The Fable of Marriage

September 28, 1995
Engl 302

The first thing the reader notices in Isak Dinesen’s story is the title. “The Ring,” is exactly that, an allegory based around a wedding band and what it represents: marriage, magic, or the object itself. Written in third person point of view, the story centers its attention around Lise- a young woman who was recently married. The text is written as if it were a fable, suggesting a particular way of life, and more specifically marriage should be handled. But, unlike a fable which has one particular moral, “The Ring” suggests many ideals about women and marriage and how each inter-relate.

The first three paragraphs of the story construct background information on the couple in question. The setting is 150 years ago in Denmark. This couple “had been married for just a week” and the circumstances surrounding their marriage are given. Lise, is the daughter of a wealthy man, whereas her fiance, Sigismund, is a rancher who tends sheep. Culturally, a marriage like this is taboo, as young persons living in this day and age were to marry within their class. To Lise, the prospect of marrying into love is exciting and supplies her with happiness. “For the wife’s family was higher in rank and wealthier than the husband’s,” suggest that her parents viewed the marriage as an rebellious act against them and their ways (425). Although this isn’t out rightly stated in the story, it is inferred from the text.

Sigismund, Lise’s husband, is a shepherd who has a great love for his profession- and more importantly his sheep. One day, he “was going to show his wife his sheep”(426). This sentence seems indicative of Sigismund’s nature. Sigismund cares for his sheep and desires to show his new bride his pride and wealth. However, this line also marks the beginning of tension within the story. Her reaction is not filled with thoughts of happiness and love for his achievements. No, she is amused by this and makes comments about his obligations and his relative absurdity, and simplicity. She believes that she is smarter than he (426). She also realizes that Sigismund shares his love for her with sheep, which insults and makes her jealous (427). On a deeper level this shows how Sigismund has heavy responsibilities whereas she has none, or not any that she will acknowledge.

Due to her uneducated nature, and despite the belief that the high ranks were all educated, Lise is not skilled in the manners and responsibilities that marriage brings. Dinesen alludes to this within the story for although Lise is nineteen years old she thinks and acts as if she were still a child. The story promotes marriage as an act that lasts forever as opposed to the idea that it creates a prison where change and humanly desires are stifled. Lise thinks that she believes marriage joins man and woman into a single entity. “To God and man they were one; they could walk arm in arm in broad daylight… she could never have any secrets from her husband,”(425) shows the romantic ideals she believes in. She no longer has to hide their relationship in secrecy and can now proudly show Sigismund to her friends and family (425). It also foreshadows the events to come which will call these beliefs into question. However, her actions don’t encourage the ideals being portrayed within the story. It is almost as a if she deludes herself in thinking that these high ideals are attainable.

By creating high expectations of marriage as an institution, Lise deludes herself in thinking that these ideals are attainable. However, her childlike demeanor cannot support the responsibilities marriage requires. Instead she treats marriage as if it were a game, which can later be discarded. Having been the daughter of a wealthy man, her life is relatively worry free and dull, so the prospect of marriage outside her class gives her reason to feel free and excited as if “all the time one knew one was playing”(425). Playing what? House. Lise’s attitude towards marriage gives the reader a sense that she is playing house for real, with possible intentions of breaking up when the excitement wears off and the boredom settles in. At this point she treats the marriage as a joke, not to be taken too seriously, even though she does believe in the attainment of eternal love.

Sigismund is a foil character, and Lise’s superior. He shows her that he can be attentive to more passions at once rather than place all attention on a single subject, as she does. By becoming successful at sheep herding he has proven that he can adequately support his bride; maybe not to the extent that she is comfortable with but enough to survive. At a more basic level, their comparison shows how immature Lise really is, thinking that life is worry free and eternal happiness.

When they hear word that many of his sheep have become ill and he desires to send her home. It seems as if their outing is over. But, it has just begun. For on her way home Lise meets up with a sheep thief who’s been stealing Sigismund’s sheep. She has heard of this thief before for Mathias, Sigismund s grandfather, has told her stories of his acts (426). Lise is amused by the tale and constantly compares it to the like of Little Red Riding Hood. At one point the story sends a “pleasant little thrill running down her spine” (426). This minute action is almost sexual and implies the imaginative nature that Lise possesses towards who she considers possible suitors.

“To the two actors in the pantomime it was timeless; according to the clock it only lasted four minutes”(428). The moment in which their encounter occurs seems to stretch until forever. Dinesen’s diction and symbolic suggestion implies that Lise doesn’t want this to end. She has now come face to face with him and her life is in jeopardy. Dinesen implies that this particular scene creates a veil showing the excitement Lise has coming face to face with death and the stranger. She has failed to realize that this boy who is “her own age,” might possibly be psychotic with intentions of harming or killing her.

In exchange for her life and freedom, she offers him her wedding ring, for “she had no object of value about her, only the wedding ring which her husband had set on her finger”(428). She then “drew it off, and reached out to give it to him. Once again the reader sees Lise’s childish attitude towards marriage and relationships. Traditionally the wedding ring is a symbol of commitment from one person to another. Lise has no real commitment to Sigismund otherwise she wouldn’t have been quick to give away her ring so easily. To give the ring away without a second thought proves that she has no true desire for marriage or love. Already she has disregarded the value of her wedding ring in a simple gesture. This also relates to the title of the story, “The Ring,” and all that the wedding band is to signify.

The sheep thief’s reaction to this is that he reaches out to take it but decides not to, and he ring is dropped (428). Lise’s giving of the ring to a stranger, in itself, is almost like an act of marriage. Instead the ring lays discarded, symbolizing the broken bond between the Lise and Sigismund, and most recently her and the thief. Marriage, as an ideal, is the conjunction of two people becoming one. As a realistic view within the story, this ideal isn’t being attained.

After this brief moment where he holds a knife to her Lise realizes that life will never be quite the same (429). Perhaps she has realized that marriage isn’t all romance and excitement, that with it comes a great deal of responsibility that she hasn’t been prepared for yet. It seems as if she realizes that she has abruptly jumped into marriage prematurely because she desires more romance and excitement in her life.

“The movement was definitive and unconditional”(429). Provided with freedom, Lise is given something her husband has yet to give her and vice versa- an act of unconditional love. And thus, “she is free.” But is she really? Will she learn anything from this encounter. Dinesen gives no hint that she has learned. As in a fleeting thought, “she walked a step before him and thought: All is over”(429). In a way this quote is true. It marks the ending of her brush with death, the end of the story and quite possibly her marriage. Here, the reader sees where the ring ties with magic. For, it is believed that to lose one’s wedding ring brings bad luck upon the married couple. Lise also kept the true reason for the loss of the ring a secret from Sigismund, a promise broken. She also promises not to keep anything from him when she married him in the first place. Making the loss seem even less important and more absurd is Sigismund’s response.

Sigismund passes it off saying “We are husband and wife today too, as much as yesterday, I suppose'”(429). The story prepares the narrator to see that Lise believes this represents Sigismund’s absurd, simpleton thinking. The manner in which Sigismund states that he ring is of no major loss also suggests that he truly cares for her and doesn’t believe that losing the symbolic bond will hurt them or their marriage.

By presenting the story in an a fable-like way gives Dinesen the means of conveying what is thought to be a very simple topic. People fall in love, decide to marry and that’s all. However, in “The Ring” this isn’t the case. The story operates on several layers of symbolic meaning which relates to the real world where, unlike fable worlds, people have no simple solutions to their problems. Each problem can be looked at different ways and solutions are provided on many levels within the problem. Although simplistic by design, “The Ring” suggests many meanings as to how women choose to view marriage.

The story as presented in this manner works well to explain the concept of marriage and how marriage is supposed to be carry out. It’s suggestion of “don’t follow Lise’s path or you’ll never attain the ideal of marriage” is felt throughout the story. The events of the story, as they are displayed, present the reader with a statement about the right and wrong way to handle marriage. The story leaves the reader with a feeling that without the proper mental attitude and communication between the couple any marriage is doomed. Dinesen’s use of conflicting ideals adds to the trickster-like quality of the discussion. It is as if this story was meant to be spoken to children as a method of showing important cultural values during this time.

Besides one lost ring, what does all this add up to. Dinesen’s story suggests many things about marriage and life. On a basic level it represents that a lost ring may bring the downfall of one’s marriage. The belief that women cannot be trusted in a relationship because they are never satisfied with what they have, is another moral of the story. Since the story structures around a love match marriage, it also suggests that these types of marriages will eventually fail. However, it is up to the reader to distinguish what the true moral of the story will be. To me, it represents that marriage is sacred and to jump into one too quickly would prove fatal. Marriage is a sacred and honored institution, such as “The Ring,” suggests, and should never be taken as lightly as Lise treats hers. As with life marriage is a mystery that is fully revealed only after one is dead.