeing, in this collection, a strong, distinct female voice expressing her dialogical critique of patriarchal discourse. (3) Again, as in the case of evangelical/humanist interpretations of the Heptameron, feminist readings have tended to neutralize or downplay the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of her text. Marguerite's much-discussed tenth novella is a test case for feminist critics, for its staging of the problem of ethical criticism around the question of rape. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Marguerite De Navarre and the Challenge of Ethical Criticism: History, Literature, and Exemplarity in the Heptameron
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.