Sample Essay and Commentary

The following essay is a brief review and discussion of Millicent Marcus' article, "Seduction by Silence: A Gloss on the Tales of Masetto and Alatiel." In his own words, the student summarizes Marcus' thesis, presents his own opinion, and supports his views by citing relevant passages from the text. Due to its brevity, the essay lacks same elements that are essential to a longer term paper. However, it does follow the general format of a good term paper.

Paragraph 1: Introduction

In the three-sentence introductory paragraph, the student places the story of Alatiel within the context of the Decameron, briefly summarizes Marcus' argument, and finally presents his own position.

Thrust into the hands of Fortune, Alatiel, the silent protagonist of Decameron II.7, is the first character to fully grasp an important concept that Boccaccio attempts to make clear to the readers of his text -- the immensely powerful role played by language in the lives of his fictional characters, in the life of the brigata, and in the author's own life. Rather than serving sexuality, as is often the case in the tradition of courtly love, Millicent Marcus argues that language works to temper the power of passion, whereas silence is the more powerful aphrodisiac. However, Marcus neglects to point out that language can only be used as a means to control and identity development if its agent so chooses; in Alatiel's case, the use of language results in what some might argue is an even greater dehumanization than that which she suffered during her silent travels.

Paragraph 2: Marcus' Argument

Note that the student does not simply recite Marcus' words or limit himself to quotes used by Marcus. It is obvious that this student reread the Alatiel tale a number of times and understood for himself how Marcus' argument plays out in the text; he found and chose his own supporting quotes from the Decameron.

In Decameron II.7, Alatiel, incapable of understanding their language, is forced to suffer mutely as she is passed from the hands of one love-starved traveler to another. Her silence, explains Marcus, is dangerous for a number of reasons. Alatiel's loss of language results in her ultimate passivity and acquiescence; she becomes incapable of asserting herself or developing her reasoning, and consequently loses any sense of identity she has. Thus, the men in her life see her as a passive and willing body with no particular desires, no identifying characteristics, and no ability to assert its individuality. The only response men can possibly have to such a dehumanized figure is a carnal one. Reason is lost, and passion reigns supreme to the point that all social bonds are shattered, and men kill brothers and friends to be able to possess Alatiel, the acquiescent woman of every man's dreams. When Alatiel regains her speech at the end of the tale, she fictionalizes her past in order to take her life back into her own hands, to reclaim the identity she had lost during her travels. In much the same way as Boccaccio uses his writing to cure his lovesickness, and the brigata uses its narrations to carve a niche for itself outside the confines of plague-ridden Florence, Alatiel weaves a story of fiction to reclaim her innocent past, "e si rinnuova come fa la luna."

Paragraph 3: The Student's Counter-Argument

After generally summarizing his position in the first sentence, the student goes on to explain exactly why he disagrees with Marcus' thesis. While Marcus asserted that language in the tale of Alatiel is used to help her develop an identity, the student shows why he considers Alatiel's use of language to impact her identity negatively.

Alatiel's use of language as a mask for her past, rather than its use as an offering in the manner of Boccaccio and the brigata, may result in problems that Marcus has failed to address. Alatiel's passivity in the hands of Fortune indeed resulted in her dehumanization, but both Boccaccio and Marcus neglect to approach the dehumanization that can result from the fiction of an unkissed mouth. By using language to hide her past from her kinsfolk, Alatiel denies its very existence and ends up unable to ever face it on her own, leaving her with a host of possible psychological problems. In using her freedom of speech to give up that very same freedom, Alatiel loses her autonomy in a manner which is much more dangerous than her loss of self during her travels. She attains the "higher" goal that is innocence, remarriage, and homecoming, but in exchange Alatiel gives up an identity of her past that she should learn to accept, because of its inescapable influence on her present character. Alatiel reclaims her past, but not her present, and in creating a full circle she has lost what may possibly be the only identity she could claim as her own.