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Last Reviewed 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, 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.

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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.


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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...

(The entire section contains 844 words.)

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