Beetlejuice the Dwarf

The Dwarf

The Dwarf (Dvärgen, 1944) is a novel by Pär Lagerkvist. It is considered his most important novel and the most artistically innovative (reference needed). It was translated into English by Alexandra Dick in 1945.

Plot summary

The main character of this story is a dwarf, 26 inches high, at the court of an Italian City-state in the Renaissance. The exact locations are unclear, but since a character named Bernardo, which is unmistakably modeled on Leonardo da Vinci appears in the novel, it appears to take place in a fictional version of Milan around the time of Leonardo's stay at the court of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, from 1482 to 1499. There is a reference to Santa Croce being in the immediate surroundings, but this is possibly mixed up with the Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze so that the story could actually be set in Florence. At the same time Lagerkvist puts Bernardo/Leonardo's creation of The Last Supper and Mona Lisa into the plot, one of them created in Milan, the other presumably in Florence. Further, the prince that inspired Niccolò Machiavelli to write The Prince has been assumed to be Cesare Borgia, who also employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect, a role he (as Bernardo) plays alongside his painting work in The Dwarf. In this way aspects of all these historical places and people are mixed into the background of the novel.

The dwarf is the teller of the narrative, obviously obsessed by writing down his experiences in a form of diary. Everything in the novel is described from his particular viewpoint, mostly in retrospective ranging from a few hours or minutes to several weeks or months after the actual events.

The dwarf is a profound misanthrope and generally embodies all things evil. He hates almost every person at the court except for the prince (who is the ruler of the city-state, rather king than prince), or rather aspects of him. He loves war, brutality and fixed positions. While almost all other characters of the novel develop during the chain of events, the dwarf does not change. He is still exactly the same character from the first to the last page. He is deeply religious, but his take on Christianity mostly resembles Calvinism and Victorian morality and his idea of Christ is close to the non-forgiving God of the Old Testament. He is impressed with Bernardo's science but soon repelled by its relentless search for truth.

When the dwarf is ordered to assassinate a number of enemies of the prince using poisonous wine, he takes this opportunity to also assassinate one of the prince's rivals, simply because he dislikes him and has an affair with the prince's wife.

The novel ends with the dwarf being strapped in chains at the bottom of the royal castle, never to be released again. He is seemingly convicted for flogging the prince's wife to death in anger over her sins. However he takes this sentence lightly, since, as he says, "soon the prince will need his dwarf again".


The Dwarf has been interpreted in several ways, but is generally believed to be Lagerkvist's attempt of creating a genuinely evil character illustrating the evil sides of man. The image of a dwarf is believed to be on par with comparing a person without empathy (such as the psychopathic and misanthropic Dwarf of the novel) to an "emotional dwarf".

At some points in the novel, especially towards the end, it appears that the dwarf is actually the embodiment of the dark sides of the prince himself, and not a real, existing person. The ongoing evils of World War II is believed to have greatly influenced the prose, and Adolf Hitler may have contributed to the personality of the dwarf.


The Dwarf has been reprinted several times. The latest edition has ISBN 0-374-52135-2.

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