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Isak Dinesen’s short story The Ring was written in a very straightforward descriptive-narrative style, in which the author simply relates the tale of a young, 19-year-old newly-married woman who has negotiated the socioeconomic transition from urban and materially comfortable to rural and forced to eke out a living off her new husband’s farm. As Dinesen’s narrator points out, “[i]t had not been easy for them to get married, for the wife’s family was higher in rank and wealthier than the husband’s.” Despite this gulf in their backgrounds, the two love each other, and the bride, Lovisa, is intent on acclimating to her new lifestyle on the farm. The two are devoted to each other, with Sigismund committed to making his wife’s life as comfortable as possible, and Lovisa happily accepting the tribulations that accompany her new existence.
As sometimes happens when couples from widely-disparate backgrounds marry, the fissures in the relationship with their roots in different perspectives born of different backgrounds soon begin to emerge. Observing her husband discuss the fate of some sheep that have become ill with his foreman, Lovisa’s thoughts start to become condescending and critical, as evident in the following comment:
She thought: “How clever he is, what a lot of things he knows!” and at the same time: “What an absurd person he is, with his sheep! What a baby he is! I am a hundred years older than he.”
The real turning point in Lovisa’s perceptions of her husband involve the revelation that a sheep killer is on the loose, and that it is human and dangerous. In fact, the fugitive thief has already killed another farmer and injured his son before escaping.
It is in the context of stories of the thief/killer that Lovisa, or Lise, is transformed from the loving young wife to a suddenly more cynical about small-town rural America and, most surprisingly, finds herself infatuated with the danger and intrigue surrounding this mysterious thief. It is, consequently, a little ironic when she rebuffs Sigismund’s comments regarding her husband’s empathy towards the fugitive criminal. Sigismund cannot help but be perplexed and a little disturbed by his barely-out-of-her-teens wife when the two discuss the nature of the thief:
“She remembered Red Riding-hood’s wolf, and felt a pleasant little thrill running down her spine. Sigismund had his own lambs in his mind, but he was too happy in himself to wish anything in the universe ill. After a minute he said: “Poor devil.” Lise said: “How can you pity such a terrible man? Indeed Grandmamma was right when she said that you were a revolutionary and a danger to society!” The thought of Grandmamma, and of the tears of past days, again turned her mind away from the gruesome tale she had just heard.”
The transformation in Lovisa is now near-complete. Dispatching his wife home ahead of him, despite the dangers that could be lurking in the shrubs and ditches off the road, he has now unwittingly facilitated the final break in his relationship with Lovisa. Dinesen, in the following passage, makes clear that these two are not meant to be:
“'You go home, my darling,' he said, 'this will take some time. But just walk ahead slowly, and I shall catch up with you.'
"So she was turned away by an impatient husband to whom his sheep meant more than his wife. If any experience could be sweeter than to be dragged out by him to look at those same sheep, it would be this."
Lovisa is now in the process of transferring her affections from her husband to the still-unseen thief. Deciding to hide in some bushes and surprise her husband on his way home, she instead encounters the thief himself, bloody, bruised and holding the knife he used in his murder. Dinesen’s narrative now describes Lovisa’s acclimation to this new environment – an acclimation that comes surprisingly naturally:
“She did not bargain for her life. She was fearless by nature, and the horror with which he inspired her was not fear of what he might do to her. She commanded him, she besought him to vanish as he had come, to take a dreadful figure out of her life, so that it should never have been there. In the dumb movement her young form had the grave authoritativeness of a priestess conjuring down some monstrous being by a sacred sign.”
Finally, the thief’s rejection of Lovisa’s wedding ring but his decision to pick up and keep her handkerchief cements the bond that now exists between these two young people.
Lovisa does not try to find her wedding ring, which the thief, in rejecting its offer, merely pushed aside in favor of the more intimate item, the handkerchief. In describing to her husband, newly arrived on the scene, about her lost wedding ring, she ascribes to it now a meaning not intended when it was initially placed upon her finger. Dinesen concludes her story with Lovisa conclusively breaking emotionally from this new quiet, existence to which she had previously agreed. In describing this emotional detachment from her marriage and from the ring it represented, Dinesen has her protagonist sadly and despondently forever link the lost wedding ring with the lifestyle she initially accepted but now finds wholly inadequate:
“As she heard her own voice pronounce the words she conceived ‘with this ring I thee wed.’ With this lost ring she had wedded herself to something. To what? To poverty, persecution, total loneliness. To the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth. “And what therefore God has joined together let man not put asunder’.”
In writing The Ring, Dinesen does not employ any particular or particularly innovate literary device save the situational irony inherent in the suddenness of Lovisa’s transformation form loving newlywed to jaded and unhappily married young woman – a woman who now envisions herself in a life vastly different from the one she has only just begun. Lovisa now craves a life on the edge of social and even legal propriety. In this sense, Dinesen’s straightforward narrative style can be considered the defining element of The Ring.
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