The novel is part fairy tale, part fantasy, part adventure, and part romance, but it is all these things only with a twist. The author is familiar with these genres and is determined to parody them. A parody is a spoof in which something— a style, a genre—is imitated only to make fun of it.
The fairy-tale element includes the beautiful girl who becomes a princess and marries a prince. Fantasy literature often includes events, creatures, and situations that could not happen in real life, such as the climbing of the Cliffs of Insanity, fighting giant snakes and rodents, and making the resurrection pill. The adventure story is all action, including the kind of fights and chases that take place in The Princess Bride. The presentation of Inigo as the greatest swordsman in the world is a nod toThe Three Musketeers(1844), the adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas that the fictional Goldman mentions reading as a boy in the introduction. The romantic element in the novel is obvious: the love of Westley and Buttercup is the central fabric around which the story is woven.
However, the elements of parody are not difficult to spot. In the first chapter the fairy-tale cliche´ of the most beautiful woman of the world is parodied in the figure of Buttercup, who has potential but has to work her way up into the top ten rankings. Inspired by her love for Westley, she races up the charts, moving from twentieth, to fifteenth and then up to ninth, and is still on the rise. The humor works by anachronism (being chronologically out of place): the modern concept of the Top Ten ranking list for this or that is juxtaposed with a fable set mostly in medieval times, and this makes it stand out as funny.
The fairy-tale element, as well as the conventions of the popular romance, are parodied in the exaggerated language with which Buttercup and Westley first declare their love for each other. They go completely overboard, as this quotation, spoken by Buttercup, shows:
“I have loved you for several hours now, and every second, more. I thought an hour ago that I loved you more than any woman has ever loved a man, but a half hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then.”
And so on.
The description of Westley as handsome, tanned, and muscular is a parody of the bare-chested hero who appears on the covers of countless romance novels that adorn the supermarket racks. However, there is an extra joke there too, because at the time Buttercup is so naive she does not yet perceive Westley as the attractive man he obviously is. Puzzled by the Countess’s interest in him, she concludes that the noble lady must be attracted to him because he has good teeth, although this explanation does not end her puzzlement.
Another parody is that the prince whom the princess marries is not her true love (as in a fairy tale) but rather the evil Prince Humperdinck. The parody shows up in the title of the second chapter. Having introduced the bride in chapter 1, and the apparent groom, Westley, the author then kills off Westley (or so it seems) and devotes chapter 2, ‘‘The Groom,’’ to Prince Humperdinck. Clearly, this is no ordinary romance, and certainly in no traditional romance would the hero die by torture at the hands of his enemy. Just in case the reader should miss these obvious parodies, Goldman draws attention to them through the device of his ten-year-old fictional self, who is hearing the story read by his father.
Recurring symbolism of rebirth enhances the theme of the power of love and the capacity of life to renew itself in the name of good. The first examples are Inigo and Fezzik. They are both ‘‘good’’ characters but when they are first introduced they are rather less than that. Allowing their own failures and disappointments in life to obscure their true natures, they have been recruited by Vizzini for his criminal gang. However, both undergo a kind of rebirth when they are defeated and knocked unconscious by the man in black (Westley). This breaks their attachment to criminality, and when they recover they eventually find their way back to more positive endeavors. Instead of being part of a three-member criminal enterprise, they form another gang of three, with Westley replacing Vizzini, dedicated to ensuring the triumph of love and goodness.
Westley is also the agent of another symbolic rebirth when Buttercup falls into the snow sand in the fire swamp. She goes through a near death experience: ‘‘She was just falling, gently, through this soft, powdery mass, falling farther and farther from anything resembling life.’’ She would have died had it not been for Westley coming to the rescue. The incident shows that there is nothing that Westley cannot or will not do for her. He is like Orpheus, the hero in the ancient Greek myth who goes down to Hades (the underworld) to recover his bride Euridice.
Westley undergoes the most dramatic rebirth of them all, but even before Miracle Max’s resurrection pill is forced down his throat, he has already been symbolically reborn twice. After all, Buttercup is informed that Westley has been killed by pirates, and the reader knows no better until the man in black reveals in the ravine that he is Westley. Later, Westley explains that he eventually took on the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts, which is another symbolic rebirth. This shows that he was able to do what he had to do in order to survive. Finally, Westley’s literal resurrection from the dead shows the power of love to triumph even over death itself.
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.