Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Keeping Time with the Tales: Repetition, Epiphany, and the Heptameron's Narrative Change

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Keeping Time with the Tales: Repetition, Epiphany, and the Heptameron's Narrative Change

Article excerpt

Despite the Heptameron's near-pastoral setting, its characters appear strikingly attentive to the passing of time. Far from truly killing time as they await the completion of the bridge that will permit their return to civilization, the devisants pursue a structured regime of repetition, carrying out an identical string of scheduled activities day after selfsame day. In the morning, the devisants strive to read the Bible for exactly one hour before heading off to ten o'clock mass. In the afternoon, they tell stories from exactly noon to four p.m., voicing dissatisfaction when vespers are not begun predictably on time. (1) During the Reformation, praying on a repetitious basis and at particular times stood as practices of contested value. The Reformed church denied the efficacy of repetitious, mechanistic prayer, as well as the setting of particular times for worship, deeming this mere superstitious ritual. Given Marguerite's sympathies with this Reforming spirit, what are we to make of the Heptameron's repetitious, scheduled behavior and how does repetition relate to the devisants' spiritual growth as it appears in the latter portions of the text?

Although the Heptameron otherwise stands as an active participant in the Protestant critique of superstitious practice, I would like to suggest that Marguerite's text veers away from mainline Protestant values insofar as it expresses a clear textual predilection for repetitious deeds and 'special times.' Reluctant to embrace the "Christian freedom" of worship initially encouraged by the Lutheran Church, the Heptameron instead adopts an aesthetic of repetition, depicting highly structured forms of worship and daily routine. (2) While the somewhat compulsive scheduling which Marguerite attributes to her characters is not wholly at odds with certain aspects of Reformed culture and spirituality--as I shall show in the middle portion of my essay, scheduling and repetition in the Heptameron can partly be understood to embody values of punctuality emerging in Calvinist Switzerland--even this is not a total explanation. The Heptameron's treatment of time is unorthodox, positioning repetition such that it is shown to generate much more than Calvinistic social order. We see this generation in the spiritual change the devisants undergo at the end of Day Four and the beginning of Day Five, a surge in fervor and spiritual aptitude that appears in some way to emerge from their reiterative deeds.

In the Heptameron, Marguerite emphatically moves away from the poetic and dramatic genres of her earlier works, choosing to situate her characters in the textual vein of narrative, a modality in which repetition rarely denotes (or makes sense as) stasis, but rather builds towards a climax and a linchpin of change. In making her characters' daily storytelling and repetitious Bible reading part of a narrative, a properly evolving story rather than (for example) a cyclic, reiterative poem, (3) Marguerite veers away from static closure, both as a literary form and as a spiritual forecast. Responding to a Calvinistic take on time in which repetition and concerted human effort can only produce, at best, this-worldly social order, the Heptameron reasserts repetition's potential to participate--however mysteriously--in spiritual change and the acquisition of grace.

It is far from my wish to suggest that Reformation-era narrative, or even those instances of narrative most rich in dramatic transformation and character development, be globally or naively mapped onto the instantaneous spiritual change deemed possible by Roman Catholic notions of ritual pardon or deathbed absolution. Religious associations doubtless underlie the temporal poetics of many literary works in the period; however, teasing out these analyses calls for ginger, well-informed reading. As a literary form, narrative carries with it no inherent sectarian alliance. However, a temporo-religious analysis seems worthwhile and justified in the case of the Heptameron insofar as the text quite explicitly foregrounds the time of its unfolding, placing it in parallel with the monastic clockwork of an abbey. …

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