Changing Values of Men and Women
It is often said that some topics are always on the front burner for the representatives of the general population, but the way they are treated by generations differs significantly. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise reveal a timeless love story between the Parisian philosopher and his student. They show how these people treated each other and how others perceived them in the 12th century. Similarly, relationships of a contemporary couple (an auctioneer, Virgil Oldman, and his client, Claire Ibbetson) are described in The Best Offer, a film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and released in the very beginning of 2013. It discloses the true nature of people, focusing on the way they reach their goals. Even though both works reveal the main values of society, emphasizing the role of love, they show that people from the 12th and 21st centuries are not the same.
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The Letters disclose many different topics, such as love, sex, virginity, the role of women, and punishment but all of them are somehow connected to religion. The church pays a great role in people’s lives, and they often consider how their actions can be treated by the Bible. The lovers often mention that their feelings are not likely to be supported by God, but they also speak of him as of one who provided them with an opportunity to communicate even when being apart or who allowed them to live further. Regardless of their motives, both characters often mention God, which proves that their society is very religious. When Heloise speaks of becoming a nun, she claims that she did it because of Abelard but not due to her love of God. In this way, it may be considered that not all members of the society were willing to serve Him their entire lives. Nevertheless, this option was appreciated by the general population and was ordinary while it is rarely considered today. Claire, the female character from The Best Offer, decided to spend her life in isolation because of her agoraphobia: “I haven’t left my house since I was fifteen” (Tornatore). She has never thought of a possibility to serve God instead of just hiding. People from her world prefer looking for something to their liking that is not connected to spirituality. The majority of the population focuses on arts or science and mentions God only in some phrases that are traditionally used.
Heloise and Abelard speak about love, describing it as a thing that is highly valued in their culture. The characters speak about their feelings and how happy they are because they have each other even though their relationships are rather complex. The lovers are ready to do various things to make their partners feel better. Even though they did not pay much attention to each other previously, they were greatly in love and acted this way only because they were not willing to hurt their partner. Abelard asks Heloise to pray for him, which shows that, in the 12th century, this was one of the ways people who appreciated each other acted. He writes: “even though you are over-anxious about the danger to my body,… your chief concern must be for the salvation of my soul, and you must show the dead man how much you loved the living by the special support of prayers chosen for him” (Puchner 62).
Moreover, his words prove that love between them is a constant and serious feeling that lasts regardless of distance. Things are different in The Best Offer, as even though the relationship between Clair and Virgil are rather passionate, they turn out to be not real. While Virgil acts as Abelard and does everything possible to help his partner to overcome her condition, Clair is deceiving him to get his money and run away with his only friend, Robert, a person who repairs artworks. Clair resembles Heloise only until her trick is revealed. She proves that modern people are ready to hurt others to reach their goal, and this fact is supported by a phrase of another character: “everything can be faked, Virgil. Joy, pain, hate… illness, recovery. Even love” (Tornatore). They are more concerned about material things than spiritual ones. While the characters of The Letters are separated because of society, people in The Best Offer make others adjust. Even though Virgil has much in common with Abelard and Heloise due to this fairness and willingness to help others, Clair and Robert show that young people today are rather selfish.
Women’s virginity and sex before marriage are treated differently by various cultures even today, but the comparison of the medieval and modern literature reveals even a greater discrepancy. In his letter to Heloise, Abelard writes that “the more God is pleased by the abstinence and continence which women have dedicated to him, the more willing he will be to grant their prayers” (Puncher 59). In their religious society, relationships between men and women are rather conservative. They are not supposed to reveal their attitudes towards each other in public or spend time together without becoming spouses. Everything is much simpler in the film, as even though particular societal rules exist, people do not pay attention to each other’s business as a rule. Being adults, Clair, and Virgil are free to do everything they want, and they are not going to be disrespected for their actions. Even though Clair has sex with him and is in love with Robert, she is not afraid of the consequences of her actions. Moreover, she does not care about the way she will be treated by God. The Letters shows that Abelard and Heloise believe that they can be put in unpleasant or even threatening conditions because of having forbidden relationships. The Best Offer, on the contrary, emphasizes that modern people are not afraid of God’s punishment and societal condemnation; they only need to avoid legal issues.
Thus, it can be concluded that the worlds of The Letters and The Best Offer focus on similar topics, but prove that people from the 12th and 21st centuries treat them differently in the majority of cases. While individuals who lived in the medieval society were extremely religious, today they are free to reject spirituality. As a result, the characters of The Best Offer seem to have more freedom in their actions. They are not going to be condemned or punished for having sex before marriage and for revealing their feelings in public. However, Abelard and Heloise prove that their contemporaries were fairer. Their love lasted regardless of various obstacles, and it was accompanied by true emotions. Clair and Virgil’s relations show that everything can be fake. Being focused on material benefits and personal goals, people do not think of others and act selfishly.
“The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Martin Puchner, 3rd ed., Vol. B, Norton, 2012, pp. 47-62.
Tornatore, Giuseppe, director. The Best Offer. Paco Cinematografica & Warner Bros, 2013.