Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Peer Gynt, the title character, is a man in search of himself. His problem is that he misunderstands “self-realization” and seeks fulfillment in his poetic dreams because he fears life and love. In order to show the full range of his negative development, Ibsen shows Peer first as a feckless young man of twenty, then as a middle-aged tycoon, and finally as a broken old man returning to his native Norway.
As a youth, Peer lives fictional adventures so vividly in his imagination that they almost become his own life experiences. He dreams of being an emperor but is never ready when opportunity knocks. While he has been playing hooky in the uplands, Ingrid of Hegstad, an heiress whom he might have married, has been betrothed to another young man. Looking for trouble, Peer sets off for Hegstad to engage in belated courtship. Among the wedding guests is Solveig, a pure young woman whom Peer instantly loves. When Solveig refuses to dance with him, he gets drunk and steals the bride. Abducting Ingrid makes Peer an outlaw. Though Ingrid is quite willing to marry Peer, he sends her back to her father because he loves Solveig. In what may be a dream sequence, he encounters a woman in green, the daughter of the Troll King, who takes him to her father’s kingdom, where everything is reversed: Black seems white and foul looks pure. Peer is a candidate for the hand of this troll princess, a negative counterpart of Solveig, but in order to win her father’s full approval he must wear a tail and accept selfishness as a way of life. Peer is quite willing to accept these conditions, until he learns that in doing so he can never return to humanity.
After his narrow escape from the trolls, Peer’s path is blocked by a languid monster called the Boyg, who tells him to “go roundabout.” The Boyg seems to be a...
(The entire section is 746 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Peer Gynt, a young Norwegian farmer with a penchant for laziness and bragging, idles away his hours in brawling and dreaming. Upbraided by his mother, Ase, for his willingness to waste his time, he answers that she is perfectly right. She ridicules him further by pointing out that had he been an honest farmer, Hegstad’s daughter would have had him, and he would have been a happy bridegroom. He tells her that he intends to break the marriage of Hegstad’s daughter, a wedding planned for that night. When his mother protests, he seizes her in his arms and sets her on the roof of their house, from where her unheeded cries follow him up the road to Hegstad’s home.
At the wedding Peer is scorned by everyone present except Solveig, a girl unknown to him. Even she, however, avoids him as soon as she hears of his base reputation. Peer becomes drunk and begins to tell fantastic tales of adventure, stories that bridge an embarrassing gap in the marriage ceremony when the bride locks herself in the storeroom and refuses to come out. In desperation, the bridegroom appeals to Peer for help. As Peer leaves for the storeroom, his mother, who had been released from the roof, arrives. Suddenly the bridegroom cries out and points toward the hillside. Rushing to the door, the guests see Peer scrambling up the mountain with the bride over his shoulder.
Peer quickly abandons the bride and runs into the wilderness. Eluding the pursuit of Hegstad and his neighbors, he marries and then deserts the daughter of the elf-king of the mountains. He encounters the Great Boyg, the riddle of existence in the figure of a shapeless, grim, unconquerable monster. Peer tries repeatedly to force his way up the mountain, but the Boyg blocks his way. When Peer challenges the Boyg to a battle, the creature replies that though he conquers everyone, he does not fight.
Exhausted, Peer sinks to the ground. The sky is dark with carnivorous birds that are about to swoop down upon him. Suddenly he hears the sound of church bells and women’s voices in the distance. The Boyg withdraws, admitting defeat because Peer has the support of women in his fight. An outlaw for having carried off Hegstad’s daughter, Peer builds himself a hut in the forest, to which Solveig comes to keep him company. Their happiness is brief, however, for one day Peer meets the elf-king’s daughter, whom he had deserted. With her is an ugly troll, Peer’s son; unable to drive them off, he himself leaves after telling Solveig that she must wait for him a...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)