Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Book Review: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Wicked, Gregory Maguire's perceptive and captivating take on The Wizard of Oz, became a modern cult classic (and later a hit broadway musical) when it was published in 1995. In L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we read only of Dorothy's triumph over the Wicked Witch of the West. But what about the Wicked Witch herself? What made her so wicked? Where did she come from? And what is the true nature of evil? Wicked, subtitled "The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," is an alternative, imaginative, and clever re-creation of the land of Oz before Dorothy and her dog crash-land in Oz.

Through Wicked, Maguire narrates the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and her life and experiences in Oz — which is not a fairytale place of happiness and joy, but a dark, oppressive police state full of political machinations. It's a land where Animals, who are sentient and have voices, souls and minds, are persecuted and exiled. It's a place where you are wicked if you are different; if you tell the truth.

Gregory Maguire's fantasy world in Wicked is sketched vividly enough to change the way we look at Oz. For starters, the Wicked Witch has a name: Elphaba, and she is not wicked but insecure and unfortunately green. She may be taunted by others, including her mother, with names like "Little Frog" or "Lizard Girl," but she also has an endearing nickname given to her by her friends — Elphie. She has also not formally trained in witchcraft. Maguire's Elphaba is not a person who dreams of inflicting devilish deeds on the world that refuses to accept her. She is a zealous Munchkinlander who fights for tolerance and who's willing to take "steps" to put an end to the tyrannical rule of the Wizard of Oz. Elphaba is smart, and sassy, an intellectual, an activist, a bit of a revolutionary, who is often misunderstood and not accepted and who goes somewhat mad in the end.

Maguire's tale also fills in numerous gaps in Elphaba's story. We come to know about her tumultuous childhood (born with an unfortunate skin condition and parents who find it hard to accept her). We are told of her school days in the Shiz University — the time she meets Glinda, the good witch. Both are forced by circumstances to become roommates and friends, reluctantly. Shiz is also the place where Elphaba becomes a member of a small circle of Oz' most promising young citizens. Maguire also tells us of Elphaba's beliefs and politics — she becomes a part of an underground resistance movement that tries to get the Animals their rights with whatever means possible, even (attempted) assassination. We are told of her religious zealot of a sister — Nessarose, who leads the Munchkinlanders to throw off the rule of Wizard of Oz, and who dies when Dorothy's Kansas house lands on her. And we are told the story of how she loses her one true love. Eventually we also come to know how Elphaba's life spins out of her control. Her ideals and beliefs lead her to be caught up in events larger than herself, of the kind she is incapable of dealing with. Elphaba's nature and actions ultimately challenge our notions about the nature of good and evil.

Dorothy, whom we see only briefly in the prologue, appears properly in the final part of the book. She is a country girl, good, but a bit dull-witted.

But it would be wrong to assume that what Maguire has achieved is merely a clever creation of opposites: Elphaba = misunderstood heroine, Dorothy = villain.

No. Wicked makes real, three dimensional people out of the original characters. They are as complex as the people in the world we live in. Oz, itself, is a not a world clearly marked by the black and the white, but has its shades of gray (or should we say, shades of green).

Oz' politics is as complex and often as ludicrous as it is in our world. The same is true of Oz' religions and belief systems. The religion of the Un-named God, the pleasure-seekers, the followers of the time dragon, education, the different social and political causes — each has its zealous followers who have their own tenets of Right and Wrong, about Good and Evil.

Part of the appeal of Wicked also lies in recognizing elements from the Baum's Oz and (especially) from the movies [I haven't seen the 1939 version of the movie, but I recollect as a kid watching "Return to Oz" — twice]. Madame Morrible's (the politically-connected headmistress of Shiz University) murdering mechanical servant Grommetik is Tik-Tok of Oz. Young Elphaba, disgusted by an experiment on a Lion cub, rescues it. We know this cub is the Cowardly Lion. In Elphaba's rescue of a monkey and her later attempts to breed flying monkeys by stitching wings on them we can see the origin of the flying Monkey units that eventually will carry off Dorothy, Toto and the Lion.

Wicked, however, is no child's tale. It is darker than Baum's Oz. Wicked's tyrannical Wizard rules with the help of his "Gale Force," his storm troopers (who murder Fiyero, the Prince of Vinkus and Elphaba's love). The Wizard's emblem, a balloon and basket with crossed bars beneath it, looks like a skull and crossbones at first glance. He also hints at having performed human sacrifice. Glinda, the good witch's award of the slippers to Dorothy is a calculated move to help the Wizard crush the Munchkinland rebellion started by Nessarose.

Wicked's asset, however, is undoubtedly its heroine. Unlike the evil figure of our childhood fantasies, Wicked's "Wicked Witch of the West," Elphaba is not evil, but a compelling and honest character. Maguire's Elphaba will make you question the nature of morality. And it will make you wonder what is it that makes a person good or evil? Intent or action?

In Wicked, Gregory Maguire has re-created and populated Oz with the power of his own imagination. Fantastically real, after reading this novel you will be unable to see the Wizard of Oz in the same way again.

I believe, Frank Baum himself would be flattered.


  1. I just finished this book, and honestly, while I thought it was good, in the end it didn't satisfy. I'm still confused about why the witch, who started out so amazingly intelligent, interesting, and compelling deteriorated into an ineffective and immobile character.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    The book is undoubtedly good.
    To understand the Wicked Witch's detrioration in the end one also has to take into account the fact that the Maguire's novel is a retelling of the story of what transpired in OZ from the perspective of the Wicked Witch. It is not a complete and total "recreation" of the story. Thus the book essentially has to tie up with what happens in Frank Baum's original story. A Literary analysis would point out that Maguire had no "choice" in this matter. The only way he could have shown the Wicked Witch's demise and yet remain true to his own retelling would to have her diminish emotionally and psychologically.

    At a literary level, one would also analyze the theme of misunderstanding in the novel. The novel starts with the basic premise that the Wicked Witch was misunderstood character -- everbody right from her parents to the readers of the story have misunderstood her. And later Maguire cleverly turns this theme on its head -- What if the Wicked Witch also misunderstood Dorothy?

    Born out of the events in the end and the turmoil of losing out to Dorothy (whom the Wicked Witch believes is coming to kill her), Elphaba loses her balance. For once intelligence and rationality takes a backseat and Elphaba detriorates mentally.

    All I can conclude is Elphaba's "detrioration" in the end, is essential to the plot (both maguire's and Baum's) and in keeping with the overall themes analyzed in the novel.

  3. Hi Mandar-

    I understand your point about the end being predestined by the Baum novel. The only thing that disappointed me was that I wanted a fuller understanding of the witch's deterioration. If the book is primarily a meditation about evil and the killing of Dorothy is Elphaba's descent into evil in some way, I wanted to understand that descent. Thinking about it more I've been speculating that the death of Fiyero, in combination with her sleeplessness may have twisted her judgment, but I was primarily interested in Elphaba's experience of the situation. Would she have considered her final actions evil?

  4. Hello Lisa,
    Thanks for continuing the dialogue.
    You pose an interesting question: Would she [Elphaba] have considered her final actions evil?
    My personal take: No, she wouldn't have.
    I feel that one of the things that Maguire is trying to point out in his version of the story of Oz -- is the nature of evil. Baum's version takes the stand that it's the actions that condemn an individual. From that perspective Elphaba is definitely evil.
    Maguire takes a more modern/contemporary stance, problematizes the entire debate, and focuses on "Intent." From that perspective Elphaba is not evil. She has lost her balance. Recent events - the death of her sister, Glinda's political treachery, her encounter with the Wizard, the knowledge that the Wizard has sent Dorothy to end her -- all combine to unsettle her and addle her judgement. When she attacks Dorothy (I feel half-heartedly), she is merely trying to preserve her citadel (Fiyero's castle) and her own life, and of course she has misunderstood Dorothy's intentions. Her actions may be, but her intent is certainly not evil.

    Continuing from the above argument -- one could possibly extrapolate that what Maguire shows is not Elphaba's descent into evil but how in the end she is forced to act in a wicked manner, without intending to do so. Thus while her actions seem evil, she isn't. As in her life, so in her actions before death, Elphaba is misunderstood and she misunderstands others too.

  5. Hey Mandar-

    I think that you're right about the intentions of Maguire and the way that her actions would be interpreted.

    I've been having a number of conversations about the nature of good and evil with various people and, for myself, I'm not sure I agree with the intention = evil persepctive. For most actions it holds up, but some of the most evil deeds seem to have been done by people who justified their actions with some sort of end good, and therefore don't "intend" evil. The massacres of the French Revolution, Hiroshima. Would Hitler have considered his actions evil, or would he have argued that he was working for the good of society?

    Now, Elphaba's actions are definitely not in this class, and the misunderstanding that took place really does vindicate her.

    Perhaps I'm too rigid, but I tend to find the postmodern view of evil problematic.

    Cheers & thanks for the last reply :-)

  6. I'm on my second reading of the book, and while I generally don't have any complaints about the majority of it, there's one part that has killed me both times. You'll surely remember the Philosophy Club incident, in which Boq and some others venture to the aforementioned club and view a seemingly arbitrary yet symbolically labelled threesome? I've been able to puzzle out some metaphors on sex and creation and spirituality (and it's keeping me from sleeping this time, curse it all), but I'm interested to hear someone else's take on what the hell is going on in there, and how it affects the big scheme of things. I don't think he (Maguire) would have included it if it didn't have some sort of significance, but the fact that it's not only not obvious, but is downright obscure is a bit of a head-scratcher.

  7. hi cami
    I'm just as confused about the whole Philosophy incident and how it fits with the motifs of the book. But I have a sort of hunch- maybe Maguire is trying to somehow show how certain events in life cause one's character to deteriorate--Remember Tibett, who was forever scarred from that particualar event. And the whole theme seems to be that Elphaba is deemed 'wicked'because of a series of unfortunate events (no pun intended).
    Or perhaps Maguire simply wants to show how something as disturbing as that meeting can sort of reset your priorities- that club may have forced Boq and his friends to grow up into more mature adults, just as the class featuring the lion cub at Shiz, and Doctor Dillamond's death caused Elphaba to develop her opinion and mature somewhat. What do ya think? Way off target or not?

  8. Hey all!

    Just wanted to post a few thoughts...

    Lisa-- I have read Wicked twice and am on my third reading which has since helped me understand Elphie's deterioration

    Also,, with the philosophy club incident... if you remember, Tibbett came to the nunnery and was actually the reason Elphie came out of her trance after the years she had spent there so really--- the philosophy club (while I think it is merely a scene to do some fantastic writing and put a few of Maguire's own thoughts about sexuality in) is also a means to getting Elphie out of the nunnery.

  9. I was shocked to read such praise for the book. I read it without reading the reviews first, hoping for a prequel to the movie I loved so much as a child. Gregory doesn't add to the character but changes her. I was looking for "Wicked" and he didn't deliver. His pace was slow and jerky. Where's the ball of fire? Where is her wicked laugh? The slave army? This is not the Witch Margaret Hamilton delivered perfectly. And why a was Dorothy there at all? We've seen that part of the story. as for the examination of What is Wicked; I never found any revelations, just questions. and poorly worded ones at that. This book made me mad, to take a classic and botch it so much is Wicked.

  10. obediah,
    If you've ever read the original book, then you know that the movie is completely different. The original book is disturbing and not the shiny, happy version that MGM cooked up. "Wicked" was not intended to be a prequel, but a sort of parallel novel that shows things aren't always as they seem, especially if you only get one character's account of the story.

  11. i have read this book for my english class and have foudn it quite a difficult novel to understand on the first need, fail to understand the overall theme of the book i saw many themes such as misunderstanding and forgivness, and good vs evil, but whats the ultimate objective of maguire?, that the entire story relates too...

    also i need to relate this theme to a song or poem and if anyone has any that reminds them of this book please mention ! :D it would be greatly appreciated.

  12. HELP HELP!!!, Can anybody tell me describe the settings (the time and place and social circumstance)? i really need to know! Tomorrow i have assignment about this!! ooh and what is favourite plot? why? what he waNTED to know and learn us from this book?

  13. Is this book appropriate for a 15 year old? I'm thinking about getting it for my english reading book but i'm not sure if i'll be able to understand it. I get lost in books really easily. Also would you say its worth reading? If anyone wants to comment back email me at

  14. If you get lost in books easily, "Wicked" is not a good book to pick up. It also needs you to have read Baum's "Wizard of Oz" and seen the movie to understand what Maguire has done with the text. I would suggest picking up another book.

  15. I think the following line from the novel explains things a bit more:

    "That's why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it. As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention."

    She got taken in and absorbed by the title of Wicked witch, so the initial character of Elphaba slowly disolved into that of the Wicked Witch.

    I've not seen the wizard of oz in agees, and I've never read any of the Oz series books. But I really enjoyed this novel.

  16. Hi :)

    I love this book (even though I came into reading it thinking I was getting the "Galindafied" version from the amazing musical). Anyways, I was going to do this as a project for my ENG class; however, I need two literary criticisms. Does anyone know where I could find these? I'm not having any luck. If anyone knows would you mind posting a link?

    Thank You :)

  17. Hey. I agree with the previous comment that states the quote where Elphaba describes herself as the "Wicked Witch of the West". By taking on the title she herself transforms. I also noticed that Maguire begins to use "The Witch" as a pronoun instead of her name. The change in her name largely emphasizes her transformation from the political activist out to change the world for the better to the bitter semi-delusional woman enveloped by her own grief. In a way, her whole character changes from someone who was essentially selfless to a person who thought only inwordly. Its an interestig commentary on self-perception.

  18. Thank you for this excellent review. I fell in love with Elphaba's character, even in the end. She embodies the complications of life and the ending actually left me haunted. She is my favorite character of all time. I treasure my copy of the novel.

  19. i like your review alot . Wicked is one of my favorite books. but unforntualty i must make a book review for a school project and your review gave me alot of ideas . (promise i wont steal any though!). yours gave me crucial ideas that i needed to include but forgot .i am , unfortuantley, nto a very good writer so i liek to get ideas from others works.

  20. Myridian, possibly why you were not satisfied is that you misunderstood a key part of the story. Elphie did not kill Dorothy, nor did she intend to. Dorothy accidentally killed her. Elphie's intention was to find out what Dorothy's intentions were.

    Also, you use the French Revolution and Hiroshima as examples of good intention. It doesn't matter what the instigators argue, those two examples were never solely good intentions, if at all.

    I don't see Elphie as evil at all. Not thinking straight at the end, not caring enough about what others think, not communicating well and maybe a little paranoid, but not evil.

  21. She got taken in and absorbed by the title of Wicked witch, so the initial character of Elphaba slowly disolved into that of the Wicked Witch.

  22. Hello all,

    I have been debating picking up my battered copy of Wicked, life and times../ for some time.
    and have found these comments most enlightening!I first read Wicked after all the west end Wendy's at my theatre school where raving about a hit musical, my weekends were spent earning enough dough to get to a specialist university so I couldn't afford to see the play..I instead picked up the novel ( adorned with the bandwagon musical poster)this turn of fate changed my perception of many things for good!

    Elphie is by far my favourite literally character I hold my copy very close to my heart. However on the subject of Fiyero I find it heart breaking that Elphie think that the scarecrow could be Fiyero in disguise, when it is reviled to be nothing but straw I feel that is one of the last straw. Fiyero had been one of the few that had believed she was anything but Wicked, and had a sexual relationship with her ( those who have read the second book will also know of Liir).

    Anyway , while my comments may not be as academic or intriguing as others , I truly believe that this book had influenced how I see good and evil ( I'm not 100% sure what that is) But I know that when I do meet evil, you can quiet tell what it is ..based on its colour!

  23. I've finished this book and the 2nd (Son of a Witch) and I find them both to be in my mind almost every day...

    I agree with much that has been said about good and evil, intent, etc...BUT, little has been said about GUILT...

    I think Elphaba had a tremendous amount of guilt that she didn't accomplish what she set out to do for the Animals; that after Fieryo's death she realized she may have been responsible and then when Fieryo's wife would not let Elphaba relieve herself of that guilt, it began to eat away at who she was and meld into the witch she would become. On top of that: Niils, the son! On one level she's not only unaware that he could possibly be her lover's child with her, but on the other she cannot bring herself to see him--at all...How can one who has experiences so little love in her life ever give it freely...look how her relationship with Fieryo unfolded...GUILT, and to a great extent, rejection, are the crux of the "evil" here ...OH, and Glinda had NO RIGHT to give away those damn shoes!!! that was evil!!!

  24. oops...that was Liir, the son!