The Book of the City of Ladies
Analysis of Major Characters
Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan is both the author of and a character in her literary creation. She straddles two realms, serving as a bridge between the book’s historical and contemporary references and the imaginative world of the three allegorical figures and their symbolic city. In addition, her presence accommodates and unites the various references that constitute the wealth of examples that Reason, Rectitude, and Justice cite as evidence of women’s virtue. In stating her case, Christine integrates into her treatise women from history as well as fictional characters from legend and mythology. Although Christine argues that these seemingly fictionalized presences were based on actual, real women, it is her dual status as both authorial presence and literary character that allows the real and the fantastic to seamlessly fuse and to form a unified and convincing argument. Without her presence, critics may have found her scholarship flawed and her citation of fictional lives questionable, thus compromising the impact of her words.
Christine assumes another unique pose and fulfills yet another specific function in her work. Throughout, she adopts and utilizes what is known as the modesty topos, a rhetorical device in which she willfully appears to be more ignorant, naïve, or uninformed than she actually is in order to make her various points more powerful. Rather than stating that women are virtuous and talented, she instead asks the three Virtues if there is any truth to the statements that male authors make, maligning and dismissing women’s accomplishments. By casting her work in the form of a dialogue (a philosophical debate utilizing a question-and-answer format), Christine avoids the charge of shrilly preaching to her readers. This approach is more effective: readers can trace her logic and see how she arrives at her conclusions rather than simply being told the direct result of her contemplations. Ultimately, this self-effacing stance stands out against the self-promotion she indulges on several different occasions. In answering Christine’s questions, the three allegorical figures often acknowledge and cite some of Christine’s other books in what amounts to a brief endorsement of the esteemed author’s body of scholarship.
Reason is the first of the three allegorical figures to step forward and announce her intention to dispel the insecurity and ignorance that clouds Christine’s intellect. She is also the first to announce the figures’ intention to appear to Christine and present her with her task of constructing the City of Ladies. Reason presents herself as an administrator who will oversee the construction of a flawless city. Reason helps Christine perform the initial excavation work. She encourages Christine to reassess the power of her pen as a device that can be used to unearth the truth and to remove the mud and dirt that previously sullied the good name of women. Only then can a solid foundation be established. As a symbolic presence, Reason is an important first figure to appear to Christine, as all philosophical arguments must originate and proceed with logic. Without logic, any ensuing evidence or conclusions would lack solid framework and would crumble.
In her oration and her response to Christine’s various questions concerning the nature of women, Reason establishes several important patterns. She uses Christine’s questions as prompts to help her develop thematic elements that are also qualities shared by all virtuous and notable women. From these initial suggestions, Reason, and subsequently the two other Virtues, provide a series of narrations as a growing body of evidence supporting the defense of women. Story by story, the argument gains strength, just as brick by brick the city grows larger and more forbidding. Reason cites examples from a variety of sources. She tells of women from the past as well as the present. By doing so, she draws parallels between past and present, suggesting a continuous and ongoing history of virtue on the part of women. In establishing this second pattern, Reason wishes to dispel any notion that venerable women were solely a thing of the past.
The hard work of building and partially populating the city completed, Justice comes to sanctify the proceedings. She represents herself as the daughter of God, a direct descendant and representative. In this sense, the City of Ladies and Christine’s project are being given a final divine endorsement and blessing. By completing the roofs of the city, Justice symbolically links the community of women directly to the kingdom of Heaven. There is a direct correlation established in conjoining two metaphorical, abstract realms. In addition, Justice’s tales assume a darker, more violent character representing women’s bodies as the target of severe physical abuse and degradation. But the extremity of the aggressor’s actions toward these women is met with retribution that is equally cruel and forbidding. For their sin and idolatry, men are burned to ash and set to consuming their own flesh. Justice represents the darker side of divine love and the unyielding judgment that is meted out to those whose perversions and propensity for sin win out over their capacity for love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Justice’s presence serves as an absolute if not terrifying reminder of the fate awaiting those ruled by their cruelty and misogynistic acts.
Rectitude serves as a transitional figure in the work. Adopting the methods and procedures established by Christine and Reason in Part One, Rectitude strengthens and expands their arguments. She takes Reason’s strong foundation and sturdy walls and adds shape, character, and life to the city in the stories she relates. In doing so, Rectitude serves as a bridge between the earth, or Reason’s foundation, and heaven, the holy realm that Justice will provide access to. Thus, she provides examples of women who have used virtue as a means of paving their way to heaven. She also integrates higher ideals of selfless, Christ-like conduct by introducing stories of women who follow God’s will in their daily lives. Like Christine, Rectitude resides in two realms, living more in heaven than on Earth. But she arrives as a messenger of God’s goodness and a symbol of the radiance and splendor of the heavenly realm in order to inspire and exhort all of humanity to right and just conduct. This intention signals one of the motivations driving Christine de Pizan’s work. Model lives can serve as inspiration not just for women but for men as well, encouraging mutual respect, common courtesy, and proper conduct.
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