In Heptameron’s novella 32, the main characters are Bernage, who is some sort of a diplomat for the King, a German homeowner, and his wife. Also mentioned are King Charles VIII, his painter Jean de Paris, and the wife’s young lover.
As Bernage arrives late one evening at the German household the man of the house allows him to stay the night, but with difficulty, due to his mistrust towards men being around his wife. During dinner, a beautiful woman joins the two men at the table. She is sombre and quiet, speaks to no one, and drinks from a human skull. The woman’s husband tells Bernage the story of how he caught her in bed with another man, killed her lover with his bare hands, hung his bones in her room, and forced her to drink from her dead lover’s skull to remind her of her lost friend while looking at her worst enemy (himself). This, he argues, is a punishment “worse than death itself”. The wife, clearly miserable, tearfully tells Bernage how she is not worthy of being the man’s wife and that her crime is much worse than any punishment he could have inflicted upon her. Bernage points out to the owner that she is regretful and penitent of her sin, and asks him to consider forgiving her. After all, he says, he is still young and it would be a shame for him to die without an heir to inherit his estate. When Bernage returns to the king he conveys to him the story he has seen and heard, and the king, after verifying the events and curious to see this beautiful woman, sends his painter to paint a portrait of her. In the end, the man forgives his wife, seeing as how she remained humble and preserved her humility, and fathered several of her children.
The atmosphere that Madame Oisille creates in her telling of the dinner scene is one filled with mystery and invoking a deeper curiosity. It would certainly seem very strange to have dinner in the company of a gentleman and a lady who, although are civil, are not speaking to each other. Also curious is the fact that the woman is completely silent and reserved. Her strange demeanour, her very short hair, her clothes – are a mystery, an unusual way for a lady to present herself in front of guests or otherwise. The atmosphere is also very gloomy, as it is obvious that this mysterious and enigmatic woman is morose, as is later confirmed by Bernage saying “I regard you as the most unhappy woman in the world”. There is an undeniable tension between the residents of the house, and a curious and strange relationship between them that reveals nothing and leaves everything to the imagination.
What adds to the gravity of the bizarre situation is that the woman comes in from, and retreats to, a room behind some tapestries, as if purposefully hidden and made to be secretive, resembling the dwelling of a hermit. As a matter of custom, the woman makes a reverence to the man of the house as she exits, but this doesn’t cancel the strange air of gloom and distance that looms around her, for these are the only words she speaks to him, and are pretty much obligatory as per the customs of the times. After we learn that the woman is, in fact, the man’s wife, we can see how this scene is very demonstrative of a deeply dysfunctional relationship. Not only do they no speak to each other, but she is also drinking from a human skull – not something you would see every day, nor expect of a beautiful lady (or any lady) to do. This strange behaviour raises several questions in the reader’s mind, including “what is happening”, “who’s idea was this” and “why is she drinking form a human skull?” The dinner scene, as described, depicts such strange characters and unlikely events that in order to take the story as fact (as it was intended by Mme. Oisille) the reader yearns for a solid explanation. This explanation is plentifully provided in the subsequent paragraphs. At first, there is more to understand about the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between the German couple. As a 21st century reader, one might point out the unhealthy, obsessive nature of the man’s love. He says “I would have hazarded a thousand lives to obtain her”, meaning he was willing to literally kill for her – not a very healthy basis for a loving relationship by modern standards; and making that even worse – the actual murder that the man has committed. The woman, herself a person of faults, as described by her husband: “forgot hers (honour) and the love she had for me, and conceived a passion for a young gentleman” – another limp in the relationship. But the main item that explains this bizarre relationship is not only the punishment that the husband inflicts upon his wife, but the very idea of punishing. Firstly, he set a trap for her by lying about having to go into the country. Then, when he saw from his hiding place his wife with her young lover, he came out and murdered him. And to put a sick twist on his act of disciplinary action he not only hung the lover’s bones in the woman’s room, but also made her drink from his skull, so that she “may see living him whom she has made her mortal enemy by her crime, and dead him whose love she preferred to mine”. Overall, one might say that the sequence of events as described by the man serve as an adequate explanation to the strange dinner rituals at the house. The sadness of the woman is then later explained when she confesses her deep regret for her crime, and humble acceptance of her punishment. Although disturbing and unusual, the story leaves no loose ends.
3.The resolution of the conflict
The resolution of the conflict between the man and woman in the story owes its thanks to Bernage; had he not intervened in the couple’s relationship, their disbanding might have never seen an end. Bernage brings up two important points that force the German man to reconsider his vow to never trust his wife again: firstly, he points out the obvious regret and humility that have marked the woman’s behaviour and demeanour, arguing that she has learned her lesson enough to never repeat her adultery. Secondly, Bernage brings up an issue that holds strong significance for all men, as much so presently as in the past and future. This is the inheritance issue. Bernage, in a round-about way asks the man to choose what is more important to him – whether it is to hold a grudge forever and thereby punishing himself, or to think of himself now as only a single link in the formation of a future generation of fine men – his own descendants. In other words, is he willing to give up hope of his name carrying on – giving up the chance to immortalize a part of himself – by not having children with his wife? And would he really want his estate to be handed over to someone who doesn’t necessarily care for him? Or is he willing to forgive her (which she obviously – according to Bernage – deserves) and pass his home and substance to legitimate heirs?
Bernage’s arguments hold within them several important values. For one: forgiveness. As per the Christian dogma, forgiveness is a fundamental and irreplaceable value that helps define how a good person should behave, and sets an example of how and why man is greater than beast. Other values, such as tolerance and respect, are in also play here. It is important to mention that for the Christians, sins can be absolved through faith and humility - exactly what the wife’s behaviour exhibits.
Another important value that is emphasized is the importance of passing on one’s substance and wealth on to one’s offspring. We can see the same pattern from biblical times and until today: fathers’ glory carried on through their sons, kings’ lands and kingdoms passed on to their princes, knowledge of specific trades and fields of study passing on through the generations of one blood line. Passing on inheritance is hardly only material; it is an issue of honour, reputation, status, and even keeping oneself alive in memory and spirit through what one leaves behind.
This is why it is fair to think that Bernage’s argument was so effective on the man in the story because of Bernage’s status – a king’s ambassador. The king has an important task that he must never disregard: the task of keeping the people’s respect and admiration. Although not directly involved in the conflict between the married couple, the king’s mark is deeply imprinted in Bernage’s opinions and advice. As the king’s servant, Bernage represents and acts in the name of the king’s own interests, thus being held to a greater status and considered more important than a neighbour or a simple friend. Hence, Bernage’s words are appreciated and, as we’ve seen, adhered to.
4.The discussion between the other storytellers
There are 8 persons taking part in a discussion following Mme. Oisille’s story. The women’s discussion comes first, presenting a general theme of whether a woman’s honour can or cannot be restored after committing adultery. Parlamente is the first to speak, saying that the woman suffered a perfectly reasonable punishment. She claims that because the crime was worse than death, so should be the punishment, which it was. Ennasuite disagrees with her, claiming that nothing is worse than death (due to its irreversible nature), and, furthermore, there is nothing that could make her wish to die. She uses the Magdalen to illustrate that a sinner can be reformed, and moreover, as long as she has God’s and her husband’s forgiveness, nothing of what others may think of her would matter. Longaraine counters Ennasuite by saying that no amount of penitence could save Magdalen from her being always labeled a ‘sinner’ and, therefore, no woman can save her reputation after losing her honour. Interestingly, Mme. Oisille herself refrains from making any comments.
The men’s discussion takes a completely different turn, into the direction of whether a woman really has any honour to begin with. Simontault illustrates this point very clearly by saying that women aren’t capable of love, nor of regret, all in a haughty tone, as if everyone should know this. Dagoucin approaches the subject a bit differently, saying that he knows that women are as Simontault says – loveless and shameless – but says that had they not been this way, he would just die of pleasure from knowing that his own true love is fully requited and that he has complete devotion from his woman. Dogoucin also admits that he doesn’t really want to find out whether women can truly love ‘as they should’, because for one, if they could he doesn’t want to die from the pleasure of knowing that, and secondly, if they could then the woman in Mme. Oisille’s story would have herself died of grief, from knowing that she inadvertently caused someone’s death. Nomerfide basically calls Dagoucin a fool, saying that he needs nothing but faith and hope – things that lack substance - to survive. And lastly, Geburon voices his utter pessimism by comparing love to the plague: a horrible and fatal disease, and warns the men to stay away from it. Simontault finishes the argument by saying that after all, women aren’t as foolish as to believe every accusation or claim that is presented to or against them. He realizes that only solid, irrefutable evidence could change a woman’s mind and cause her to agree with a man, and that not everything that seems like a miracle or a good deed always is.