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The Black Death
The Black Death is both the inciting incident of this short collection of stories, and the subject of the stories themselves. The Black Death symbolizes horror and the fear of death. Because no one understood why people were all dying, it was seen as a spiritual plague by many, and these young people are witness to that plague from such a close proximity that they literally leave the city, hoping to fair better in their own limited company. This is like a quarantine, symbolizing an emergency of absolute nature.
The maidens and men
The seven maidens and the three young men they take for their protection together represent the fate of humanity. The women are focused on their survival, which is why they left the city in the first place. That is also why there are three men with them, because for women to be alone in the Italian countryside without an escort is extremely dangerous. The ten young people represent life because of their youth, and the numerology suggests completeness, seven and three; as if to say, "This collection symbolizes the survival of humanity in general."
Storytelling as a symbol
Birds build nests, and spiders weave their webs. What do the humans do? The book explains very obviously what humans do: they play games and tell stories. The game they decide to play is that each day, there will be a new king and queen pair. Then, for tens days within the next two weeks, the ten youths tell one story a day, working on it by day, and telling it by night. The stories are somewhat random, but together, they form a compendium of the kinds of stories people tell. This completes a thorough symbolic depiction of storytelling as the art of mankind.
This book is absolutely riddled with numerology. Between the 100 stories, there are multiple, fascinating uses of numerology and symbolism, but the major use of numerology is within the frame story, the ten youths surviving the plague. For instance, there are seven maidens and three men. The book spans two weeks of time, but four days are holidays, and the youths keep the holidays without storytelling. That means that ten storytellers tell ten stories over two weeks. Also, they play a dating game where two people will be paired as king and queen, but the rotation yields random couples out of 21 possible pairs. These numbers probably mean something in ancient alchemy; that was a very common use of numerology in these times.
The trickster motif
The stories are brilliant and famous for their playful attitude. Within the horror stories of plague and death, there are funny stories. Within those comedic debriefs, there arises an archetypal figure that is common to world literature and mythology, called "the trickster." The trickster can be seen as a catalyst, using deception and pranks to cause a long series of reversals in fate. Their stories feature his pranks and jokes as a common punchline in their late-night storytelling parties.
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