The Unfairness of Life
The reader might expect this fantasy romantic/ adventure novel to follow the usual pattern of such stories: good is always rewarded, evil perishes, and the good characters live happily ever after. But this is not entirely the case in The Princess Bride. The author is at pains to show that life is not fair, that it can be disappointing and not measure up to one’s hopes and dreams. In this sense he introduces a strong note of realism into the tale. The theme that life is not fair occurs both in the passages Goldman inserts where he comments on his own life and the ‘‘original’’ Morgenstern story, as well as in the tale itself. In the introduction, in which Goldman describes how he came to write the book, he explains that he once thought his life would follow the subtitle of the story and be all about ‘‘true love and high adventure,’’ but it did not happen. In particular, his fictional self admits that he is not especially happy in his marriage, and he adds, ‘‘I don’t know if I love anything truly any more beyond the porterhouse at Peter Luger’s and the cheese enchilada at El Parador’s.’’ It is a light-hearted comment with serious undertones, and it is relevant for the story that follows, since it serves as ironic, real-life commentary (although of course the real-life element is also a fiction) on the romance and future prospects of Buttercup and Westley. The theme of the unfairness of life is stated explicitly in the section in which Goldman comments on his own reaction when as a boy his father read to him the part about Buttercup marrying Humperdinck. Even a ten-year-old knows that in stories like The Princess Bride such things do not happen. Yet they do. This leaves the young boy with the disappointed feeling that something is not right, both in the story and in life, and this feeling remains with him even as an adult. He recalls that when he was in his teens, an acquaintance of his named Edith Neisser (who was a real-life author of books on psychology) explained to him:
“Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”
The theme of the unfairness of life continues when the young William Goldman’s father does not want to read him the chapter in which Westley dies. Young William is horrified when he learns that the hero dies, and also that no one kills the evil Prince Humperdinck. This little episode enacts exactly what Edith later explained. The story being read reflects the unfairness of life, but the parent is very reluctant for the child to discover this distressing fact.
True Love versus Love of Power
Although the author keeps reminding the reader that life is unfair, this does not stop him from writing a story which shows the enduring power of love and its capacity to defeat evil. Buttercup and Westley genuinely love each other and prove it again and again. Westley overcomes everything in his path to claim Buttercup as his bride. Buttercup never for a moment betrays Westley by loving Prince Humperdinck; she surrenders to the Prince only when she has made him promise that he will not hurt Westley. She cannot bear that Westley should suffer.
The story also shows that love has the capacity to enhance and prolong life. When, for example, Westley asks the ‘‘Lord of Permanent Affection’’ to extend the efficacy of the resurrection pill for the rest of the day, his wish is granted. In contrast, the torture machine has the effect of subtracting life. The machine sucks ten years from Westley’s life in just a week. This neatly shows what Prince Humperdinck and the Count represent: they are the anti-life forces; they exist only to dominate others, to revel in their own power and cruelty. Humperdinck is the classic evil character. He has no tender feelings for Buttercup; he only loves war and hunting. Buttercup is just another form of prey for him, since he plots to kill her so he can create a pretext that will allow him to indulge his other love—he wants to make war with Guilder. As for the Count, his only interest is in pain, and he has the coldheartedness to inflict it on others without a qualm. When he is finally killed by Inigo and is forced to suffer the same fear that he liked to inflict, this is also an illustration of the power of love: the love of a son for his murdered father.
The struggle between the power of love and the love of power is illustrated in one of the most dramatic moments in the novel, the long scream that Westley utters as he dies, which is heard all over Florin City. Inigo recognizes it as ‘‘the sound of Ultimate Suffering.’’ The scream expresses the terrible pain that occurs when a genuine and deep love is sundered by the cruel murder of one of the lovers. It represents the apparent triumph of evil over good, the anguish of life when love is extinguished. But, significantly, this scream is not the last sound in the novel, and nor is it without positive effect. It inspires Inigo to find Westley quickly, and when he and Fezzik take the dead man to Miracle Max, it is because Westley, thanks to Max’s ingenious use of the bellows, says that he wants to live because of true love that Max (with a little prodding from his wife) agrees to bring him back. There is something about love that will not be defeated despite all the forces arrayed against it.
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.