Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
Peer Gynt, a young Norwegian farmer with a penchant for laziness and bragging, idles away his hours in brawling and dreaming. Upbraided by his mother, Ase, for his willingness to waste his time, he answers that she is perfectly right. She ridicules him further by pointing out that had he been an honest farmer, Hegstad’s daughter would have had him, and he would have been a happy bridegroom. He tells her that he intends to break the marriage of Hegstad’s daughter, a wedding planned for that night. When his mother protests, he seizes her in his arms and sets her on the roof of their house, from where her unheeded cries follow him up the road to Hegstad’s home.
At the wedding Peer is scorned by everyone present except Solveig, a girl unknown to him. Even she, however, avoids him as soon as she hears of his base reputation. Peer becomes drunk and begins to tell fantastic tales of adventure, stories that bridge an embarrassing gap in the marriage ceremony when the bride locks herself in the storeroom and refuses to come out. In desperation, the bridegroom appeals to Peer for help. As Peer leaves for the storeroom, his mother, who had been released from the roof, arrives. Suddenly the bridegroom cries out and points toward the hillside. Rushing to the door, the guests see Peer scrambling up the mountain with the bride over his shoulder.
Peer quickly abandons the bride and runs into the wilderness. Eluding the pursuit of Hegstad and his neighbors, he marries and then deserts the daughter of the elf-king of the mountains. He encounters the Great Boyg, the riddle of existence in the figure of a shapeless, grim, unconquerable monster. Peer tries repeatedly to force his way up the mountain, but the Boyg blocks his way. When Peer challenges the Boyg to a battle, the creature replies that though he conquers everyone, he does not fight.
Exhausted, Peer sinks to the ground. The sky is dark with carnivorous birds that are about to swoop down upon him. Suddenly he hears the sound of church bells and women’s voices in the distance. The Boyg withdraws, admitting defeat because Peer has the support of women in his fight. An outlaw for having carried off Hegstad’s daughter, Peer builds himself a hut in the forest, to which Solveig comes to keep him company. Their happiness is brief, however, for one day Peer meets the elf-king’s daughter, whom he had deserted. With her is an ugly troll, Peer’s son; unable to drive them off, he himself leaves after telling Solveig that she must wait for him a little while.
Before leaving the country, he pays a farewell visit to his dying mother. With his arms around her, Peer lulls her into her last sleep. Over her dead body he utters thanks for all his days, all his lullabies, all his beatings.
Peer goes adventuring around the world. In America he sells slaves; in China, sacred idols. He has a thriving business in rum and Bibles. After being robbed of his earthly goods, he goes to the African desert and becomes a prophet. Prosperous once more, he sets himself up in Asian luxury. One day he rides into the desert with Anitra, a dancing girl. Stopping to rest, he cannot resist the urge to show off by proving to Anitra that he is still young in spirit and body. While he is performing, she steals his moneybag and horse and gallops away. Solveig has grown middle-aged while waiting for Peer’s return. Peer, on the other hand, still struggles on with his planless life, still drifts around the all-consuming Boyg of life with no apparent purpose in mind.
On his way back to Norway at last, his ship is wrecked. Peer clings to a spar that can hold only one person. When the ship’s cook attempts to grasp the spar also, Peer thrusts him into the ocean. He had saved his own life, but he doubted whether he had been successful in saving himself from his aimless existence.
On his return to Norway, Peer decides, however, that he is through with wandering, and he is willing to settle down to the staid life of a retired old man. One day on the heath he meets a Button Moulder, who refuses to let the aged Peer realize his dream of peace and contentment. Informed that he is to go into the Button Moulder’s ladle to be melted, Peer becomes frantic. To lose his soul, his identity, is an end he had not divined for himself despite his aimless and self-centered life. He pleads with the Button Moulder to relent. He is at worst a bungler, he cries, never an exceptional sinner. The Button Moulder answers that Peer, not bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven, is fit only for the ladle. Peer protests, but the Button Moulder remains adamant. Peer is to be melted into the ladle of nonentity unless he can prove himself a sinner worthy of hell. Hell being a more lenient punishment than nothingness, Peer desperately enlarges upon his sins. He tells the Button Moulder that he had trafficked in slaves, had cheated people and deceived them, and had saved his life at the expense of another. The Button Moulder ironically maintains that these iniquities are mere trifles.
While they argue, the Button Moulder and Peer come to a house where Solveig stands in the doorway ready for church, a psalmbook under her arm. Peer flings himself at her feet, begs her to cry out his sins and trespasses, but she answers that he is with her again, and that is all that matters. She is shocked when Peer asks her to cry out his crime to her; she says that it is he who makes life beautiful for her. Hearing her words, the Button Moulder disappears, prophesying that he and Peer will meet again. Peer buries his face in Solveig’s lap, safe and secure with her arms to hold him and her heart to warm him. Solveig’s own face is bathed in sunlight.
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