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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364

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.

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369

Unreliability is not simply a flamboyant accessory of this first-person narrative; it is the very subject of the novel, set during a period when medieval pieties were being challenged and skepticism coexisted with immense worldly ambition. The Dwarf is brief, bare, and deliberately vague, the better to extrapolate its story into allegory, the universal drama of grappling with the essence of humanity.

In its contradictory energies, the Renaissance was an emphatically manic-depressive period, and, though the cynical, reductive Dwarf is as much at home in the era as was Niccolo Machiavelli, he is as puzzled as the reader is by the spirit of the age. “One minute it is a chorus of jubilation over the glory of being a human creature. The next minute it is nothing but hopelessness, complete futility, despair.”

Though parabolic, the novel does not preach but, through its patently unreliable perspective, forces its readers to try to fathom the contradictions of human nature. Are men closer in character to the Dwarf, Bernardo, or the Prince? Or do the three constitute the id, superego, and ego of the complete personality? The Dwarf attributes his ability to frighten others to their recognition that he represents malevolent internal forces to which they would just as soon not admit: “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.”

Baptized as a joke and acting as a sadistic confessor to Teodora, the Dwarf provides a demoniac parody of traditional religion. The Dwarf provides its audience with a modern perspective on the heart of darkness lurking in each person, but it also suggests the limitations of the humanist perspective. Readers take the limited measure of the deluded Dwarf and become skeptical over the arrogant credo that man is the measure of all things. The Dwarf complains that Bernardo’s “mind is so presumptuous that it would fain lord it like a prince over a world which it does not own.” Yet Bernardo does not finish his paintings, and, though convinced that he will live to walk out of prison and continue his notes, the Dwarf does not finish his narrative.

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