That’s right. I’m claiming that William Goldman does not understand one of his own characters.
This post is about the book, so some things are different than the movie. Also, spoilers.
First, let me say that Goldman gets a lot of things right – We all know that Princess Buttercup is the most beautiful woman in the world, and we all know that she loves Westley. She is somewhat naive, perhaps a little lacking in trust, at least initially, and certainly far from perfect.
But she is not stupid.
Goldman presents her as someone who struggles with math, and is unable to come up with useful plans. She agrees to marry Prince Humperdink, saying “I can live without love,” jumps into shark-infested waters, pushes Westley down a hill, expects Prince Humperdink to take Westley to his ship safely, and then expects Westley to save her from marriage to Humperdink.
None of these actions are necessarily a result of her lack of intelligence.
Goldman says, “If you read back into Florinese history, it did happen. The facts, anyway; no one can say about the actual motivations” (Goldman 47). In fact, the entire book is presented as Goldman’s abridgement of a Florinese history. So, not only do we have the inherent bias of Goldman’s abridgement, but also the bias of S. Morgenstern, the fictional writer of the history. So, I feel free to explore alternate explanations for Princess Buttercup’s actions.
1. Marrying Prince Humperdink
Prince Humperdink gives her an ultimatum – marry him or die. Buttercup agrees, but only with the promise that their marriage will be loveless. She says “I can live without love.” The Princess Bride would have you believe that “true love” is life, as shown by a) the remark that “true love saved her in the fire swamp,” b) Westley’s ability to withstand torture by thinking of Buttercup, and c) Westley’s return from the dead in the name of true love. I think Buttercup is actually showing remarkable sense here – her true love is dead, and so she is honest with the Prince, but has the tenacity to go on living without Westley. Perhaps this act though portrayed as a character defect, really should be seen as a demonstration of Buttercup’s tenacity, honesty, and wisdom.
However, Buttercup does finally decide that she cannot live without love, and upon her marriage to Humperdink, plans to commit suicide. At this point, she knows that Humperdink is a coward, a liar, and not someone she should be married to, and so she is not willing to suffer the injustice of being married to him. Also, at this point she thinks Westley is alive (and he is). She is being loyal to him in the only way left to her.
2. Jumping into Shark-Infested waters
Maybe this is not the smartest move ever, but she would not have known the water was shark-infested. She grew up on a remote farm village. Also, this action further demonstrates her tenacity and her willingness to take risks. She would likely have succeeded, too, if there had not been sharks. Besides which, it was certain death if she had simply stayed in the boat, because Vinzzini had been hired to kill her, so the swim to shore was a sensible risk.
3. Pushing Westley down the incredibly steep hill
Again, Buttercup shows some agency, and everyone just blames her for her stupidity. There is no way she could have known that pushing Westley down the hill would force them to go into the Fire Swamp – she is from Florin and she is in Guilder, there is no reason she would know the geography. Perhaps we can blame her for not knowing that the Dread Pirate Roberts is Westley, but she thinks Westley is dead, and is probably not staring into the masked pirate’s eyes nearly enough to know that he is Westley.
4. Her trust of Prince Humperdink
She does not know that Humperdink is not to be trusted – how could she? He is nothing but understanding towards her. Granted, he has a Zoo of death, which is highly disconcerting, but other than that he seems, externally at least, like a pretty upstanding guy. Buttercup uses what bartering power she has to try and at least get something out of the hopeless exchange.
5. Her trust in Westley
While it seems naive and impossible, she ends up being right. Looks like she learned her lesson that Westley would always come for her.
Why would Buttercup be expected to know math? She grew up on a farm with parents whose only encouragement to her was that she bathe more. It would be more strange if she did know math.
7. Solving Problems
Buttercup’s solutions to her problems do not always pan out (see points 1-4), but by the end she’s grown enough that she is the one who is able to get the whole group out of the castle – she tells the exterior guards to go save Prince Humperdink. As a result, the whole group is able to escape without further casualty.
Essentially, whenever Buttercup’s actions seem to be a result of her stupidity, they are actually not as ridiculous as they may at first seem. She is naive, but she is also trusting, tenacious, and a victim of her circumstances. I can only hope that I would respond with as much trust, tenacity, and courage if I were in her place.