The first narrator in this series of dramatic monologues represents the voice of the poet himself. He relates how he found in a Florentine bookstall an old yellow book containing letters, accounts, and depositions relating to a 1698 Roman murder case. According to these documents, Count Guido Franceschini, descended from an ancient house of Aretine, married Pompilia Comparini, a beautiful teenaged Roman girl adopted at birth by an old couple, Pietro and Violante. Unhappy with her husband, the young wife fled back to Rome in the company of a young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido and four accomplices followed her, and on Christmas night Guido found his wife at her parents’ home. He murdered the seventy-year-old couple and fatally wounded the seventeen-year-old Pompilia.
In a highly publicized, controversial month-long trial during which many testified on both sides, Guido and his friends were found guilty. They appealed to Pope Innocent XII, who upheld their conviction, and all five men were executed. Browning tells how he researched the case at the sites where it occurred. He discovered that the Italians were not interested in this bit of their own history, yet it came alive to him, and he subsequently wrote a work based on what he had learned. He compares the facts he found to bits of gold and his own imaginative powers to alloy that, mixed with the precious metal, “completes the incomplete” and enables the creation of a ring. This image is the source of Browning’s title, The Ring and the Book.
The next narrator is an unnamed spokesperson for half of Rome, who recounts Pietro’s and Violante’s mutilated bodies being placed on exhibit in the church while Pompilia lies dying. This narrator describes the corpses with relish, and he disapproves of the couple’s adoption of the low-born Pompilia, who was bought as an infant by Violante and passed off as her own offspring. He considers their murder as a rightful avengement of Guido’s honor and compares Caponsacchi, Pompilia’s protector, to a fox in the henhouse. He also draws a parallel between Caponsacchi and Lucifer, who tempted Eve to lure Adam to his downfall—just as the priest tempted Pompilia to lure Guido. In the narrator’s eyes, Guido was cheated in his marriage because Pompilia’s birth mother was a prostitute, rendering Pompilia ineligible to inherit the Comparini family fortunes. The narrator also hints that Pompilia’s newborn son is Caponsacchi’s. He scorns the involvement of the judiciary in the case, approving the “old way” of swift husbandly revenge upon wayward wives.
The next narrator is sympathetic to the murder victims, and he seeks to refute the previous narrator’s condemnation. He agrees with his predecessor that the murders were caused by material greed, but he believes that the greed in question is that of Guido, who married Pompilia not only for her substantial dowry but also for her prospects of inheriting the Comparini riches. The narrator approves Violante’s penitence in confessing that Pompilia was adopted, which resulted in a court’s determining that Guido could keep her dowry but that Pompilia could not inherit the family fortunes. The decision caused Guido to feel robbed. He mistreated his wife, plotting to ruin her character and reputation by making false accusations against her and Caponsacchi and by forging letters from the illiterate Pompilia to her supposed lover. Guido also accused Pompilia of poisoning him. When Pompilia escaped to her parents’ home, he hired four assassins to kill them all.
A lofty patrician next addresses the aristocrat-magistrate hearing the case, scorning the opinions of the rabble ventriloquized by the previous two narrators. The patrician sarcastically describes Violante’s...
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crime in adopting Pompilia as a craven way to ensure her and Pietro’s financial future. He also blames Violante for secretly effecting the marriage between the thirteen-year-old Pompilia and the forty-six-year-old Guido in a conspiracy with the clergy. Because Guido is of noble blood, this narrator tends to side with him, and he also expresses biases against women, but he attempts to present all the facts and opinions of the case and then urges clemency for Guido.
Guido Franceschini himself speaks next, defending his actions. He lists the injustices he has suffered, denigrating Violante and Pietro as vulgar and grasping lowlifes. He does not admit to abusing Pompilia, only saying that the law requires wifely submission and that Pompilia should not expect love or romance. He declares that his wife is his to train or kill at his pleasure. Guido admits that he forged the love letters incriminating Pompilia and Caponsacchi, but he says the situation was all Pompilia’s fault. He regrets being so lenient with her.
Guido feels entirely justified in his actions, characterizing himself as a martyr or victim and complaining that the humiliation he has borne has been worse than physical torture. Pompilia’s child, he says, is Caponsacchi’s, and he was only doing God’s justice in killing the Comparinis, since it was Violante the “she-devil” who opened the door to all the troubles he experienced. He ends by saying that everyone other than himself has been lying; he has served the Church all his life and has done the court a favor by executing the law for them in killing his wife and her parents. He concludes by arguing that his life is useful to others, so it should not be taken.
Next to take the stand is Giuseppe Caponsacchi, the young priest who helped Pompilia escape from her husband. He is angry at being asked to relate the events of the case again, since, when he did so before, the court laughed at him and condemned him for meddling. He asks whether the court now recognizes the validity of “priestly interference” and says that, when he received the love letters from Pompilia, he knew they were forged and refused them. One day, he received a genuine letter from Pompilia saying, in effect, “My husband hates me and his brother raped me. Take me to Rome, to my parents.” He felt it was his duty to help her, so he agreed. The two travelers did not speak to each other on the road, but Guido overcame them and found the letters and stolen items he had planted on them. The two were imprisoned. Caponsacchi asks to see the dying Pompilia, affirms again that the letters were forged, and urges the court to deal with Guido.
Pompilia speaks. She is concerned about and grateful for her infant son, and she describes her life as a twelve-year-old bride, confused at her inability to please her husband. She tells of his cruel demands, his brother’s debauchery, her maid’s trickery, and of the archbishop’s refusal to acquiesce to her pleas to be sent to a convent to escape them. She praises Caponsacchi for his kindness and bravery and consigns her soul to God.
Guido’s lawyer, the procurator Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, speaks next. He feels lucky to have gotten the case and says he will explain the murders, rather than denying that they took place or trying to pin Caponsacchi with the crimes. He claims that Guido’s honor was besmirched, asserting that husbandly revenge is decent and proper. Even pagans killed adulteresses, the lawyer observes, and he compares Guido to the biblical Samson. Pompilia’s parents were felons anyway, he says, while disposing of the various aggravations with which Guido has been charged. Archangelis concludes by saying that he is getting hungry and needs to finish up the case, which he rests on the cause of honor, asserting that the end justifies the means. He also pleads for Guido’s four accomplices, because they are young and poor and only helped Guido out of friendship, as friends should do. These men have since admitted under torture that they meant to kill Guido for nonpayment of their assassins’ fee. However, the lawyer says that Guido did not pay them because he did not want to sully his friends with filthy lucre.
Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius is supposedly a lawyer for the prosecution of Guido, but he expresses opinions that reveal his opposition to Pompilia and sympathy for the accused. He says Pompilia may have flirted, as women will, but at least she picked a well-born priest for her dalliance. He asserts that Pompilia wanted to get back at Guido by luring Caponsacchi, so she learned to read and write on the sly, pretending love for the priest so he would help her escape. Bottinius supposes that Pompilia kept Caponsacchi courageous with a few kisses and stole Guido’s money because she needed it. What harm, he asks, if the priest fell in love and if the young bride lied and tricked her parents? She should have trusted the angels, not the priest, whom Bottinius compares to Judas. Guido, he says, only came after his wife to persuade her to return. Meanwhile, Pompilia, feigning innocence, was wily in pretending death so she could tell her tale in court, and her child must be Caponsacchi’s because she named it for him.
The pope issues a pronouncement. He condemns Guido, saying that Francheschini is as good as dead and needs to repent. He admits that he may be wrong, but asserts that God put him on Earth to judge, so any mistakes he makes are the fault of the Lord. The pope discourses on his burdens as a judge and characterizes Pompilia as pure and innocent.
The condemned Guido speaks again to the court, claiming that, if the pope were like Christ or Peter, he would pardon Guido. The accused man refuses to repent, despite the pope’s declaration, asking what good it would do. Besides, he charges, the Church is corrupt. Personal pleasure and gain has always been the human creed, and Guido sees no reason to change that now. He again characterizes Pompilia’s parents as fools and justifies his punishment of Pompilia by saying that she did not even pretend to respond to him.
The poet-narrator returns to sum up the case and conclude the tale. He notes that Pompilia died soon afterward, as did the pope himself. The fate of Pompilia’s infant is unknown. The narrator quotes from the letter of a Roman observer, who described Guido’s execution along with those of his accomplices, and who appears from his letter to have been jaded, refusing to assert that justice was served. Addressing the British public in presenting the finished “ring,” the narrator comments that all human speech is flawed and that the truth is available only obliquely, through art.
Altick, Richard D., and James F. Loucks II. Browning’s Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. An intensive study of the work’s artistry as well as of its treatment of religious themes such as the infallibility of the Pope.
Browning, Robert. The Complete Works of Robert Browning, with Variant Readings and Annotations. Edited by Roma King, Jr. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985. Professor King’s variorum edition contains extensive and invaluable notes.
Hines, Susan C. “A Trial Reading of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 18 (1990): 28-33. Postulates that Browning’s method of telling a legal story through several narrators places the reader in the position of juror. Through the experience of the poem, the reader realizes the difficulty of seeing the truth.
King, Roma, Jr. The Focusing Artifice: The Poetry of Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1968. Traces the development of Browning’s art, focusing on the aesthetic devices Browning uses to examine morality and values.
Raymond, William O. The Infinite Moment and Other Essays in Robert Browning. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950. Reviews criticism from the first half of the twentieth century.
Sullivan, Mary Rose. Browning’s Voices in “The Ring and the Book”: A Study of Method and Meaning. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969. Examines how Browning uses narrative to create meaning.
Wasserman, George. “The Meaning of Browning’s Ring Figure.” Modern Language Notes 76 (1961): 420-426. Discusses Browning’s use of the ring as a symbol for the poem.