Peer Gynt is a lazy but charming Norwegian farm boy. A liar and boaster, he causes himself to be outlawed by stealing the bride at a wedding and then casting her away once he has seduced her. The latter action is motivated by his having met the young Solveig, who becomes his love ideal. In Solveig’s absence, however, he commits even grosser erotic sins. Consorting with a mysterious woman dressed in green, a supernatural creature modeled on folk belief, he fathers a troll bastard, and later he is taken into the mountain, where he is to be married to the daughter of the resident troll king. Here he is asked to make certain promises which signify his making utter selfishness his rule of life.
After Peer’s banishment, Solveig comes to join him in his forest cabin. A brief period of happiness ensues. Then Peer is confronted with his troll offspring and flees. A lifetime of various activities follows, among which are participation in the American slave trade and gunrunning in the war between Greece and Turkey.
After a period in North Africa and a stint at an insane asylum in Cairo, Egypt, where the other inmates make him their emperor, Peer finally returns home. Shipwrecked off the coast of Norway, he has to travel to his native valley on foot. En route he encounters a mysterious character named the Button Moulder, who states that since Peer has no visible personality he is now destined to have his soul melted down into nothingness. Peer frantically searches for a witness who can testify to the fact that he indeed has a self. None can be found until Peer reaches the cabin where Solveig, now an old woman, lives alone. She assures him that in her mind and love, he exists in a state of wholeness.
Fjelde, Rolf. “Peer Gynt, Naturalism, and the Dissolving Self.” The Drama Review 13, no. 2 (Winter, 1968): 28-43. Explores a rhetorical perspective on Peer’s identity, concluding that Peer is an example of the uncentered self who can achieve wholeness only through a relationship with others.
Groddeck, Georg. “Peer Gynt.” In Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. A psychoanalytical exploration of Peer Gynt, this book chapter emphasizes Peer’s relationships to the women in his life.
Johnston, Brian. To the Third Empire: Ibsen’s Early Drama. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. A detailed and insightful survey of Ibsen’s early dramatic production, the volume includes a major section devoted to Peer Gynt. Points out that the drama, which has a moral purpose, owes its appeal to the same playful strategies for dealing with reality that Ibsen argues against.
McFarlane, James. Ibsen and Meaning: Studies, Essays and Prefaces, 1953-87. Norwich, England: Norvik Press, 1989. In a major contribution to Ibsen criticism, his play Brand (1866) is compared to and contrasted with Peer Gynt. Unlike the protagonist of Brand, says McFarlane, Peer Gynt is a man who lives entirely in his illusions.
Shapiro, Bruce G. Divine Madness and the Absurd Paradox: Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and the Philosophy of Kierkegaard. Westview, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. An in-depth discussion of the relationship between the character of Peer Gynt and Kierkegaardian philosophy, particularly his theory of the contrast between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres of existence.