Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The main theme that Pär Lagerkvist explores in this novel is the struggle between good and evil within the human being. As Lagerkvist examines this theme through the character of Piccolino, he uses the metaphor of physical difference for the dark side of human nature. The author’s interpretation is essentially pessimistic as he implies that evil will usually, if not always, triumph. Closely related is the importance of love in the human effort to support the presence of good in the world. Without these combined qualities of love and goodness, Lagerkvist suggests, not only will evil overtake an individual’s soul, but it will endanger our collective well-being. Within its medieval setting, the theme of romantic love strongly emerges, but the deeper affective bonds of devotion and loyalty are of greater concern in The Dwarf.

The darkness within Piccolino is compounded through his position serving a wicked prince, whom he aids in carrying out his murderous schemes. These include poisoning several people at a banquet—including the prince’s chief rival, Montanza; his followers; and Ricardo, the prince’s wife’s love—and helping the prince behead Montanza’s son, Giovanni. The final event is foreshadowed by the dwarf himself beheading a kitten. The prince’s daughter, Angelica, was Giovanni’s lover. This grisly murder, committed in their bed in front of her, drives her to suicide. In turn, her mother is stricken with grief over losing both her lover and her daughter, and she then dies of plague. The prince had also had a mistress, Fiamatta, who also succumbs to plague.

Piccolino had understood his role to be that of loyal servant who aided the prince in every endeavor, no matter how ill-intentioned. After the prince loses everyone he loves, however, he blames Piccolino for the deaths and throws him into a dungeon. The faithful service is punished rather than rewarded, but Piccolino understands the dark forces that motivate the prince. He believes his service will be required again and that he will be “freed.” Not understanding what constitutes freedom—such as the true love that had compelled Angelica to give up her life—Piccolino is portrayed as not fully human.

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Characters