In The Ring and the Book, Browning uses many biblical references to illustrate the character of each of his diverse narrators. These references reveal characters’ reliability in terms of the truthfulness of their tale and offer the reader some chance to discern Browning’s intention, mostly hidden behind the strong voices of his speakers. Browning uses The Ring and the Book to comment on contemporary society, and his observations appear to be tied to these biblical references. An especially apt example emerges in Archangelis’ dramatic monologue. Archangelis, as Count Guido’s defender, practices his Latin and his argument, all the while dwelling on gluttonous food metaphors as well as other personal matters, such as his young son. His absurd arguments come to a head when he attempts to defend Count Guido’s especially cruel weaponry, first articulating that too much is better than too little, and then using the miracle in Matthew 15.34 to justify the excessively bloodthirsty choice:

" Gather instructions from the parable!
At first we are advised — “A lad hath here
Seven barley loaves and two small fishes: what
Is that among so many?” Aptly asked:
But put that question twice and, quite as apt,
The answer is “Fragments, twelve baskets full!”

The speaker refers to this miracle reported by the Gospel of Matthew' that occurs when Jesus responds to his apostles’ question how a meager amount of food could suffice for such a large number of people by making amound of food in the baskets endless, allowing each person to eat. First it must be mentioned that Archangelis mistakenly calls the miracle a “parable,”a verse which intends to teach a lesson rather than a gift from a merciful and giving God. This mistake not only undercuts the power of God but also establishes Archangelis as a greedy man who feels entitled rather than a reasonable and grateful man. It also marks Archangelis as a man who does not know the Bible as well as any of the many secular texts he mentions, leaving the reader to doubt him. This passage appears to have a larger aim, however, than simply to chastise Archangelis for poor logic; instead, it seems to cast a larger shadow on the legal system and perhaps civilization as a whole. Browning uses Archangelis’ absurd logic and mangled biblical references to illustrate a society more concerned with material output than the spiritual process behind it. This is reinforced by the following chapter, where Pompilia’s defender Bottinius similarly tries to win his case by using Ôlogic’ and consequently ignores the truth of the case, in particular Pompilia’s purity. Unlike Half-Rome and Other Half-Rome, the two lawyers do not take exactly opposing stances, but both reveal a legal system flawed to the point where justice seems unimportant and point to a world where “Getting-on” and superficiality reign supreme. In this sense, Browning’s thoughts seem to match Ruskin’s in his speech “Traffic.”

Questions

1. In what ways can Browning and Ruskin be compared? What are the major differences between the two stances?

2. Browning bases most of the arguments used in The Ring and the Book on the arguments used in the actual events, as noted in the footnotes. However, Browning himself places them within the framework of biblical allusions. Why did he make this choice? Would the arguments seem less absurd without this context?

3. Browning’s treatment of the two legal authorities in this text differ greatly from the way he approaches Half-Rome and Other Half-Rome. Why does Browning make the two citizens direct opposites and extremes and yet position Bottinius and Archangelis in a less black-and-white dichotomy? Is this purely a literary construct, or does this have some significance in terms of Browning’s social commentary?

4. The allusion to the miracle in Matthew 15 seems to place Count Guido in a role analogous to Christ. Does Archangelis use this connection purposefully, building upon Guido’s own suggestion of this in his own sections? Or does this simply illustrate the unthinking and impious determination in Archangelis to win his case?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 27 February 2011