The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl is a novel by American writer David Ebershoff, published in 2000 by the Viking Press in the United States and Allen & Unwin in Australia.

The Danish Girl
First hardcover edition, 2000
AuthorDavid Ebershoff
CountryUnited States
PublisherAllen & Unwin (Australia)
Viking Press (USA)
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Followed byPasadena 


The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery.[1]

The Danish Girl, as Ebershoff stated, does not try to tell a true story. He has not only imagined most of what he wrote about Elbe's inner life, but he has also fabricated all of the other characters in the book, most important among them Wegener's blue-blooded American-born wife, Greta Waud, who like Ebershoff comes from Pasadena, California.[2] The real Gerda Wegener was Danish, but in the novel her name was changed to Greta to please the American audience.

The story takes place in Copenhagen, Denmark. Lili, at the time Einar Wegeneris, is happily married to her wife, Gerda Wegener.

Lili was raised as a boy with her best friend Hans. Gerda was raised in California with her twin brother Carlisle. She eventually moved to Denmark, and first met Lili, at the time Einar, at the Royal Academy. They were unfortunately separated due to events of World War I. During their separation, Gerda marries a man named Teddy Cross and has a child. Unfortunately, the child dies at birth and Teddy dies of tuberculosis. Gerda moves back to Denmark and marries Einar.

The couple are painters with ”Einar” painting mostly landscapes and Gerda painting portraits of somewhat famous people. One day, Anna Fonsmark, a friend of Gerda, must cancel her scheduled painting session. Gerda however needs to have the painting finished as soon as possible, hence her requesting Einar to model as Anna. The session is cut short with Anna barging into their home. Anna then decides to name the persona "Lili”.

Soon, the couple are invited to the annual Artists' Ball. Gerda convinces the spouse to dress as Lili, but during the ball, Lili meets a man named Henrik Sandahl. Henrik and Lili start a short relationship (which Gerda discourages for she fears that Lili might be hurting Henrik by deceiving him). Lili and Henrik eventually go their separate ways.

Lili then starts having many nosebleeds and stomachaches, which leads to Gerda making Lili visit a doctor named Dr. Hexler. Gerda's true intentions however are actually to see if there is a tumor developing in his pelvis for she believes that if a tumor were indeed there, it might be the cause of the nosebleeds, stomachaches, and psychological problems. Hexler performs an X-Ray on Lili and sees that there is no tumor; however, he tells Gerda to discourage her spouse from ever going anywhere as Lili again.

Gerda starts to paint Lili more often, and these paintings spark popularity for Gerda. Gerda then manages to have a temporary gallery of her Lili paintings in France.

In France, Gerda meets Hans Axgil, her spouse's childhood friend. Gerda, Hans, and ”Einar” dressed as Lili share a dinner where Hans luckily fails to recognize his childhood friend.

Lili feels her problem regarding her identity however is only worsening. Carlisle admits he knows ”Einar” is Lili and decides to help her find doctors to solve her problems. Gerda, meanwhile, meets Doctor Alfred Bolk. Bolk is interested in helping her spoise ”become Lili completely”.

Lili then meets Doctor Bolk. Bolk tells her of the surgeries he plans to do, to which she agrees to. Bolk transfers to Dresden and she soon follows.

Hans eventually admits to Gerda that he also knows about her spouse being Lili. Hans is actually supportive and tells Gerda to meet his childhood friend in Dresden. She complies. At the same time, Gerda starts to fall in love with Hans.

The first operation removes Lili's testicles, making the first move to her ”becoming Lili”. Gerda makes it to Dresden where Bolk reveals that Lili ”was supposed to be born as a woman” as she had undeveloped ovaries in her body the whole time.

Lili's ovaries are restored and she takes her last operation. It is successful and she ”fully becomes Lili”.

Lili and Gerda then return to Denmark. Lili and Henrik fall in love again while Gerda and Hans also start falling in love. Henrik then proposes to Lili and Hans asks Gerda to move with him to America. Bolk manages to contact Lili and tells her of a final operation; one that is said to give her a uterus to be able to become a pregnant. Lili tells Gerda of the operation, to which Gerda rejects going to Dresden with Lili with for it is "too dangerous." Carlisle instead brings Lili to Dresden.

Lili and Gerda eventually part ways. Gerda moves to Pasadena.

The surgery was a failure as it has been found that an infection has grown inside Lili. Whether Lili lives or dies is unclear.[3]


The Danish Girl won the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Lambda Literary Award. It was also a finalist for the Tiptree Award, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award, and an American Library Association Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book.


In The New York Times Book Review, novelist and critic John Burnham Schwartz called the novel "arresting": "I hope people will read 'The Danish Girl.' It is fascinating and humane."[1] Critic Richard Bernstein wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Ebershoff is telling us that love does involve a small dark space. The intelligence and tactfulness of his exploration of it make his novel a noteworthy event."[4]


The novel has been translated into more than ten languages and is published in paperback by Penguin.

Film adaptation

The novel was adapted into a feature film directed by Tom Hooper, and starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener, Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans Axgil, Ben Whishaw as Henrik, Sebastian Koch as Dr. Kurt Warnekros and Amber Heard as Ulla Paulson.[5] The film received minor criticism for its illegitimate portrayal of historical events, but Redmayne and Vikander's performances received acclaim and nominations for all of the major acting awards. Vikander won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Redmayne was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.


  1. John Burnham Schwartz, "Metamorphosis," The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 2000.
  2. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Radical Change and Enduring Love". The New York Times. February 14, 2000. Retrieved December 11, 2015.
  3. Ebershoff, David (2015). The Danish Girl. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-310839-9.
  4. Richard Bernstein, "'The Danish Girl': Radical Change and Enduring Love," The New York Times, February 14, 2000. ("The historical fact is that in 1931 a Danish painter named Einar Wegener became the first man ever to be transformed surgically into a woman, changing her name to Lili Elbe and eventually leaking her story to the press. In 'The Danish Girl' David Ebershoff uses the bare facts of Wegener-Elbe's story to summon a rich imagined universe in which the main event is less the sexual transformation itself than the way that transformation affected other people.")
  5. "The Danish Girl". IMDb. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
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