As we already discussed in class, one of the central issues Browning explores in The Ring and the Book is how characters and readers interpret texts and each other. The usual effect of narratives that feature multiple narrators with competing interests and agendas is to emphasize the instability of meaning. Browning, however, tells his readers at the very beginning that there is one interpretation of the Franceschini case that is "indisputably fact" (I 665). Browning points out that public opinion on the case was divided, but he does so in an odd way: "There prattled they, discoursed the right and wrong,/ Turned wrong to right, proved wolves sheep and sheep wolves" (I 645-6). Here, the multitudinous interpretations of the case serve not to muddle the truth or to render the concept of truth suspect, but to directly upend it. Wrong becomes right, up becomes down.
1. How does Browning demonstrate the superiority of his interpretive powers to the reader? Do we accept his interpretation because he is the author, or does he persuade us? If so, how?
2. What accounts for the confusion of Italian public opinion, if the case is so clear to Browning? Is their failure to interpret correctly a condemnation of Italian society?
3. Does Browning allow for the possibility of reading against the grain? Given that Guido's final plea is for "a fair construction of his act from men," (my emphasis) is there any possibility of a reading that favors him? (XII 175) If not, is truth ever in contention in The Ring and the Book?
4. Given that it seems difficult to create a plausible reading that favors Guido, what role does Browning's use of typology play in this? Do Guido's repeated misinterpretations of scripture serve a role beyond exposing him as a corrupt interpreter (and, hence, morally corrupt)?
5. What then are we to make of the metaphor of the base metal that is alloyed to gold to allow for the shaping of the ring? If "falsehood" must "[do] the work of truth," has Browning destabilized his own interpretation by basing it on a fiction? (XII 853)
Last modified 20 October 2004