In The Princess Bride Goldman managed to produce a fantasy novel that parodies the genre in a consistently amusing manner, yet also reveals an underlying seriousness of purpose. It is a fine balancing act, successfully accomplished, which is why The Princess Bride is usually regarded as Goldman’s best novel. Rob Reiner’s excellent film adaptation of the novel to the screen has added to the popularity of the book, giving it a new generation of readers both young and old.
In many ways, although the romance between Buttercup and Westley takes center stage, The Princess Bride is the story of three pairs of fathers and sons, with some glancing insight into two marriages and the prospects for a third. The fathers and sons are the fictional William Goldman’s father and the author’s fictional ten-year-old self; the fictional Goldman and his ten-year-old son, Jason; and Domingo Montoya and his ten-year-old son Inigo. The fact that all three boys are ten years old suggests a thematic link between them. The relationship between the young Goldman and his immigrant father is a particularly tender story within a story. The boy is in bed at home recovering from pneumonia, and his father, lovingly portrayed, reads to him from Morgenstern’s original story. The father, whose life in America has not been successful, is almost illiterate, and it is hard for him to read the book to his son. Goldman gives a sympathetic portrait of the man, ‘‘slumped and squinting and halting over words, giving me Morgenstern’s masterpiece as best he could.’’
The father is very protective of his son’s innocence. He tries to skip reading the chapter in which Westley is killed by Prince Humperdinck; young William knows something is amiss but his father simply says, ‘‘Trust me,’’ although he also wants reassurance that his son accepts his judgment. However, Billy, as his father sometimes calls him, will not take no for an answer, and his father relents. When his father tells him what happens Billy starts to cry, and his father, saddened, starts to leave the room. It is a touching moment. The father is ever anxious for his young son’s happiness, but he cannot shield him against the knowledge that life contains tragedy, and that not everything works out the way we would like it to. From that point on, Billy’s innocence is lost: ‘‘Like Buttercup’s, my heart was now a secret garden and the walls were very high.’’ Goldman later commented in an interview with Richard Andersen, published in Anderson’s William Goldman, that this was the scene that had most moved him when he was writing the book, and had even made him cry.
The same thing happens at the end of the story, when the father pretends that the novel ends with the lovers living happily ever after. Goldman explains that Morgenstern’s tale ends far more ominously, with Westley having a relapse, Buttercup’s horse throwing a shoe, and the sounds of the Prince and his men in hot pursuit. Goldman in his fictional guise says that he did not find this out until he read the book for himself as an adult.
It is clear that Goldman the author, though writing a fantasy, refused to follow the conventions of the genre by providing an unambiguous, fairy-tale ending. He relented, however, when it came to the movie, for which he wrote the screenplay. Bowing to the demands of a Hollywood ending, he allowed the film to close with the lovers kissing, without a trace of the vengeful Prince Humperdinck in pursuit.
The story of Inigo also contains a traumatic event that happens when the boy is ten. Inigo is an only child, and his mother died in childbirth, so the bond between him and his father Domingo is especially strong. He takes on a responsibility older than his years as he comforts his emotional father, who doubts whether he will be able to succeed in the very difficult task of making a sword for the six-fingered man. When Inigo watches his father being murdered in front of his eyes by the nobleman, he screams. ‘‘He could not believe it; it had not happened. He screamed again. His father was fine; soon they would have tea. He could not stop screaming.’’ This terrifying experience is the equivalent for Inigo of young Billy’s tears. At the age of ten, both boys have learned a hard lesson—Billy through fiction, Inigo through real life—about the power of evil, and they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.
When he writes of these two father-son relationships, Goldman is in earnest. He is very serious indeed, and no one laughs. However, when it comes to the third father-son relationship—between the fictional Goldman and his ten-year-old son Jason—he takes a very different tack. This relationship is almost a satire on the tenderness of the other two. It is as if the author is saying, It is not always like that, which is thoroughly in keeping with his desire to infuse his fantasy tale with a dose of realism about what life may in fact offer. The fictional Goldman and Jason are not close. The boy is overweight, and he and his father squabble over the fact that he eats too much. His father also thinks the boy is fat and spoiled (by his mother) and possesses no sense of humor: ‘‘I don’t know; maybe he’s funny and I’m not. We just don’t laugh much together is all I can say for sure.’’ In a contrast with Goldman’s experience at ten, Jason is bored by The Princess Bride, although this may be because Goldman expects him to read it on his own rather than have it read to him.
The problematic aspect of relationships, rather than the ways in which they work, is also the focus of the author’s presentation of marriage. There are no good marriages in this story, which serves as ironic commentary on what the lovely Buttercup and handsome Westley might expect when it comes down to doing the dishes and hauling out the trash. Buttercup does not have good role models for marriage. Her parents are always at each other’s throats: ‘‘All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.’’ On what sounds like a pretty average day, by dinner time they have had thirty-three spats, and they keep score as to who is ahead. Given the parents she has, it is a miracle that Buttercup turned out as well as she did.
The second marriage depicted is between the fictional Goldman and his wife Helen. This relationship is painted in quite dark colors. These two do not seem to get along. ‘‘Helen wasn’t ever understanding,’’ Goldman complains, stung into the comment by the sympathetic ear of the gorgeous starlet Sandy Sterling as they sit together by the pool in California. ‘‘I got a cold wife,’’ he writes later, adding, ‘‘She’s brilliant, she’s stimulating, she’s terrific; there’s no love; that’s okay too, just so long as we don’t keep expecting everything to somehow even out for us before we die.’’ Some readers might feel that a loveless marriage is rather less than okay. Goldman knows what he is doing, though; he is presenting a romantic story that keeps undermining its own reason for being.
For her part, Buttercup shows more awareness than your average fairy-tale princess that the course of true love never does run smooth. When Westley gives her an evasive answer after they have both fallen to the bottom of the ravine, Buttercup says, ‘‘We must not begin with secrets from each other.’’ When she and Westley are cornered by the Prince and his men at the edge of the fire swamp, Goldman the author allows Buttercup to undercut the romantic cliche´ of dying for love, like lovers (Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, even Jack Dawson, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1997 movie Titanic) are supposed to do. Buttercup says, devastatingly for the romantic theme of the story, ‘‘I can live without love.’’ In the seesaw ending of the novel—now they are happy; now they may not be—Goldman manages to get in one more jab that knocks down the notion of romantic love and ‘‘happy ever after.’’ Looking to the future, he expects that Buttercup and Westley ‘‘squabbled a lot,’’ like (the unstated connection looms large) Buttercup’s parents, like Goldman and Helen, and like . . . all couples everywhere? This appears to be what Goldman is suggesting to his readers. When innocence passes over into experience, love is never quite the same. It begins in adoration and ends in irritation, or so The Princess Bride would have readers believe.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, William Goldman, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Princess Bride in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010