I mentioned that my face was exactly like that of other men. That is not quite accurate, for it is very lined, covered with wrinkles. I do not look upon this as a blemish. I am made that way and I cannot help it if others are not. It shows me as I really am, unbeautified and undistorted. Maybe it was not meant to be like that, but that is exactly as I want to look
I’ve seen many people conclude this book as a warning against fascism. I can see that, but my reading of The Dwarf took things a step further. Similar to how Nietzsche reminded us that our beastliness resides right under our prim and tummy tucked appearance, so too does Pär Lagerkvist remind us that violence always resides within us.
The story is told in an epistolary fashion with the dwarf, Piccoline, narrating his observances and opinions of the on goings at court. Piccoline works as a servant of the prince—but more like a prince’s aide. The story takes place during the Italian Renaissance with the Prince being a play on Machiavelli’s prince and the scholar being a play on Leonardo da Vinci. The main characters in this novel are: the Prince, the Princess, the Scholar, the Army Captain whose name I forgot, the Prince and Princess’s daughter, and the Dwarf. The prince represents the crown, state, and authority. The princess represents the church. The scholar represents academia, technology, and advancement. The Army Captain represents the military. The daughter (Angelica I think was her name), represents the common folk, and the dwarf connects them all. In all spheres of life, spheres we would consider to be essential to the establishment and function of any society, there is violence.
What is play? A meaningless dabbling with nothing at all. a strange “let’s pretend” way of dealing with things. they must not be treated as they really are, not seriously; one is only pretending. Astrologers play with the stars, the Prince plays with his building, his churches, the crucifixion scenes, and the campaniles, Angelica with her dolls– they all play, all pretend something.
The Prince and the Dwarf: The authority of any ruler requires two things: the support of the people and the respect of other rulers. A ruler who does not have the support of the people can be overthrown by them. A ruler who does not have some respect or connection to another ruler can be threatened by them. In both cases, war and violence ensue. Thus, just as Piccoline constantly tails after the Prince, any ruler has violence in their every step.
The Princess and the Dwarf: the authority of religion, especially any extreme branches of religion, violently exploits the foils of humanity—the very ungodliness of what it means to be human, the impossibility of being pure. The Dwarf detests the princess because he sees her as nothing but a representation of all sins—lust most powerful. Just as a member of any church becomes dependent on them for salvation, so too does the princess becomes codependent on Piccoline who inevitably lashes out both verbally and physically on her.
Mankind does not like to be violated by God
The scholar and the Dwarf: The scholar takes an interest in Piccoline. He wants to draw him, see his anatomy; study Piccoline. Why? Because, disgusting as the mentality is, Piccoline’s dwarf status intrigues the scholar and he wants to discover the anomalies of humanity through Piccoline. But the scholar is always starting new projects and rarely completing anything. Anything he does complete either gets used in warfare or is turned into a shrine with a mysterious smile that everyone upholds. Piccoline finds no value in most of the scholar’s creations. It is only the weapons of warfare he admires, and only if it works. He naturally, despises the painting.
The Army Captain and the Dwarf: Now this is an interesting relationship. Piccoline hates the army captain. Why? Because the army captain is in love with the princess. Get it? The church and the military are in love, secretly of course. Nothing can be openly shown because the scandal. Yet because of this agenda, this lust of flesh over war, Piccoline hates the army captain. In contrast, there is another army general whom Piccoline adores. This general is a mercenary. He goes to whomever he wants and, in a way, is the freest and most ruthless player in this novel. And he is also the only character Piccoline somewhat admires.
It may be because I am another kind of being, subtler, more sensitive, and therefore I react against many things which do not appear to affect them. I do not know. I have no experience of what they call love, nor do I wish to try it.
Angelica and the Dwarf: A bumpkin. A nobody. Someone who couldn’t possibly be royalty because she does not act like it. Too affectionate. Too kind. Too stupid. Piccoline hates the daughter. Why? Because she is the innocent person who falls in love and suffers for it. The epitome of all that is weak and useless to the violent agenda that is Piccoline.
The five aspects that make up most societies, and Piccoline shows how violence is ensued in everything. At the level of fascism, where power is in the hands of a few and the state comes first—anything that isn’t violent and controlling is despised. Lagerkvist provides descriptive prose on the gruesomeness of war, the bloodshed, the violence of religion, the starvation of people, the suffering of all, and the madness of it all. It’s all carnage. It’s all devastating. And it hurts. And yet, there is some weird revelation and excitement in all the chaos and carnage. And when the dwarf, when Piccoline, is thrown into prison, things supposedly ends. Life, supposedly, renews. Except that it hasn’t.
The priests do not seem to like it if their teachings are taken too seriously.
Lagerkvist ends the novel with a warning. Nothing changes just because you imprison Piccoline. Humanity doesn’t change because it has chained its beast. The society hasn’t changed in anyway. There is still a prince. Still a military. Still starvation in the streets. When infrastructures and systems don’t change, how can you chain your violent nature and think it’s gone for good? You’ve just delayed the emergence of Piccoline.
Why is Piccoline a dwarf? Because of the mixture of revulsion, awe, and comedy shorter people have held in society, specifically Western society. It’s disgusting and awful but it’s the truth. Everyone in the novel either sees Piccoline with revulsion, curiosity, or with laughter. Yet what is Piccoline but another human being? Rejecting him is simply rejecting yourself. Again Lagerkvist points out that you cannot deny your violence. It can and will emerge under the right conditions. We often say that human mindsets need to change, but how can it when conditions continue to remain the same? The novel ends with a celebration of life with Piccoline made the scapegoat. A sickening end. A pitiful plea from humanity saying, “it’s not me, but the beast within”. A refusal to accept your actions. This is how our story ends, and Piccoline knows he will be dragged out soon enough again. Why? Because at the end of the book, nothing’s changed from the beginning.
These are men who carry their fate in their hands and who do not live in perpetual suspense for the future. They light their campfires in any country and do not care which people provide their livelihood. it is all one to them which prince they serve– and in reality they serve only themselves. When they are weary they stretch themselves out in the darkness and rest for the morrow’s slaughter. They are a people without a country, but the whole world is theirs.
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