Peer Gynt is a Norwegian farm lad who wastes his time in lazy dreaming, boasting and brawling--a symbol of the man who ever colors truth and fact in wishful compromises, evasion and selfishness.
Ase, his old mother, berates him for his neglect of the farm. He answers her: "Darling, ugly little mother, you are right in every word ... don't be cross ... just be patient ... someday I will be a kaiser!" She reminds him that his sloth has cost him a bride, Hegstad's daughter, who is about to be married. Peer impetuously decides to attend the wedding and to break it up. He sets out, after first perching his protesting mother on the rooftop.
At the wedding Peer is scorned for his rags and his lies by all the company--except one girl, Solveig, a newcomer, and even she avoids him upon discovery of his reputation. His feelings hurt, he gets drunk, and, at the bridegroom's appeal, goes to bring the bride from a storehouse where she has locked herself in. Meanwhile, his mother arrives, armed with a stick to give Peer "the dubbing of his life." Suddenly, the guests see Peer Gynt fleeing up the mountain with the bride over his shoulder. Ase cries: "I hope you fall and break---- Take care of your footing, child!"
Now Peer Gynt embarks upon a symbolic series of fantastic adventures. Abandoning the stolen bride, he goes deep into the wilderness and there marries--and deserts--the daughter of the Elf King. In the wilderness he comes upon the Great Boyg, a monster as inexplicable and formless as the enigma of existence. Repeatedly he vainly tries to find a passage through the monster to attain the mountain top. In desperation he challenges the Boyg to battle. It replies: "The Great Boyg conquers, but does not fight," and the exhausted Peer Gynt finally falls to the ground. He is about to be devoured by a cloud of birds when women's voices and church bells are heard in the distance. The Boyg capitulates with the words: "He was too strong for me. There were women behind him to help him in the fight!"
Peer Gynt builds himself a hut in the forest, and here Solveig comes to share his outlaw's exile. She tells him: "This is where I belong ... I hastened here on my snow-shoes, and when they asked me: 'Whither are you going?' I answered: 'I am going home.'" Soon Peer Gynt comes once again upon the daughter of the Elf King and their ugly child. The two cannot be driven away, and Peer, again taking his "roundabout" course, decides to leave. Solveig says only: "Don't go too far, my dear." He replies: "Be my way far or near, you must wait."
He goes to say farewell to his mother and finds her dying in the bed where he had slept as a little boy--where he and she once played that the bed was a sleigh and sped in fancy to "the Castle West of the Moon and the Castle East of the Sun." Peer Gynt takes his mother in his arms and begins to tell her a fairy story to calm her fears. He tells her that the King is giving a feast in the castle--that indeed she is invited; that the ringing in her ears is only the sound of the sleighbells, the rushing noise is the wind in the pines, and the light she sees from afar comes from the King's palace. He reports that they are welcomed with greatest honor, with cakes and wine, and he entreats her to the care of St. Peter. Then he closes her dead eyes, saying, "Ay, ay, now the journey's done ... For all my days I thank you, for your beatings and your lullabies." He presses his cheek against her mouth. "There, that was the driver's fare," he murmurs.
Now Peer is off again, to wander over the world. He sells slaves in America, idols in China, as well as rum and Bibles. He has been robbed, but has recouped his loss by setting himself up as an Arabian prophet on the rim of the African desert. He runs away with Anitra, a dancing girl. When they stop to rest, he attempts to prove "that your old Prophet can still caper like a young colt," and begins a labored dance. While he is absorbed in his antics, she grabs his moneybag and gallops off on his horse.
And so Peer Gynt struggles with his planless life. He is crowned King of the Lunatics in an insane asylum, he becomes an archeologist before the Sphinx, and, at last, finds himself on a boat bound homeward to Norway. The ship is wrecked. Peer Gynt and the ship's cook cling to a frail spar, large enough only to save one. Peer thrusts the cook into the sea and saves himself. Eventually he reaches Norway.
Now he has had enough adventuring and hopes for a serene old age at home. But on the heath he meets a Button-Moulder who says: "I have been sent for you ... you are to go into my ladle ... I must melt you up." Peer Gynt protests that to lose his soul, his identity, his self, is not fair. "I'm not really a bad soul. At worst, you may call me a bungler, but certainly not an exceptional sinner," he pleads.
That, says the Button-Moulder, is just the trouble: "You're not bad enough for the sulphur-pit, nor good enough for Paradise. And so, into the ladle you go!"
Peer Gynt insists: "But you cannot kill a soul! Haven't I been a personality? An individual? Myself?"
"You have been selfish," the Button-Moulder replies, "but not yourself."
Peer Gynt asks the answer to his riddle: "What is it, to be one's self?" The Button-Moulder answers: "To be one's self is to deny one's self." He declares that Peer Gynt can have neither the reward nor the punishment accorded an individual soul, and must go into the ladle of nonentity unless he can prove himself a sinner worthy of Hell. Choosing Hell rather than nothingness, Peer Gynt recites that he has sold slaves, cheated, deceived and saved himself at the cost of another man's life; but these, says the Button-Moulder, are but trifles.
The two have come to Peer-Gynt's hut, and in the doorway stands Solveig, now a middle-aged woman, who has serenely waited through the years for Peer Gynt's return. She stands proudly, dressed for church, her prayer book in her hand. Peer Gynt throws himself at her feet and calls upon her to cry out his sins and trespasses.
SOLVEIG: You are here! Oh, God be praised!
PEER GYNT: Cry aloud my crime to you!
SOLVEIG: Your crime? To me? You have made all my life as a beautiful song!
PEER GYNT: But who am I? And where have I been?
SOLVEIG: You are my beloved. And you have been ever in my faith, in my hope, in my heart.
From behind the hut comes the Button-Moulder's voice: "We shall meet again, Peer Gynt. And then we shall see..."
Solveig adds: "I will cradle thee, I will watch thee; sleep and dream now, dear my child." Peer Gynt buries his face in her lap.