Peer Gynt is the son of the once highly regarded Jon Gynt. Jon Gynt spent all his money on feasting and living lavishly, until there was nothing left; thus, Jon had to go from his farm as a wandering salesman, leaving his wife and son behind in debt. Åse, the mother, wished to raise her son to restore the lost fortune of his father, but Peer is soon to be considered useless. He is a poet and a braggart, not unlike the Norwegian youngest son from the fairy tales, the “Ash Lad”, with whom he shares some characteristics.
As the play opens, Peer gives an account of a reindeer hunt that went awry, a famous theatrical scene generally known as “the Buckride.” His mother scorns him for his vivid imagination, and taunts him because he spoiled his chances with Ingrid, the daughter of the richest farmer. Peer goes straight to Ingrid’s wedding, scheduled for the following day, because he may still get a chance with the bride. His mother follows quickly to stop him from shaming himself completely.
At the wedding, Peer is taunted and laughed at by the other guests, especially the local blacksmith, Aslak, who holds a grudge after an earlier brawl. But in the same wedding, Peer meets a family of Haugean newcomers from another valley. He instantly notices the daughter, Solveig, and asks her to dance. She refuses because of her father and because Peer’s reputation has preceded him. She leaves, and Peer starts drinking. When he hears that the bride has locked herself in, he seizes the opportunity and runs away with the bride, and spends the night with her in the mountains…
His action has a consequence: Peer is banished. As he wanders the mountains, his mother, Solveig, and Solveig’s father search for him. During his getaway, he meets 3 amorous dairy-maids who are waiting to be courted by trolls (a folklore motif from Gudbrandsdalen). He becomes highly intoxicated with them and spends the next day alone suffering from a hangover. He runs head-first into a rock and swoons, and the rest of the second act takes place in Peer’s dreams. He comes across a woman clad in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll mountain king. Together they ride into the mountain hall, and the troll king gives Peer the opportunity to become a troll if Peer would marry his daughter. Peer agrees to a number of conditions, but declines in the end. He is then confronted with the fact that the green-clad woman is with child. Peer denies this; he claims not to have touched her, but the wise troll king replies that he begat the child in his head. Crucial for the plot and understanding of the play is the question asked by the troll king: What is the difference between troll and man?
The answer given by the Old Man of the Mountain is: “Out there, where sky shines, humans say: ‘To thyself be true.’ In here, trolls say: ‘Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.'” Egoism is a typical trait of the trolls in this play. From then on, Peer uses this as his motto, always proclaiming that he is himself, whatever that is. One of the most interesting characters is the Bøyg; a creature who has no real description. On the question “Who are you?” The Bøyg answers, “myself.” In time, Peer also takes the Bøyg’s important saying as a motto: “Go around.” The rest of his life, he “beats around the bush” instead of facing himself or the truth.
Upon waking up, he is confronted by Helga, Solveig’s sister, who gives him food and regards from her sister. Peer gives the girl a silver button for Solveig to keep, and asks that she not forget him.
As an outlaw, Peer struggles to build his own cottage in the hills. Solveig turns up and insists on living with him. She has made her choice, she says, and there will be no return for her. Peer is delighted and welcomes her, but as she enters the cabin, an elderly woman in a green dress appears with a limping boy at her side. This is the green-clad woman from the mountain hall. She has cursed him by forcing him to remember her, and all his previous sins, when facing Solveig. Peer hears a ghostly voice saying, “Go roundabout, Peer”, and decides to leave. He tells Solveig he has something heavy to fetch. He returns in time for his mother’s death, and then sets off overseas.
Peer is away for many years, taking part in various occupations and playing various roles including that of a businessman engaged in enterprises on the coast of Morocco. Here, he explains his view of life, and we learn that he is a businessman with dirty money on his hands. He has been a missionary, a slave-trader, and many other things. His friends rob him, and leave him alone on the shore. Then he finds some stolen bedouin gear, and in these clothes, he is hailed as a prophet by a local tribe. He tries to seduce Anitra, the chieftain’s daughter, but she gets away, and leaves him. Then he decides to become a historian, and travels to Egypt. He wanders through the desert, passes the Memnon and the Sphinx. As he addresses the Sphinx, believing her to be the Bøyg, he encounters the keeper of the local madhouse, himself insane, who regards Peer as the bringer of supreme wisdom. Peer comes to the madhouse, and understands that all of the patients live in their own worlds, being themselves to such a degree that no one cares for anyone else. In his youth, Peer had dreamt of becoming an emperor. In this place, he’s finally hailed as one — the emperor of the “self.” Peer despairs and calls for the “Keeper of all fools,” i.e. God.
Finally, on his way home as an old man, he is shipwrecked. Among those on board, he meets the Strange Passenger, who wants to make use of Peer’s corpse to find out where dreams have their origin. This passenger scares Peer out of his wits. He lands on shore bereft of all of his possessions, a pitiful and grumpy old man. Back home in Norway, Peer Gynt attends a peasant funeral, and an auction, where he offers for sale everything from his earlier life. The auction takes place at the very farm where the wedding once was held. Peer stumbles along, and is confronted with all that he did not do, his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears, and his questions that were never asked. His mother comes back and claims that her deathbed went awry. He did not lead her to heaven with his ramblings. Peer escapes and is confronted with the Button-molder, who maintains that Peer’s soul must be melted down with other faulty goods unless he can explain when and where in life he has been “himself.” Peer protests. He has been only that, and nothing else. Then he meets the troll king, who states that he has been a troll, not a man, most of his life. The molder comes along and says that he has to come up with something if he is not to be melted down. Peer looks for a priest to confess his sins, and a character named the Lean One (who is the Devil), turns up. He believes Peer cannot be accounted a real sinner who can be sent to hell. He has not done anything serious. Peer despairs in the end, understanding that his life is forfeited. He understands he is nothing. But at the same moment, Solveig starts to sing — the cabin he himself built, is close at hand, but he dares not enter. The Bøyg in him tells him “around.” The molder shows up and demands a list of sins, but Peer has none to give, unless Solveig can vouch for him. Then he breaks through to her, asking her for his sins. But she answers: “You have not sinned at all, my dearest boy.” Peer does not understand — he believes himself lost. Then he asks her: “Where has Peer Gynt been since we last met? Where was I as the one I should have been, whole and true, with the mark of God on my brow?” She answers; “In my faith, in my hope, in my love.” Peer screams and calls his mother, and hides himself in her lap. Solveig sings her lullaby for him, and we might presume he dies in this last scene of the play, although there are no stage directions or dialogue to indicate that he actually does.
Behind the corner, the button-molder, who is sent by God, still waits, with the words: “Peer, we shall meet at the last cross-roads, and then we shall see if… I’ll say no more.”