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She told him about…country sounds and country smells and of how fresh and clean everything in the country is. She said that heought to live there and that if he did, he would find that all his troubles were city troubles.
-Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
Rural areas in Western literature are pure and good, going back the to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. They represent spirituality, beauty, and often an escape from the troubles of a sinful world. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, citizens of Florence escape their plague-ridden city for the solitude and safety of the countryside. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the narrator has his most significant spiritual awakening in a garden in Milan.
At the beginning of The Decameron, Boccaccio describes the plague occurring in Florence:
Large quantities of refuse were cleared out of the city byofficials specially appointed for the purpose, all sick personswere forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued forsafeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (I. Intro)
This passage describes the vast presence of sin in the city. “Officials” can be interpreted to mean clergymen, “sick persons” can mean criminals, and “numerous instructions” can mean the work of the church. “All to no avail,” however, signifies the continued presence of sin and ugliness in the city despite the efforts of the church.
Several young citizens of Florence, however, meet in a church and then physically leave it, in a jaunt to the countryside, which is, importantly, “some distance away from any road.” (I. Intro) There,
The young men and their fair companions sauntered slowly througha garden, conversing on pleasant topics, weaving fair garlandsfor each other from the leaves of various trees, and singingsongs of love. (I. Intro)
Words like “fair,” “pleasant,” and especially “love” stand in stark contrast to the earlier descriptions of Florence. The vision of “young men and their fair companions” conversing is one that is pure and chaste, somewhat pre-lapsarian. Emphasis is placed on the natural aspects by the mention of “garden,” “garlands,” and “leaves of various trees.” In the introduction to the Third Day, the new garden they arrive in is directly compared to the Garden of Eden:
They all began to maintain that if Paradise were constructed onearth, it was inconceivable that it could take any other form,nor could they imagine any way in which the garden’s beauty couldpossibly be enhanced.
In this passage, Boccaccio appears to be stating that Paradise is indeed attainable on earth, and that the countryside is the manifestation of human perfection. The beauty found in the description of the garden seems almost impossibly perfect, but Boccaccio argues that it is real.
The perfect garden is even created without the aid of God in Fifth Story of Day 10. In this story, Dianora asks Ansaldo for a May garden in January, which she believes is impossible. Ansaldo, however, enlists the aid of a magician, who creates “one of the fairest gardens that anyone had ever seen, with plants and trees and fruits of every conceivable kind.” The description is almost exactly the gardens in the framing narrative. The creation of a garden without divine intervention again demonstrates Boccaccio’s religious skepticism, which pervades his lusty text.
While the characters in The Decameron are able to exist in the garden that symbolizes human perfection without ruining it, Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, fails to do so. In Book II, Augustine steals a pear from a tree in a vineyard:
The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, thegood God, God the highest good and my true good.
Augustine, a human, damages God’s creation; like Adam and Eve in Genesis, he is unable to live without sin. Also, Augustine places emphasis on the fact that he did not act alone but under the encouragement of others, showing the negative effects that humans often have upon one another, similar to the impact of the serpent on Adam and Eve. Unlike Boccaccio’s description of the garden, Augustine emphasizes the beauty of the pear not by describing the pear itself but by describing the pear as a work of God. Here we see Saint Augustine’s strong religious beliefs as opposed to Boccaccio’s belief that humans can function well on their own.
Later in Confessions, Augustine finds himself in a horrible state of religious confusion. Where he is living, however, there is a garden:
The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden where no onecould interfere with the burning struggle with myself in which Iwas engaged, until the matter could be settled. (VIII. Vii (19))
Augustine does not take himself to the garden, but rather is led more metaphysically by “the tumult of [his] heart.” The solitude of the garden is emphasized: “We sat down as far as we could from the buildings.” (VIII. Vii 19)) Only away from the sins of other humans will Augustine be able to make any spiritual breakthrough. Alypius is present, but he is not a negative influence. The “burning struggle” describes the pain and anguish caused by sin, and the difficulty of breaking away from sin. Augustine tries to use his will to break away, but is unable. He finally is able to experience conversion when he hears a voice telling him to “pick up and read.” (VIII. Xi. (29)) He reads the word of the Lord, and again comes to the conclusion that the sins of the common (city-dwelling) people are what have been preventing him from attaining perfection:
‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism andindecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord JesusChrist and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.’
(Rom. 13: 13-14) (VIII. Xi. (29))
The countryside is the only place that can be perfect and the only place where humans can possibly hope to achieve perfection, because it is there that they can be with God’s creation and away from the negative influence of others.
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