Study Guide

The Danish Girl

By David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl Introduction

We love the Danish girl. She's a friendly face at our local café, serving us a tasty pastry each morning with our breakfast. Cheese Danish. Fruit Danish. The decadent Danish pastry braid with almonds. Mmm mmm mmm.

We also love The Danish Girl. Note the italics—we're talking about a book now, not breakfast. Even though it lacks pastries (there isn't a single edible Danish to be found… unless you're a cannibal), it's the moving story of Lili Elbe, the first person in history to undergo male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. That's right: this book is based on a true story, like a Hallmark Channel movie, but with approximately ninety-seven percent less sappiness.

David Ebershoff published this book, his first novel, in 2000, approximately seventy years—seventy—after Einar Wegener, an artist in Copenhagen, Denmark, became Lili Elbe. When Ebershoff read the story of the real Einar in a medical textbook, he wrote The Danish Girl to follow Wegener's transition from living as a Danish man to a Danish woman (but not to a cheese Danish—science hasn't yet perfected the ability to transmogrify a person into food). This way people would actually read about Lili, pulling her story out of world of medical textbooks, which generally put people to sleep.

The novel won the Lambda Literary Award for best transgender fiction (source). Its success put Ebershoff on the literary map, and he went on to publish more novels as well as a collection of short stories. The Danish Girl was also adapted into a film in 2015 starring Eddie Redmayne. So yeah, the book's kind of a big deal.

So grab a Danish (or a croissant, or a donut, or a piece of fruit; we don't care, just get a dang snack) and The Danish Girl and get ready for an amazing journey.

What is The Danish Girl About and Why Should I Care?

"Call me Lili."

That would have been the Vanity Fair headline in 1931 if Lili were a celebrity. Believe it or not, Vanity Fair actually existed all the way back then—one thing that definitely didn't exist, however, was any popular understanding of transgender identity. After all, Lili was the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery ever. She didn't just not show up on any magazine covers; she was barely able to find a doctor who could help her feel more in harmony with the body she lived in. In many ways, Lili was a trans pioneer.

The thing is, while today trans folks are gaining acceptance thanks to major pop culture presences like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, as a society we still have a long way to go. Trans people are still the recipients of disproportionate violence, discrimination, harassment, and more, and they attempt suicide at significantly higher rates than their cisgender peers (source). In other words, when it comes to trans rights, we still have a long way to go.

The Danish Girl offers a rare glimpse into what it was like to be transgender way back in the day, showing readers both how far we've come and how far the path stretches before us.

The Danish Girl Resources

Websites

Cupcakes and California
Author David Ebershoff has other novels, too. One is set in Pasadena (where Greta is from in the novel) and another has a cupcake on the cover. Try not to eat the book.

To the Rescue
Having a hard time making sense of all this gender identity and sexuality stuff? Perhaps the Queer Dictionary can help.

Growing Up Is Hard
Since we've been there, done that on the growing up front, we know for sure that growing up is hard. And you know what can make it even harder? Being trans. So help yourself or help someone you love by checking out the Trans Lifeline.

Movie or TV Productions

Transitioning from Page to Screen
The director of The King's Speech brings Eddie Redmayne as the alluring Lili, and Ben Whishaw as the handsome Henrik, to the silver screen.

Articles and Interviews

Dallas Does David
Dallas Denny (best name ever) interviews David Ebershoff on art, love, and gender back in 2000, when The Danish Girl was first published.

Cause for Célèbre
Can you believe The Danish Girl was Ebershoff's first novel? Believe it. Ebershoff talks about a few firsts in this interview.

Writing for the Weekend
Ebershoff got on the 40 Under 40 list of hot young talent by writing on weekends and holidays. That's making good use of time off.

Video

Trailer Talk
Greta describes Einar as "charming and mysterious" in the trailer. We'd say the same about the gorgeous film trailer.

A Footnote in History
In a talk about his craft, Ebershoff tells the tale of two footnotes—and how he transformed Einar Wegener from a footnote into his main character.

Audio

Aria of Sorrow
Opera is a minor feature in The Danish Girl, but Carmen is a major opera. It's mentioned twice. Picture Anna performing this song.

Danish in English
What does The Danish Girl sound like? Find out in the audiobook sample.

Images

Sisters
This is a painting by Gerda (Greta in the novel) of the real-life Gerda and Lili, her sister from another mister.

Not the Same as Coca-Cola
Lili sometimes takes pills laced with cocaine for her pain. This was common in the early 1900s. Perhaps they came in a package like this one.