The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.