What is the true nature of the marriage depicted in The Danish Girl?

The true nature of the marriage depicted in The Danish Girl is a union between two people who care deeply for one another and are one another’s best friend. When Einar discovers his passion for being Little Lili, Greta helps him realize the dream of actually transforming himself into her, because she understands that this is what he wants and needs. She does not judge him. Tellingly, the novel opens with the words “His wife knew first.”

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The marriage between Greta and Einar in The Danish Girl is a union between best friends rather than a passionate one between lovers. When the story opens, Greta and Einar are in what seems to be a happy marriage. Einar enjoys success as a painter, and Greta aspires to become...

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The marriage between Greta and Einar in The Danish Girl is a union between best friends rather than a passionate one between lovers. When the story opens, Greta and Einar are in what seems to be a happy marriage. Einar enjoys success as a painter, and Greta aspires to become a known portrait painter herself. After Einar poses for Greta at her studio one day, he discovers his passion for women’s clothing, and this epiphany ultimately sends him on his journey to become Lili. In the meantime, Greta helps Einar realize this dream and introduces him to her friends and associates as Einar’s sister Lili. It is telling that the novel opens with the words “His wife knew first.”

What we ultimately come to realize is that Greta knows Einar even better than Einar knows himself. This sentence suggests that somehow, she sensed his inner conflict before he could even articulate it himself. With total compassion, she helps him overcome obstacles to transform himself into the Danish girl of the title in order to realize his true persona and be happy. She selflessly helps the person she loves become happy, even when this means giving up their marriage in conventional terms. Greta is willing to live with Lili as if they are sisters or close friends rather than husband and wife.

The allusions to Greta as “handsome” and “broad-shouldered” and “the tallest girl in Copenhagen” perhaps suggest that she is hiding her masculine traits while Lili wants her femininity on full display. When Greta first approaches Einar at the art school to invite him to her eighteenth birthday party, she says, “Aren’t you a pretty man.”

Ten years later, after they have been married and Greta recognizes her husband’s need to become Lili, the author writes, “Greta felt as if she were holding a secret about her husband.” It is a secret that she shares with him, while she protects him and ultimately helps him to become Lili, as the two stay together in a marriage of best friends. In fact, early on, when Einar says he has been thinking about Little Lili, Greta encourages him, replying, “Then why don’t we see her again.”

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