Peer Gynt, a poetic, contradictious, and intriguing character made of the stuff of legendary heroes and sometimes confused with them in his own mind. He is one of the playwright’s greatest character creations and the least Victorian. As Peer himself would have wished to be, he is a citizen of the world. A youthful braggart, idler, brawler, and dreamer, he is a ragged, lying outcast from village life, the joy and despair of Aase, his mother. After stealing a bride from her unwelcome groom, he flees from his village, but he quickly abandons the stolen bride because he has fallen in love with Solveig, an innocent young girl whom he met at the wedding festivities. Later, bewitched by the Troll King’s daughter, he promises to marry her and inherit the Troll Kingdom. He puts on Troll clothing and the Troll King’s Sunday tail, eats the repulsive Troll food, and drinks the Troll mead, but he demurs when the Troll King wants to scratch one of his eyeballs so that he will see ugly as beautiful and beautiful as ugly. Escaping, he encounters the Great Boyg but is saved from that monster by the ringing of church bells. After his mother’s death, he becomes wealthy by slave trading in America and by shipping to China idols and missionaries that counteract one another. When his ship is commandeered off the coast of Morocco, he asks God to “Make something go wrong with the works! Do listen! Leave other folk’s matters alone! The world will look after itself while you do.” His prayer is answered and the vessel sinks, leaving Peer safe ashore. He poses as an Arab chief; is fleeced by Anitra, a dancing girl; becomes emperor of the insane asylum in Cairo; survives a shipwreck off the coast of Norway; encounters the Button Moulder; meets the Troll King again; tricks the Devil; and at last finds Solveig, who tells him that his real self exists in her faith, hope, and love. Peer’s reverence for Solveig and his whimsical devotion to his mother, whom he alternately teases and cherishes, are evidence of gentleness and tenderness underlying his selfish behavior. Inferior as a stage play because of the diffused action, Peer’s story is an imaginative dramatic poem that in power of language, humorous insight into human foibles, liveliness of dialogue, and creation of character reaches heights that many of Henrik Ibsen’s later plays never attempt.
Aase, Peer’s devoted, exasperated mother. A lively and pathetic character, she symbolizes maternal love. Her love permits her to scold Peer but will not allow anyone else to criticize him. As a youth, he sets her on a mill rooftop while he runs off to a wedding. After his escapade of bride stealing, Aase and Solveig cause the church bells to ring, saving him from the Boyg. When Aase is old and dying, Peer returns, and they play a game in which he pretends that he is driving her on a sleigh to a great party at a castle. God the Father is waiting and overrides St. Peter’s refusal to let her enter. With Peer’s arms around her, Aase rides happily into eternity.
Solveig, Peer’s ideal love, always beautiful and always patient. Although...
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