When two or more witnesses give their account of an event, the story never comes out the same. The differences, as Browning fully realized in The Ring and the Book(1868-69), provide for powerful ironic tensions. Over and over again, in Browning's poem, the story is told of what happened on the fatal night when Count Guido Franceschini went in seach of his seventeen-year-old bride Pompilia who, in the company of the handsome young priest Giuseppe Caponsacchi, had runaway from his ancient villa and returned home to her parents in Rome. And in every telling there is another version of the motives and the consequences. Although Browning allows the Pope to serve as arbiter, he also effectively undermines confidence in testimony. Even Guido's final confession heaves the reader with uneasy qualms about the claims of truth and justice.
What is expected of a reader who observes that one truth-claim modifies or compromises another? Is the task to respond to an account delivered with full expectation that it will be disbelieved? As Clayton Koelb has shown in The Incredulous Reader, dialogical opposition can fold untruth within truth, disbelief within belief, in a virtually endless regress. When Pirandello, in It is so! (If you think so )(1917), takes up the problem of competing claims to truth, he gradually pushes the claims into such extreme contradiction that if one version is true the proponent of the other is not simply mistaken, or lying, but mentally unbalanced. The claims of Signora Flora and Signor Ponza baffle the efforts of the gossips in a small Italian town, and with them Pirandello's theatre audience, to determine whether Ponza is deranged and cruelly conceals his wife( according to the tale his mother-in-law tells), or Signora Flora suffers from the delusion that her daughter is still alive, refusing to believe that Ponza has remarried (as Ponza tells the story). Signora Ponza fully understands the bond of affection and mutual dependence that has grown up between Signora Flora and Ponza as each attempts to humor the supposed delusion of the other.