Peer Gynt, the title character, is a man in search of himself. His problem is that he misunderstands “self-realization” and seeks fulfillment in his poetic dreams because he fears life and love. In order to show the full range of his negative development, Ibsen shows Peer first as a feckless young man of twenty, then as a middle-aged tycoon, and finally as a broken old man returning to his native Norway.
As a youth, Peer lives fictional adventures so vividly in his imagination that they almost become his own life experiences. He dreams of being an emperor but is never ready when opportunity knocks. While he has been playing hooky in the uplands, Ingrid of Hegstad, an heiress whom he might have married, has been betrothed to another young man. Looking for trouble, Peer sets off for Hegstad to engage in belated courtship. Among the wedding guests is Solveig, a pure young woman whom Peer instantly loves. When Solveig refuses to dance with him, he gets drunk and steals the bride. Abducting Ingrid makes Peer an outlaw. Though Ingrid is quite willing to marry Peer, he sends her back to her father because he loves Solveig. In what may be a dream sequence, he encounters a woman in green, the daughter of the Troll King, who takes him to her father’s kingdom, where everything is reversed: Black seems white and foul looks pure. Peer is a candidate for the hand of this troll princess, a negative counterpart of Solveig, but in order to win her father’s full approval he must wear a tail and accept selfishness as a way of life. Peer is quite willing to accept these conditions, until he learns that in doing so he can never return to humanity.
After his narrow escape from the trolls, Peer’s path is blocked by a languid monster called the Boyg, who tells him to “go roundabout.” The Boyg seems to be a portmanteau symbol for everything that prevents Peer from being himself. By having church bells rung, his mother se and Solveig—the women who love Peer—manage to save him both from the trolls and the Boyg, yet they cannot save him from himself. What little remains of se’s property is seized to compensate Ingrid’s father; yet she gladly suffers for her son. Solveig makes an even bigger sacrifice for Peer: She leaves her beloved family and searches for Peer in his mountain hut. When the troll princess arrives accompanied by their troll son, however, Peer realizes how unworthy he is of Solveig’s love and “goes roundabout,” abandoning her there.
Many years later in North Africa, Peer is a middle-aged millionaire who owes his fortune to all sorts of unprincipled enterprises. Though still apparently human, he has espoused the troll way of life, which he now defines as “the Gyntian self.” Most of the fourth act takes place in a symbolic desert that represents the aridity of this “Gyntian self.” Riding a stolen horse, he encounters a group of Bedouins who take him for a prophet. He falls in love with the exotic dancer Anitra and believes that he is emperor of her thoughts, but she strips him of his rings and clothes and rides off on his horse, abandoning him as he once abandoned Ingrid. While contemplating the Great Sphinx, Peer meets Begriffenfeldt, the mad director of an insane asylum in Cairo. At the asylum, the only place where illusion truly triumphs over reality, the inmates hail Peer as one of them, and Begriffenfeldt crowns him the Emperor of Self.
One brief scene in act 4 shows the faithful Solveig still waiting for Peer’s return. In act 5, the aged and embittered Peer does return to Norway, where everything that he encounters reminds him of his wasted life and points to his impending death. Near his old mountain hut, he hears Solveig singing and realizes that this was where his true empire lay. Yet he is still afraid to face her. Haunted by the emptiness of his stillborn visions, he next encounters the eerie Button Moulder, a mysterious figure who has been sent to dissolve him, since he has never become the self...
(The entire section is 2,968 words.)