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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pär Lagerkvist combines the characterization of a malevolent individual, who tells his own story, with the metaphorical equivalence of the dwarf’s condition. He does this to explore deep truths about human nature and the fear of difference. The title character states,

They think it is I who scare them, but it is the dwarf within them, the ape-faced manlike being who sticks up its head from the depths of their souls.

The dwarf begins the novel with his physical description, noting his very short stature and differences, including having red hair, from others in the court where he lives. As he says he is “twenty-six inches” tall, it immediately clear that the novel will be fantastic on some level, as the average height for adults with dwarfism is four feet, or 48 inches. Another thing he quickly mentions is a wrestling match with another dwarf, in which he strangled and killed him. He also insists on his serious demeanor and behavior and that he does not—and will not—provide humor at court.

Most dwarfs are buffoons. They have to make jokes and play tricks to make their masters and the guests laugh. I have never demeaned myself to anything like that. Nobody has even suggested that I should.

The master of this dwarf, who the later learns is named Piccoline, is the Prince, who is so intelligent and cunning that he inspires “doglike devotion.”

[T]he Prince . . . is a great and powerful man, a man of great schemes, and one who knows how to put them into execution. . . . He is very treacherous.

Although Piccoline primarily serves the Prince, he also serves the other members of the court, including the Prince’s wife, Princess Theodora—even though he confesses to hating the Princess because of her immoral behavior in having numerous lovers (especially the main one, Don Riccardo). He also describes their daughter, Angelica, who saw him as another child when she was young and constantly wanted him to be her playmate—a role he despised. In retaliation, he threw her kitten out the window. Later in the novel the reader learns of his involvement, and deep satisfaction from, killing human beings as well.

Piccolino sees himself as a representative of, and in some respects the alter ego, of the Prince. He understands that he is the Prince’s possession, telling the reader that his mother had sold him at birth. In that regard, he presents himself as a concrete manifestation of the nobleman in the same way as the great works he builds or the glittering life of the court. He even dresses like the Prince and identifies with him in terms of the power he holds and the hatred it engenders.

[T]he master’s dwarf really is the master himself. . . . And it fills me with satisfaction to see that I am hated!

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