Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book tells the tale from a number of different perspectives of an ill-fated couple, a murder, and the legal battles that ensue. A character named enigmatically “The Other-Half Rome” gives the reader one of the earliest full retellings of the story, telling the tale as he knows it to be true and also allowing the reader some glimpse of insight into his own character in the way he chooses to portray the events that took place. His predecessor, named “Half-Rome,” appears to the reader to be a man settled in society, one who has his own marital issues and sympathizes strongly with Guido’s plight. The Other-Half Rome, however, clearly supports Pompilia’s version of the tale, consistently speaking of her in terms of her innocence, beauty, and naivety. He quotes Pompilia’s confessor, saying “‘No question she was pure from first to last.’ So far is well and helps us to believe”(lines 803-4). He makes obvious his sympathy for the girl, but even while couching his retelling in devout words proclaiming this innocence, he reveals his own faults and even contradicts himself. On the question of whether Pompilia remained pure and faithful during her escapades with Caponsacchi, the Other-Half Rome says:
Moreover priests are merely flesh and blood,
When we get weakness, and no guilt beside,
ÔTis no such great ill-fortune: finding grey,
We gladly call that white which might be black,
Too used to the double dye.
This passage first confronts the reader with a new pronoun: “we.” Other-Half Rome suddenly becomes a more solid figure; he associates himself, then, with priests. More than just illustrating his profession, however, he also characterizes himself as a man used to distorting the truth. Other-Half Rome suggests that he has faced similar temptations and that he has purposely mislabeled such acts, calling them “white” or innocent when knowing them to be “black.” Other-Half Rome also interestingly attributes this habit to priests — the passage would make just as much sense if he had simply said that man was “merely flesh and blood,” suited to temptation. But instead he restricts this particularly to priests, and then promptly aligns himself with this admittedly rather unflattering trait. In the space of only a few lines, then, Other-Half Rome alienates himself from the reader by presenting himself as untrustworthy. Not content with this, Other-Half Rome also condemns all other religious figures in the text by specifically naming them as a group which “gladly” misconstrues the truth.
1. Other-Half Rome seems to suggest in this passage that he has also been weak in Caponsacchi’s way. How does this confession impact the reader’s view of his narrative? He uses language focused on religious imagery and especially on Pompilia’s virtue — how can this be reconciled with his words here?
2. Other-Half Rome basically throws all other priests in the text under the bus, so to speak. How does this impact our reading of other characters? If Other-Half Rome admits to misrepresenting his own actions, can we trust anything he says — even his implication that all priests do so?
3. Half-Rome seems to be a man wronged by his wife, while Other-Half Rome appears to be the “other man.” Why did Browning place these two side by side? What does one reveal about the other?
4. What does the last line of the passage imply? “Too used to the double dye” certainly seems to tie all priests to the inclination to lie, but what specifically is he referring to? Why priests? What are they “too used to”?
Last modified 25 February 2011