The Dwarf in “The Dwarf” as a Parody of Christ

The eponymous character in Pär Lagerkvist‘s novel The Dwarf sheds wonderful insights on the topics of being and cosmic harmony through his grotesque words and actions in the story. Chief among his points is the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. The dwarf has many convictions about himself, including that he is of an ancient race that predates “normal” humanity. This helps separate him from the people he hates so much. He insists that dwarves do not play and they only have one existence and do not pretend anything. The princess plays with her lovers and the astronomers play with the stars, despite having no effect on life at all. The dwarf is only himself and owns this existence. This is ironic because he is in reality owned by the Prince and is charged with putting on many performances for the normal people who laugh at his antics. All he does is play, and the games are mockeries of real-life events like communion and battle. By stating that he is never pretending, the dwarf is enforcing the idea that life itself is absurd, and he is revealing that truth by parodying real life.

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His philosophy is also colored with intense hatred for humanity because of how he is treated by it. The games people force him to play are an extension of the philosophy they have of dwarves: that they are parodies of humans. Their grotesque bodies are only capable of grotesque parodies of real life, but the dwarf understands that because he can’t hide who he is, he is the only person not pretending. The games he is forced to play are attempts to hide the truth that normal life is grotesque. He is revealing the truth of life’s absurdity when he creates absurd retellings of “normal” life. When the dwarf disrupts a fake communion, he is punished, but his action is a statement on the absurdity of “legitimate” communion. The people can’t handle being told their lives are meaningless, so they take it out on the dwarf who is enlightened. That is another grotesque irony: that the subject of their scorn is actually a being that brings them truth, much like a messiah.

The theme of religion is brought up so often in this work (and most of the Grotesque). The dwarf continues to ponder the subject of Christ and how he is hated and killed by humanity. The dwarf continues to imagine himself on that cross being humiliated like Christ, taking the punishment all of humanity deserves. This brings up the idea that the dwarf is ironically the embodiment of Christ in our world: truer than normal people and showing that truth to them through his suffering. Christ was called a blasphemer by the religious authority of his time, and so is the dwarf when he disrespects their communion. He is the messiah returned to show the people the truth. That life is shit, and so are we.

Bernardo the artist expounds the theme of finding truth in his art and science. The dwarf’s reaction to his ideas is a reflection of the novel’s take on existence. When Bernardo proclaims life to be a miracle and all of Creation to be in cosmic harmony, the dwarf is disgusted and hates him. But when Bernardo laments over the meaninglessness of life, the dwarf is amazed. The dwarf uses examples of humanity’s ugliness to express his existential disgust, but Bernardo actually states that all of humanity is an attempt at something they can never achieve. All of mankind is pretending and playing at life while the dwarf simply lives it. They see his antics as a ridiculous retelling of their lives, but it is the truest retelling of it: the fakeness is the truest part. The dwarf in The Dwarf makes for an odd savior, but the point of a messiah is to enlighten the people who don’t understand and reveal that they have been living meaninglessly. The truth is harsh, and so is the dwarf that tells it.

Kafka’s Prisons

Four stories by Frans Kafka: “Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Report to the Academy,” and “The Hunger-Artist.”

What struck me in all the Kafka stories was not the absurdity, but the recurrence of themes like imprisonment and how one lives in such a state. The prison-like complexes of average life are exposed when bizarre types of prisons and slavery crop up to juxtapose them in Kafka’s stories.
In “Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s job is like slavery, and his family is fully dependent him (making them slaves to him as well). Once he transforms, he becomes a prisoner in his own room, being fed scrapes and regularly terrifying his family. Gregor is so mentally imbedded in his job that his transformation doesn’t worry him; he frets endlessly about making it to work on time even while he’s a monstrous cockroach, which shows how institutionalized he is to his financial situation. A reality-altering existential crisis can’t even shake his devotion to his job that he hates. He becomes completely dependent on his family just as they used to be on him, but they express no sympathy for him, only reasoning their mercy with that he used to be Gregor. This reversal exposes their dwindling humanity, which is ironic when Gregor is the non-human creature in the story. His humanity remains intact on the inside, and it only leaves him as his family shows less mercy throughout the story.

“In the Penal Colony” also features themes of imprisonment but more directly in the character of the condemned man, who must be strapped down and tortured to death. The reversal of roles is also a big part of the story, as it was in “Metamorphosis.” The officer is a proud supporter of the torture device and the philosophy of its use, and when the sentence is laid upon him, he proudly becomes its last victim. It seems senseless to us, but it means very much to the officer, and that’s another important theme of these works.

These characters are convicted in every sense of the word: characters are very dedicated to ideals and goals while also being prisoners sentenced to death and despair. The hunger-artist lives in a cage that he chooses to maintain as his livelihood, and he eventually dies for it. The ape in “A Report to the Academy” tells the story of being in a cage and dedicating himself to discovering how to be free, but in a truer sense. The ape is a prisoner of his lower faculties and becomes free when he develops into his humanity. The defining moment is when he downs a bottle of rum and speaks his first word of English. Rum is a substance capable of imprisoning men, and it ironically frees the ape. But he’s just entered a different kind of prison when he identifies with humanity. These characters are in physical and psychological prisons that blend during the absurd stories.

It’s interesting how Kafka explores these different types of prisons, sometimes using characters that either choose to inhabit them or aren’t even aware. The condemned man in “In the Penal Colony” doesn’t know his sentence and isn’t even afraid of the machine that will execute him. He is curious about the machine and hardly struggles when he is strapped into it. The officer represents the reverse when he willingly climbs in despite there being no sentence against him. Kafka understands that many things imprison humanity, and even when we yearn for freedom, it’s only an illusion or an escape into a different kind of prison. Death is the only thing that sets Gregor, the officer, and the hunger-artist free. The mysterious plane of existence that is non-existence is the only unexplored frontier, and many of Kafka’s characters escape from life into it.