The overall theme of Isak Dinesen's short story "The Ring" is self-discovery.
The character of Lise is a young woman who has never experienced the self-realization that comes with finding oneself, identifying goals, and realistically look at the world that surrounds us.
Instead, she comes across as a pampered girl with impulsive ways whose fantasy is that of a damsel or princess in search of her prince charming. This prince charming she believes she has found in the husband that she marries less than a week before the story begins.
In her world, she sees herself as a kid playing house rather than as a wife with responsibilities that, at some point, will have to make sacrifices. Being that she has been oblivious to who she is, what she wants or what she even desires from life, she has continued to live life this way.
It takes one encounter with a complete stranger to make her realize that there is another side of her that has been unexplored: The wild and dangerous side of her that is willing to take risks. For this reason, she believes that her life is over after she realizes that she chooses to give up her wedding ring in exchange of her life. Therefore, what is the real value of that ring? That is the question that will forever haunt her now.
The story has overlapping themes, but a most significant one is loss of innocence, which is symbolized by the loss of the ring.
When the story starts, the newlywed Lovisa (Lise) believes she can never have any secret from her husband and thinks to herself as he talks about sheep, "What a baby he is! I am a hundred years older than he.” When she hears the story of the sheep thief, a "pleasant little thrill" runs down her spine. She decides to hide from her husband as a game, thinking it would show him "what a void, what an unendurably sad and horrible place the universe would be when she was no longer in it." Life is simply a child's game to this young woman with "golden curls." We learn that "she had never in her life been exposed to danger."
When Lise then encounters the sheep thief in the "sylvan closet" of the small alcove in the grove, in what amounts to a symbolic rape, the thief's "knife" points up at her "throat." Later, "he put the knife back in the sheath by his belt." He kicks away the wedding ring she offers him, not interested in this symbol of faithfulness and love.
The irony of Lise's earlier thoughts emerge as she joins her husband after her encounter in the alcove. She had imagined she would never have any secrets from her husband. Now, in her loss of innocence after her sexualized encounter with death, she keeps secrets from him about what has happened to her and where she might have lost the ring. From a person who was "wonderfully happy," she moves to new, more sober thoughts:
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.