The Rape, Humiliation, and Power Struggle of Alibech
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The tenth story of the third day in the Decameron is an exploration of language just as the rest of the book. Within this story, the smallest of words can make the biggest differences in how the themes can be interpreted. The genius of Boccaccio’s writing is that while he may have had different aspirations for the Decameron, the interpretations can be as modern as the Decameron is celebrated.
Although Dioneo introduces the story as a story of love, it is nothing of the sort; in fact, the story of Alibech and her religious journey is a tale that completely strips a young woman of the concept of love. Alibech is given a perception of God’s work that is disguised as rape; she not only does not consent to copulation, she does not know what it even is. Sex is presented to her for the first time in negative language: male genitalia is “the devil”, while female genitalia is “hell”. In the introduction, love is personified, capitalized, and given the pronoun he: “. . . Love is more inclined to take up his abode in a gay palace and a dainty bedchamber than in a wretched hovel. . . “ (274). This assumes that Love is a male, and because the Decameron is written for “women in love”, a woman may only experience love through a man. This also suggests that Love is a physical force as opposed to metaphysical: without a physical man, a woman is Love-less.
As Alibech progresses through her journey, several men turn her away: she first leaves her father, as he is unable to relate to her desires to become a Christian. She is then directed by a nameless Christian to travel far from her home to serve God. She meets the first holy man, who directs her further into the desert; though this first holy man provides her with food—a physical need—but no more, for Alibech was perhaps a test that the devil had sent to him. (Migiel 167) This idea of the woman as the temptation comes up again when she meets the second holy man, Rustico: “Being anxious to prove himself that he possess a will of iron, he did not, like the others, send her away or direct her elsewhere”. (275) This is the sentence that sets Alibech up to be the aggressor instead of the victim; it appears to be Alibech’s fault for thinking impious thoughts and breaking down his iron will, but perhaps Rustico’s perversions were present all along, and they just happened to turn into action when Alibech—a real, physical, sexually appealing woman—came to stay with him. Then, it is the fault of neither Alibech nor the devil, rather the innate character of Rustico.
Rustico uses Alibech’s appeal for the religious as a tool to manipulate her. Rustico tells her to do as he does, for he acts in the name of God to refute the devil. Young and malleable, she submits to him. When she sees his bare anatomy and learns that his genitals are the devil, she unknowingly speaks of female dominance: “I can see I am better off than you are, for I have no such devil to contend with,” (276). Rustico corrects her, for this thought does not align with his misogynistic views, saying that she has something worse; she has a hell. While his devil only appears some of the time (i.e.: when he achieves an erection), her hell is forever present and can only be tamed, not put back. After they have engaged in intercourse for the first time, she comments on how bad the devil must be, unknowingly commenting on the holy man’s poor sexual performance. He, then, had to prove his sexual competence by entering her several more times that day, himself remaining satisfied.
Over the next couple of days, Alibech finds that she has a knack for refuting the devil, that she enjoys serving God. During this time, Rustico becomes less aroused, though there may be several reasons why: is he less eager to engage in intercourse because he is getting it more frequently, or does Alibech’s pleasure turn him off? The fact that he was so aroused by Alibech’s innocence and lack of knowledge points to the possibility that he cannot be stimulated without humiliating Alibech. Eventually, Alibech inadvertently asks to achieve the same pleasure that Rustico achieves: the orgasm. While it is easy to send the devil back, it is not so easy to tame hell, so-to-speak. She exclaims that her hell, meaning her female sexuality, will not leave her alone. Rustico could not help her very much with the taming of her hell, even though he is supposedly a very holy man; surely a man of his virtue could tame hell the way he could send the devil back. Lo, he was not able to help her, and she began to complain.
The holy man’s own physical pleasure was not enough for the young woman. When she required equal pleasure from him, he was unable to deliver. The misogynistic views of the holy man makes this possible, for once she discovered her own desires and began demanding them, she was no longer under his control. When the young man comes to marry Alibech, there is mention of relief for Rustico; he could not satisfy a woman with her own desires. When the women of Gafsa mock her, they appear to mock her innocence, but in an alternative view, they also mock her discovery of voice. She commands the devil to put hell back where it came from, too.
Migiel, Marilyn. “Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10).” Italica. 75.2 (1998): 161-177. Print.