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Marguerite de Navarre, rhetorical narrative, Christian pessimism


Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron is one of the many works that have fallen prey to the contemporary fascination with indeterminacy and the poetics of failure. Increasingly, critics are writing of the "ambiguity" of the novella collection and the lack of narrative resolve that seems to characterize both the novellas and the discussions by the "devisants" that surround the novellas. My purpose in this essay is to contest this view. I intend to show that from a historical perspective, when the Heptaméron is seen in the light of the pervasive rhetorical concerns of late Renaissance writers, the prevailing critical view is misleading. Indeed, I will argue that the rhetorical "example" was a key factor in the composition of the novellas that make up the Heptaméron. Marguerite de Navarre was not only aware of the kinship between her own short prose narratives and the example, she conceived of her narratives in rhetorical terms – as examples. This is not to say that all of Marguerite's novellas are ideologically univocal. Rather, she is aware of the indeterminacy for rhetorical ends. She uses her diverse, often conflicting novellas as examples of the fallen state of humanity. Her persuasion is aimed at teaching a Christian pessimism, which, although it recognizes the fallibility of human virtue and knowledge, is nonetheless direct in its attempt to persuade the reader to adopt a certain ethical stance. In order to provide the background necessary for uncovering the rhetorical concerns in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, before undertaking my analysis I will first briefly review the nature of the rhetorical example and how rhetorical narratives function.