“The Ring,” by Isak Dinesen
First appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1950; collected in Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard; found online here
This story amazes me. The change in Lise’s life convinces me utterly, from her “perfect freedom because she could never have any secret from her husband” to her repeated lie (“‘No,’ she answered”; “‘No,’ she answered”).
At the beginning of the story, the couple has already been through enough to fill a romantic novel, and they seem to have achieved a stable, ordinary life without any sense of anticlimax (“Their distant paradise had descended to earth and had proved, surprisingly, to be filled with the things of everyday life”—what a great line). Yet in some sense they’re still innocent, and I’m not sure why. They haven’t been exposed to physical danger, or at least Lise hasn’t, but that doesn’t seem important to me.
Lise’s innocence is underlined by her childish prank. The fantasy of being able to watch one’s own mourners is so naïve and selfish that trying to carry it out demands a certain unselfawareness. The word “gravely” used shortly afterwards also seems to indicate that the narrator finds something comically serious about Lise’s actions. (I feel like it’s unusual to see that adverb used in fiction without a hint of mockery in it—it’s almost a one-word cliché. Why point out that someone is being serious unless you find the fact incongruous? And in fact it’s used earlier when the story explicitly describes the make-believe quality of Lise’s life: “[O]ne was doing everything gravely and solicitously, and all the time one knew one was playing.”)
The thief’s refusal of the wedding ring strikes me as significant. Lise tries to banish him using the most valuable thing she owns, her marriage. It means nothing to him. So maybe this is the real innocence: the trust Lise places in the love, stability, companionship, and happiness of her life. Like the Buddha’s four sights, the encounter with the thief makes her aware for the first time of “poverty, persecution, total loneliness” and “the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth.”
- The way the thief is introduced reminds me of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Is this a common trick? I feel like I’ve seen it in movies too. The theft is of interest to Sigismund, so the story has an excuse to dwell on the subject and give a few vivid details (the blood-soaked dirt floor, the broken left arm) and lay down the rational explanation for the dreamlike scene that takes place afterwards. (Actually, the first time I read this I set the book down midstory and forgot those details, so the filthy, injured man came out of nowhere. I’m not sure which way is more effective. Aesthetically, I prefer the rational explanation, but it’s hard to deny the chill of a story that takes a genuinely unpredictable turn.)
- I love the sexual/wedding-like image of the handkerchief sliding, apparently unrent around the blade, into the sheath.
- This line neatly captures something I suspect is almost universal in hetero couples—the way a woman can adore a man and patronize him simultaneously, especially when he’s explaining something to her:
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.”
Edited to add: This is a ridiculous thing to be gleeful about, but there’s a book on Dinesen that collects on page 199 six different interpretations of “The Ring”‘s ending, two of which directly contradict each other while remaining equally credible, plus one that’s just stupid. I like to feel I know what’s going on better than other people.
Edited February 9th, 2018 to add: Now that I’ve thought about it some more, the real loss of innocence here must be Lise’s discovery that she values her precious marriage (symbolized by the ring) less than her physical safety. Sort of like the end of 1984.