The Danish Girl is a fictionalized historical account of the life of one of the first people to go through a gender reassignment surgery. Although Lili Elbe is the titular character, the novel is more interested in exploring the love between Lili and Greta. Despite their eventual separation, the narrative may suggest that the true main protagonist of the story is Greta herself. By being an almost constant source of moral support for her transitioning husband, even if it means she does not always feel the same comfort in her spouse.
The author David Ebershoff does Greta a disservice though. As much as we can feel the tension of the bordering personalities of Einar and Lili, Greta is almost solely characterized by her drive to help Lili. She is given a backstory, and her struggles as a budding artist are somewhat left to the wayside of her place as a supporting wife, lover and friend. Her entire motivation and identity relies on her relationship with Lili. In fact, she does not even begin to gain recognition for her art until she begins painting Lili, and she loses her motivation when she loses her as well.
The narrative comes alive with the inner working of Einar and Lili, who although inhabit the same body, feel like different entities trying to take over the other. The character describes it as existing in a state of perpetual “inexhaustible doubleness,” and this sets the tone for the inner turmoil they experience throughout the narrative. The experiences of Lili, who are all new, are colored with absolute delight, and at times fear. Ebershoff, who is trying to convey the experience of a transgender woman, invites the reader to peep, much like Einar does in Paris, into the subconscious of such a person. It is not a story that gets told often, and it is even rarer for the account to feel so intimate, especially when being told from the perspective of someone who does not identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
As Lili gradually takes over Einar’s body, the disgust of his male physicality deepens as well. Lili also becomes confused at the disappearance of Einar, suggesting that the two people were completely disjointed from the other, rather than Lili being who Einar had always been. This depiction of the real life icon has been met with criticism in the way it presents the trans experience. This portrayal of a transgender woman experiencing two personalities, with distinctive voices is more akin to someone with a dissociative personality disorder, which perpetuates this idea that transgenderism is a mental illness. Also, the fact that Lili had always been drawn to feminine clothes since childhood and had ovaries meant that her identity as a woman went far beyond what a single moment of posing with a dress would awaken. She had always been a woman, and this lack of understanding is apparent in the treatment of LGBTQ+ issues in the novel.