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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Set in medieval Italy, Pär Lagerkvist’s novel evokes the sinister plots and deeds of Niccolò Machiavelli’s prince, who was based on Cesare Borgia. The title character is the prince’s trusted aide and henchman, Piccolino, who has dwarfism. Piccolino’s extreme loyalty encourages his complicity in nefarious attacks on the prince’s enemies,...

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Set in medieval Italy, Pär Lagerkvist’s novel evokes the sinister plots and deeds of Niccolò Machiavelli’s prince, who was based on Cesare Borgia. The title character is the prince’s trusted aide and henchman, Piccolino, who has dwarfism. Piccolino’s extreme loyalty encourages his complicity in nefarious attacks on the prince’s enemies, including murder. But because the narcissistic prince cannot ever trust anyone nor be satisfied that they are acting in his best interests, he later rejects his servant; blaming Piccolino for all his problems, the prince imprisons him. The reader is left to wonder if Piccolino will ever be released and if he deserves liberty.

The prince’s arch-enemy is Lodovico Montanza. The courtly setting includes an artist painting a portrait of Princess Teodora, the prince’s wife; this artist, Bernardo, and the portrait are reputedly modeled on Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. Both the prince and his wife are having affairs. The prince keeps a courtesan, Flametta, as his mistress, while his wife’s lover is a poet, Ricardo. The prince and princess have one daughter, Angelica. As might be expected, she falls in love with Lodovico’s son, Giovanni. The plot involves her father’s efforts not only to separate them, but to punish Giovanni for seducing his virtuous child.

The prince apparently can do nothing half way. To eliminate his enemies, he pretends to negotiate a peace and stages a celebratory banquet, where he poisons Montanza and others in attendance; Piccolino goes beyond assisting him in this gruesome task—he adds the prince’s lover to the victims. The full measure of the prince’s pathology is encapsulated in his “solution” to the problem of the young people’s romance. Learning from Piccolino that Giovanni is with Angelica, the prince rushes into her room and cuts off the young man’s head right before her eyes. Mother and daughter are now desolate without their lovers; her heart broken, Angelica kills herself, while her mother wastes away in her grief but actually dies of an illness. Within all this mayhem, the prince fixates on Piccolino’s role, confining him indefinitely to a dungeon. Convinced nonetheless that he is indispensable, the dwarf expects his incarceration to be temporary.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Like the Freudian id or the stunted troll, Lagerkvist’s dwarf, Piccolino, represents the dark side of human life—“a person’s dwarf is really the person’s self,” and one “cannot do without one’s dwarf for long.” This is to say that human life is basically evil: Instead of attempting to deny or to eradicate one’s evil, which is, in fact, one’s instinct to survive, one should be constantly aware of it. The antithesis of evil, in this context, is not good but love, which directs the energy of one’s self toward the betterment of another. To be evil and to love is to become good—that is, good at being human. Evil and love are moral integers; goodness is a functional integer.

Piccolino serves a prince, clearly patterned after Niccolò Macchiavelli’s exemplar, Cesare Borgia. The prince dallies sensually with the courtesan Fiammetta; his wife, Princess Teodora, is in love with Don Ricardo (suggestive of the historical Francesco Orsini, an admirer of Petrarch’s poetry). Angelica, daughter of the prince and Teodora, is in love with Giovanni, the son of the prince’s enemy, Lodovico Montanza il Toro (historically, Ludovico Sforza il Moro). Messer Bernardo (Leonardo da Vinci), who has painted The Last Supper for Montanza in the refectory of Santa Croce (Santa Maria delle Grazie), is now painting a portrait of Princess Teodora (the Mona Lisa). The time of the events is probably 1502 to 1503, when Macchiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci were both in Cesare Borgia’s employ. Boccarossa, a ferocious mercenary soldier in the hire of the prince, may be based upon the historical Ramiro d’Orco.

The prince poisons Montanza and his retinue at a banquet falsely given over to a peace settlement. Piccolino, complicit in the poisonings, arranges on his own for Don Ricardo to be among the victims. Earlier, the dwarf had beheaded Angelica’s pet kitten. Subsequent to the treachery of the banquet, Piccolino leads the prince to the bed in which Angelica and Giovanni are engaged in premarital love. The prince beheads Giovanni. Angelica awakens to discover the horror and later drowns herself. Princess Teodora, unable to abide the deaths of her beloved Don Ricardo and her precious daughter Angelica, languishes in the company of the dwarf and dies during a period of plague. Fiammetta also succumbs during the plague. The prince has Piccolino incarcerated and chained in a dungeon, and the dwarf appears to be ignorant of the reason for his prince’s disfavor. He is confident, however, that his prince will not be able to do without him for long.

Throughout the novel, love is repressed or destroyed before it can check the evil that is both the spark of life and, untended or without attenuation by love, the fatal conflagration of human existence.

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