The short story "The Ring" by Isak Dinesen is about a young woman who is disillusioned by her seemingly perfect life. Lise has become accustomed to her sheltered world, so her short-sighted, selfish views limit her self-awareness. It isn't until danger enters her small world that she realizes what she truly lacks. Themes in "The Ring" center on self-exploration and life beyond innocence.
The central overriding theme throughout "The Ring" is self-awareness. Lise is a naive, spoiled young woman who wants to test the degree of her husband's love for her. She doesn't see marriage as a two-way street but as a means to satisfy her childhood fantasies about a husband who would some day sweep her off her feet. Therefore, she hides in the woods hoping her husband, Sigismund, will desperately come looking for her: "Lise wanted Sigismund to worry about her just like he had worried about the sheep. By doing this she encountered the sheep thief in her small void." Through conversations with the sheep thief, Lise realizes how shallow and limited her views of marriage and life have been. The sheep thief steals to survive and lives a poor, primitive existence. Lise discovers that the world isn't so perfect, and her ideals are unrealistic and ungrounded.
Lise's journey to emotional maturity begins when she encounters danger for the first time -- a primary theme in the story. The sheep thief could have attacked, assaulted or killed her: "He moved his right arm till it hung down straight before him between his legs. Without lifting the hand he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat." However, Lise realizes that he isn't going to harm her -- he is simply trying to avoid starvation by stealing and eating her husband's sheep: "She sensed that the alcove had been turned into a convert. On the ground a couple of sacks formed a couch; there were some gnawed bones by it." Instead of crying, screaming in fear, blaming her husband for her predicament or lashing out in self-righteous indignation, Lise understands that anyone -- including herself -- could have wound up in a desperate situation like the young thief.
Coming of Age
An underlying theme throughout the story is Lise's coming of age. Even though she's old enough to marry, she isn't mentally or emotionally prepared for the responsibilities and commitments that accompany her new role as a wife. Lise doesn't understand that marriage requires patience, understanding and self-sacrifice: "It was not a long time since she had played with dolls; as now she dressed her own hair, looked over her linen press and arranged her flowers she again lived through an enchanting and cherished experience: one was doing everything gravely and solicitously, and all the time one knew one was playing." Before she encounters the sheep thief, Lise lives out her marriage as if she were playing the role of a housewife -- a fairy tale existence.
The theme of enlightenment permeates the story. Lise realizes that "she had no object of value about her, only the wedding ring which her husband had set on her finger in church, a week ago." When the sheep thief refuses to accept the ring and kicks it away, Lise suddenly understands that she had placed her trust in the false security of marriage. She determines to live a life of "poverty, persecution, total loneliness. To the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth." Lise decides she would rather experience something real than continue to play out her current fictitious role as a wife.