A Critical Study of ‘Hecatommithi’ by Giraldo Cinthio
To fully understand and appreciate these literary works, we should perhaps try to identify their necessary genre. It is not accurate to label them as simply ‘short stories’ which are often forums for experimentation and invention. These stories on the other hand are quite clearly instructive, and succinct. They have a singular purpose, to point out some aspect of human vice which makes them more comparable to Aesop’s fables. However, both Cinthio and Maupassant dispense with metaphorical and allegorical devices. It may suffice then, to label these works, morality tales.
While some three hundred years separate their composition, their structural conventions are very similar, at the very least in their tragic conclusions. But in addition, both stories begin with an introduction of the pivotal central character that will act out the moral lesson. Most immediately we are provided with a list of their virtues. The Moor was ‘very valiant and of a handsome person’. Mathilde was ‘one of those pretty and charming young creatures’. Presumably, this convention is important to both authors because it positions the protagonists for a fall, suggesting the fallibility of even the most virtuous examples of humanity while in addition, a fall from grace gives the protagonist and the reader a point of comparison by which to better judge the nature of the error and the process of retribution and redemption. It is of course also the formula of the archetypal morality tale of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Next in the structural development of the stories is an insinuation of vice which will become the source of the characters’ undoing. The Moor’s ‘testimony of his valour’ is marred by seeming impulsiveness and rashness. He is described as ‘impatient’, ‘troubled’ and his behaviour is melodramatic and indiscrete. Mathilde’s vice is vanity; ‘feeling herself born to enjoy all delicacies and all luxuries’. The authors then introduce the serpent or the instrument of deception which panders to the protagonists’ vice – For the Moor, it is the evil Ensign. For Mathilde, it is the Diamond Necklace. The fall then becomes manifest, culminating in each character’s punishment and finally enlightenment.
It would be lazy to take a flippant view of the literariness of these tales given their straightforward purpose and conventional narration. Close inspection of the text provides much ground for thought and reveals distinct styles. Multiple allusions to parts of the human anatomy assemble an underlying symbolic structure in Cythnio’s work. Cynthio identifies the complex interaction between the passive parts of human perception – eyes, ears, the responsive objects of human emotion – heart and head, and the often malign tools of human action or persuasion – tongue and hands. Cinthio’s language is often hyperbolic. For instance we are told that the Ensign was ‘of the most depraved nature in the world’. Elsewhere meaning is cemented with repetition of key words and superlatives, for instance in the opening three paragraphs there are more than fifteen words synonymous with bravery and honour. At all times Cinthio seems to be conscious of a need to portray the very extremes of human emotion. His characters are ‘overjoyed’ or in ‘deep melancholy’. Relations between characters range from a ‘harmony and peace. that no word ever passed between them that was not affectionate and kind’, to ‘such an enmity. that no greater or more deadly can be imagined’. Consequently, Cinthio’s work is identifiable with English, Elizabethan literature such as The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost in the sense that it aims to present a typically Christian, clear-cut and comprehensive vision of human nature, as black and white, affording no place for moral ambiguity or middle ground – man is destined to work toward or to work against God’s will. The voice of the narrator as it appears to us fleetingly in personal pronouns is the voice of Cinthio feigning the idiosyncratic role of storyteller; exaggerating the various characters and forces at work in the story and taking pains to impute the central message wherever possible. The author is playful with the conventions of his medium, summarising his tale with an affirmation of its purpose of extolling Christian justice and finally an explanation of whence it came as though ironically also affirming its truth – ‘Thus did Heaven avenge the innocence of Disdemona; and all these events were narrated by the Ensign’s wife, who was privy to the whole, as I have told them here’.