Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.