In ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon,’’ Boccaccio presents the reader with a woman, the lady Giovanna, who appears to exercise a sense of agency in her own life. A married woman, Giovanna ignores the apparently unwanted affections of Federigo, despite the fact that within the conventions of courtly love, which were socially accepted in her day, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility for her to allow herself a flirtation with Federigo. Yet she does not acknowledge Federigo, or the grand demonstrations of his affection, in any fashion. Despite the illusion of personal power and independence—and against her better judgment—Giovanna does her son’s bidding and follows her brothers’ wishes for her to remarry despite her protestations that she is content to be alone. Giovanna revolts against the authority of her brothers by choosing someone they do not approve of, namely, Federigo. Likewise, Federigo’s falcon is allowed to hunt, only she hunts for food for Federigo. She is considered tamed, a possession. In ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon,’’ the falcon functions as a parallel for Giovanna. Like the bird, Giovanna is permitted the illusion of power, but her actions, like those of the falcon, are determined by the wishes of the male figures in the story. Giovanna’s son, Federigo, and Giovanna’s brothers dictate female action—and the fates of the females—in this story.
When Fiammetta, the narrator of the story, initially introduces the tale, she suggests the power women have over their suitors, telling the other women in her party to be generous with their kindness, even though they might be bound by virtue to remain guarded. Fiammetta advises the women to bestow their favor on men who are worthy, whether or not they have been blessed by good fortune. The tale, Fiammetta suggests, is a cautionary one, in which the women are admonished to use the power of their affection wisely, for a worthy man may approach them, even though he lacks wealth. Such prefatory remarks exaggerate the power that women possessed during this time period. As Fiammetta’s tale will show, women may have the power to choose a mate, but they do not have the power to choose to be alone.
Following this opening, Giovanna is introduced as the love interest of Federigo. Significantly, Giovanna is brought to the reader’s attention only within the context of Federigo’s interest in her. The confines within which Giovanna operates are thus revealed. Her existence is circumscribed by her relation to men. However, Giovanna opts not to respond to at least one of the men in her life. The reader is told nothing of Giovanna’s relationship with her husband, but Giovanna’s tacit dismissal of Federigo is exceedingly clear. He loses his fortune for her sake, yet she spares him no attention or affection. As some scholars have suggested, this refusal to acknowledge Federigo is a sign of the power Giovanna possesses. F. Regina Psaki, in Approaches to Teaching Boccaccio’s ‘‘Decameron,’’ observes a trend in Boccaccio’s Decameron by women who ‘‘manage to liberate themselves from unwanted attentions through reproof, ruse, or outright refusal.’’ ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon’’ is listed as an instance of a recurrence of this theme. Yet this is Giovanna’s only source of control over her own life, namely, the right to refuse the unwanted advances of a man.
As the story progresses, the narrator offers the reader a glimpse of Giovanna’s thoughts. Giovanna has been spending every hour by the bedside of her gravely ill son. The boy has befriended Federigo and his falcon. Earlier in the story it is revealed that he wants to possess the bird, but upon seeing ‘‘how choicely Federigo esteemed her,’’ he opts not to attempt to acquire Federigo’s falcon. Yet his understanding and respect for Federigo vanishes with his good health. As his mother begs for some way to comfort him, the boy asks her to procure Federigo’s falcon for him. He knows what he is asking; he has already acknowledged that Federigo’s feelings for the bird had previously subdued his desire to obtain the falcon. Giovanna is now put in an extremely difficult position by her son. She agonizes over the request, knowing how Federigo has ‘‘lovingly kept [his falcon], not suffering it ever to be out of his sight.’’ She is also aware of the intensity of Federigo’s feelings for her. Giovanna acknowledges that Federigo may no longer wish to go on living without his falcon. She questions how devoid of understanding and concern she would seem ‘‘to rob a gentleman of his felicity, having no other joy or comfort left him.’’ These reflections represent the depth of Giovanna’s sympathy for Federigo, her extreme reluctance to ask him to make such a sacrifice. Yet ask him she does. Giovanna puts her son’s wishes above her own better judgment. She knows it is wrong to ask Federigo for his falcon. In addition, it stretches the imagination to think that Giovanna could have actually believed that Federigo’s falcon would improve her son’s spirits enough to cure him—if indeed he was actually deathly ill. Even in the Middle Ages, it seems unlikely that Giovanna, or anyone else except a child, could have thought that cheering the boy up would have saved his life (despite the assertions of the boy himself that the improvement in his spirits Federigo’s falcon would have provided him would indeed cause his illness to dissipate). Apparently Giovanna’s intention was to procure Federigo’s falcon to bring her son a little joy before he died. She implicitly states that Federigo might actually die without his falcon. Her son has little hope with or without the bird. This moral decision is at the heart of the story. Giovanna’s thoughts reveal her sense that taking the bird from Federigo is morally wrong. In the end, she ignores her reservations and does as her son wishes. She is moved by love for her son; she wishes to make him happy. The cost, however, is great, and Giovanna realizes this. In the end, however, her actions are performed in the service of her son. Like Federigo’s falcon, Giovanna is sent by a man in order to retrieve something to sustain the man.
Federigo’s falcon, the narrator informs the reader, is used by the impoverished Federigo for sustenance. The bird hunts, and brings back her prey for Federigo’s dinner and supper. It is his companion and provider, and yet Federigo willingly kills her and feeds her to Giovanna. The bird is used by Federigo, sacrificed for his own aims. Both Giovanna and the falcon are sent to do the bidding of the story’s male characters, with the falcon paying the ultimate price in the service of her master.
Giovanna is only mildly upset at what Federigo has done. She scolds him for sacrificing the noble bird for a woman’s meal. Yet she also thinks to herself that Federigo has acted in a noble manner in wishing to provide an elegant meal for her. Giovanna’s feelings for Federigo soften. Giovanna’s brothers soon press her to remarry, stating that she is both young and wealthy. (Apparently youth and riches should not be wasted on a woman, who might enjoy such things on her own.) The narrator reveals Giovanna’s thoughts on the matter, observing that Giovanna ‘‘was well contented to remain a widow.’’ Yet the brothers repeatedly insist that she take a husband. In reply, Giovanna tells them that she has no wish to marry, that living without a husband suits her. However, since they insist, she will consent—but only to Federigo as the choice for her spouse. Once again Giovanna’s own desire—to remain unmarried—is thwarted by the wishes of the men in her life. Once again her only power is over whom she accepts or rejects; she has no say in whether or not she wants to accept anyone at all.
Giovanna’s own existence is reflected in the life of Federigo’s falcon. Both are acted upon rather than permitted to act in accordance with their own instincts. In Giovanna’s marriage to Federigo it is possible to foresee an existence for Giovanna that will continue to mirror that of Federigo’s falcon: as Federigo’s wife, it is possible that she will be an agent of her husband’s wishes rather than an agent of her own desires. Significantly, Giovanna devours, however unwittingly, Federigo’s falcon. She thus literally and figuratively destroys the symbol of female captivity at Federigo’s hands. Through this action Boccaccio may be suggesting that by choosing Federigo, Giovanna creates for herself the possibility of a fate other than the traditional female role as possession and pawn of men. By exercising what little power she possesses, Giovanna perhaps helps shape a new fate for herself.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Giovanni Boccaccio – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on ‘‘Federigo’s Falcon,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.