Shrek!, written by William Steig, was a comic and literary masterpiece that has captured the hearts of millions since its publication in 1990. Described by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as "defining the '90s", the work indeed tapped such core period issues as smelling funny, being hideously unattractive, and the ne'er-do-well trend that developed in the crack-drowned 1980s.
Fundamentally a love and life story, Shrek! examined deep philosophical meanings through light wit and crude illustrations not unlike cave paintings. The Pulitzer Prize committee described it as "The best coming-of-age story since To Kill a Mockingbird."
Plot and analysis
At its very surface, Shrek! is about an ogre with a considerable personality deficit and a predilection for living off of his parents' generosity. Decidedly disenchanted with this style of living, they force him to evacuate to the countryside and fend for himself. Through the course of the story, he lives out a traditional fairy tale life in a blatant flaunting of convention and a wittily humorous irony.
Part 1: Shrek's Departure
This introductory part deals primarily with Shrek's beginnings and introduces the main conflict in the book: Shrek being a total douche. It is in this part where the plot develops.
First, the unforgettable vignette in which Shrek is introduced:
|“||His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together.||”|
The wealth of rich adjectives present in this textured, detailed passage simply transcends description. While a lesser writer may have penned "His mother was of unpleasant stature, as was his equally unkempt father. However, when these two most uncouth of monsters combined for the sake of procreation, their progeny was of doubly unpleasant looks", Steig chooses to instead allow the reader to visualize their own adverbs. This intentional omission of descriptive vocabulary is symbolic of Shrek's equally emptyheaded nature. This perfectly encapsulates what the visionary Steig saw wrong with society.
Then, the heartrending scene during which Shrek is forced to leave his home:
|“||One day Shrek's parents hissed things over and decided it was about time their little darling was out in the world doing his share of damage. So they kicked him goodbye and Shrek left the black hole in which he'd been hatched...||”|
What delightfully humorous prose! What ever-so-subtle wordplay! And, most importantly, what incredibly deep subtext. In this ever-so-subtle passage, we get a glimpse of the deep psychological harm inflicted upon a child of the "shoot first, ask questions only when you miss a vein" era. Indeed, an allusion to the most popular stimulant of the punk era can be found in the ugliness introduced earlier. So, as one can see, the "ugly" (read: addicted) parents had a super ugly child (read: drug baby) and kicked him out (read: kicked him out).
|“||Otchky-potchy, itchky-pitch / Pay attention to this witch / A donkey takes you to a knight / Him you conquer in a fight / Then you wed a princess who / Is even uglier than you / Ha ha ha and cockadoodle / The magic words are Apple Strudel||”|
Apple Strudel! Perhaps the most timeless quote since Shakespeare penned "To be or not to be; that is the question," this simplistic heroic couplet singlehandedly serves a triple purpose. First, it makes reference to the ancient Indian epic "Ramayana". Written in Sanskrit and when transliterated to English bearing absolutely no resemblance to the iambic pentameter upon which the witch's poem is based, the two poems bear striking resemblance to each other. Secondly, it ever-so-subtly references the timeless Welsh and British mythology of King Arthur, slyly hinting at the intrigue of knights and gallantry through wordplay. Finally, the mention of Apple Strudel expresses distaste for the spread of Communism in post-Iron Curtain-era China. How? Well, by simply inferring that by apple strudel, Steig was truly speaking of apple pie, the most American of all delicacies, and by that was referring to American values, the direct antithesis to China, he was obliquely pointing out that the secret to success is not in China, one can easily see the reference.
Regardless of this, however, the main plot progression has been introduced, leading to...
Part 2: Shrek's Journey
Now that the main objective of Shrek's journeying has been introduced, he actually departs on his journey. The main conflict, Shrek's douchebaggery, is still present.
The next scene of note is after the throwaway situation in which Shrek scatters every living thing in the forest into various sadistic traps and subsequently eating them. It involves thunder and lightning that, through some miracle, have gained the ability to talk. Lightning, in an ill-advised attempt to hit on thunder, makes a move to kill Shrek, who promptly diminishes the threat:
|“||Lightning fired his fiercest bolt straight at Shrek's head. Shrek just gobbled it, belched some smoke, and grinned.||”|
Poor lightning, emasculated at the hands of the asinine Shrek! However, yet again, there is so much more than meets the eye in this situation. Here, we see a denunciation of the homosexuality and bravado among the increasingly urbanite youth. With the rise of rap music, the prominence of suburban homeboys became quite alarming to Steig, who penned this scene to mock the fucking white boys who were trying to be black.
A few pages later, the donkey promised by the Witch's Verse is found. The magic words cause him to say this:
|“||I gaze in the green / As I graze in the green / Seeking out the clover /I laze and spend my days in the green / A chewing, chomping rover.||”|
After the delivery of this poem, which serves no deeper meaning whatsoever because it simply doesn't make sense that it would, Shrek rides the donkey for a long time. This is clearly an intentional paradox authored by Steig for the sake of a careful, worthy reader such as a literary analyst. By substituting "ass", a synonym for donkey, into the passage and tirelessly searching English vernacular, one can see yet another reference to homosexuality, or at least to intercourse. "Riding an ass," one learns, is a colloquial expression for anal penetration, thus implying that Shrek, a most detestable creature, is gay. Here, then, Steig is speaking out against the emerging AIDS virus, which at the time was considered to be a "gay" disease. What brilliant subtlety! Surely one cannot deny the brilliance of this work!
And yet there is still more, as the book enters its penultimate act.
Part 3: Shrek's Triumph
In this climactic part, Shrek is still an inexcusably boorish character who many would say had a penchant for being a jerk. Regardless of this, however, he finds himself nearly at the end of his mission.
Him and his partner, cleverly named Donkey, arrive at a castle. This cliché is furthered by the presence of a valiant knight, who orders Shrek to stop lest he be slain. Shrek incapacitates him in the following hilarious excerpt:
|“||Shrek popped his eyes, opened his trap, and bellowed a blast of fire. The knight, red-hot, dove into the stagnant moat.||”|
A castle protected by a moat, what a novel concept indeed! More importantly, Shrek's convenient superpowers give recourse for perhaps the most pointed observation out of all of Steig's biting satire. If one replaces "bellowed a blast of fire" with "infected the knight with HIV" and "dove into the stagnant moat" with "died" (which is easily done if you simply think about it a little), we find yet another indictment of the emerging virus. Also, Shrek's acts of violence escalating along with his homosexual tendencies hints that Steig was, in fact, an extreme and volatile homophobe. This is perfectly acceptable; everyone is flawed.
After a short run-in with an oddly-placed hall of mirrors, Shrek finds the princess he has been so desperately seeking. After exchanging sweet nothings, the book delves into its final section.
Part 4: Shrek's Unchangedness
Herein, Shrek makes a grave mistake indeed: he gets married. However, shockingly, this is not a bad thing for Shrek, as evidenced in the following passage:
|“||[Him and his princess] lived horribly ever after...||”|
How original! Turning the stereotypical fairy tale ending on its head! And in a way that nobody would have expected, let alone recorded!
But let us examine the other half of this passage:
|“||...scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.||”|
This suggests that the character development promised by the exposition never occurs. Why? Well, because Steig wanted to end this tale the same way he handled all of its other aspects: with complete defiance of convention. Some would simply call this laziness or bad writing. However, as anyone with half a brain knows, this is simply not so. With this, he is making a commentary on society's need for instant gratification. He refuses to gratify us with the thing we want most - a concrete ending - to make a point. Brilliant to the very end.
Though, for the most part, the above analysis is accepted as incontrovertible, there are certain closed-minded and stupid people who believe a noticeably shorter and conspicuously incorrect analysis. In the words of a certain choice idiot:
|“||Shrek! is just a harmless children's book. There was never meant to be any subtext, it's just meant to be a cute little tale that twists the fairy tale archetype. That's all!||”|
— William Steig
Clearly, this speaker was not of sound mind, because there is no one better to judge a work of prose than literary critics who tirelessly pore over every word placed lovingly and with meaning by the author.
Naturally, there is also the conspiracy theorist sect which claims that Shrek! was meant as a government-funded warning against an imminent alien invasion. According to these nutjobs, Shrek! predicts the coming of an extremely hideous cosmic monster not unlike Shrek. Rife with heretic symbolism and apocryphal supplementary texts (collectively known as the "S Files"), this theory has largely been abandoned by the easily distracted conspiracy theorists for several other more immediate projects.
Reception and accolades
As is to be expected, critics embraced the book, awarding the following glowing reviews:
|“||In Steig's most inimitable style -- the kind writers like John Steinbeck and Truman Capote wish they could recreate -- where whimsy, common sense, and a dash of inappropriateness to keep the kids interested reign, we find a most satisfying antihero in the guise of Shrek the ogre. Never since Dante's Inferno has such rich brilliance been infused into such a twisted tale.||”|
— School Library Journal
|“||A smashing amalgam of both shocking revelations and disarming wit, Steig's masterwork will surely go down in history as the magnum opus of 20th century life.||”|
— Newberry Award Commission
|“||Den mest briljanten bokar någonsin skriftligt, bommar för inga. Utan ifrågasätta det mest stora litterära arbetet som någonsin någonsin tänkas ut av en människa. I många väg bokar definitionen av människaracen, denna för evigt är bekant som ”litterär saker för guden allra”||”|
— Nobel Prize Laureate Society (in Sveedish)
However, despite all of these glowing responses, the bane of Steig's existence was the following, posted on LOLForum@ED:
|“||tihs sux lulz||”|
Steig's eventual suicide has been attributed to this anonymous user. We dare him to come near us. We'll destroy him!