What does a ring mean? Based on the giver, the receiver, and the ring's character and composition, it carries a specific meaning and always has a story.
She wants to know “how many times it has been the pledge of faith between two lovers, and whether the vows, of which it was the symbol, were always kept or often broken.” She entrusts Edward with producing a story that will bring the ring to life.
Edward revs up his imagination and tells the story of the ring. He starts with the wizard Merlin, who placed a wicked spirit within it. Merlin made it “bound to work only good, so long as the ring is an unviolated pledge of love and faith.” If the giver or receiver proves to be unfaithful or deceitful, the spirit’s evil nature will awaken and rule the owner. Only an act of true charity can once again bind the spirit to goodness.
An Unfaithful EarlIt passes to the once great Earl of Essex, who awaits his execution the next day. He stares at the red-tinged diamond, a token from Queen Elizabeth I. To him, the ring means salvation. He selfishly hopes that, by presenting Elizabeth with the ring, she will pardon him. He dwells on his past influence and power, hoping the ring will be a talisman of good fortune for him and that it will save his life.
But dwelling on false hope proves disastrous for the hapless earl. Out of desperation, the earl entrusts the ring to the Countess of Shrewsbury, “an unprincipled woman,” someone he had once slighted. Full of vengeance and deception, she promises to take the ring to Elizabeth but keeps it for herself. One selfish act gives rise to another, bringing death to both. By betraying him, the countess lets him die. She keeps the ring and becomes subject to its evils; she dies, plagued by the guilt of her own evil deed.
Humble CharityEventually, the ring crosses the Atlantic and lands in a local church’s collection box. Kind Deacon Tilton and another deacon empty the collection boxes they had passed around and count the proceeds. They are shocked to find an antique ring lying under a mound of copper coins. Unlike the red-tinged ring that the Earl of Essex possessed, this ring holds a diamond that “emits the whitest and purest luster.”
It is not known who put the ring in the collection box, but Hawthorne writes that it was given in an act of pure and humble sacrifice and placed in the box as “a contribution for a charitable object.” As it hits the bottom of the collection box, the ring loses all its hellish glow and shines like the brightest star. The spirit’s evil nature is subdued.
As to its meaning, Edward tells his fiancée that the ring is “the human heart.” The evil spirit in the ring is the falsehood "that causes all the sorrow and trouble in the world.”
Hawthorne’s story within a story shows that selfishness, deception, and lies have existed in the hearts of men throughout history, yet goodness also resides in a person’s heart and one truly charitable act can cleanse a heart of selfishness. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Charity brings to life again those who are spiritually dead.”
Though we fall, we do not have to yield to failure. We can rise higher than before. History can influence the present, but it does not determine it, for a selfish action yesterday can be redeemed by a charitable action today. If we live every day in the spirit of humble charity, we will shine like the stars and be worthy of joining them in the heavens.