Maguire owes Stephen Schwartz a great deal of thanks for turning his complex, meandering book into an amazing musical. I have been trying for years to read Maguire’s book thinking that if I just tried harder or if I switched from print to audio, I would understand how this book is so popular and how Schwartz was able to create one of my favorite musicals. But after listening to nearly twenty hours of audio over the course of three days, I’ve come to realize that it’s not me. It’s the book.
The premise is fairly well known; the life of the Wicked Witch of the West encountered by Dorothy during her visit to Oz before Dorothy’s house fell on top of the witch’s sister. Maguire named the witch Elphaba and begins telling her life even she is even born introducing readers to her promiscuous mother, according to Nanny, who cannot recall if she cheated on her husband let alone why her daughter would be born (a) green and (b) with sharp, fang-like teeth. It is a question Maguire refuses to answer until the very end of the novel preferring instead to concentrate on the question of what drives a person to become evil.
In Elphaba’s case, the answer is teased out in four separate parts to the novel with the first concentrating on Elphaba’s birth, the second on her years in university where she meets Galinda who will eventually become Glinda the Good Witch, the third on her years rejecting her former life and being Fiyero’s lover, and the fourth on the fallout from her life choices during the third part. The fifth focuses on Elphaba’s interactions with Dorothy but, by then, we are supposed to believe that Elphaba has already become wicked. Yet the catalysts – mainly, the lack of love from her family and the realization that she lives in a prejudiced, racist world — put forth as the reason behind her wickedness are the least believable aspects of this novel. I have yet to meet a college student – liberal or conservative – who hasn’t gone off to school and learned the world is not like they assumed it to be.
Elphaba’s quest to help Dr. Dillidmong, a professor who is now being cast out from academic circles because he’s an animal, and prevent the enslavement of animals speaks more to the wickedness of the world around her not the wickedness of Elphaba herself. Certainly, those in the Emerald City, Munchkinland, and the land of Oz are going to see Elphaba as wicked for her counterculture ideas, but that idea is much clearer in the musical than it is in the book. And I thought it was particularly on point that Galinda, who grew to accept Elphaba despite her green skin, would years later still be unable to shake the racism she internalized from the society around her.
Maguire might have wanted the affair to be seen as indicative of Elphaba’s wicked nature yet while I certainly don’t condone adultery, it is more difficult to cast stones against a woman and a man cheating on the wife he was forced to marry at a very, very young age. Was it wicked for Elphaba to treat her son, Liir, with such indifference and bring him to live at the home of Fiyero’s widow? Possibly, but you would also have to believe that Liir is, in fact, Elphaba’s son and Elphaba herself cannot remember being pregnant or giving birth. Taking Liir with her was the condition for her leaving the institutions where nun-like women cared for her during the time she was drugged, near-dead, or in a coma (Maguire never makes it clear what actually occurred) and never bothered to explain that she gave birth to a child, that Liir was not one of the many orphans the order cares for.
And was it wicked for Elphaba to covet the silver shoes given to her her sister, Nessarose, by her father? Nessarose was born without arms; a condition Elphaba is blamed for by the mother figure in her life because their mother had been so worried about having another green child a la Elphaba that she took unknown pills purchased from a Gypsy woman. And Elphaba spends her life caring for Nessarose helping her younger sister walk, watching her family fawn over her sister, and prioritizing her sister’s comfort whilst they were both enrolled at Chiz. (The later I have seen firsthand at university, and it is difficult to watch as the non-disabled sibling is denied the opportunity to be an individual rather than a pair or, worse, a shadow.) It certainly make sense that Elphaba would be willing to do all she can to assume ownership of the shoes sent to her sister when nothing was sent to her, especially when it becomes plain that the wizard was to use to shoes to seize the land Nessarose governed.
Given all this, it is possible that Maguire was not trying to explore how someone becomes wicked but rather how they are perceived as wicked through their (usually) morally just actions. But that I cannot answer in certain because the book is so poorly written, so jumpy and ill-structured and filled with characters who are never given a true story or characterization. The idea behind the novel – to tell the story of the Wizard of Oz from the villain – is perfect, but Maquire became lost in the endless possibilities. Thank goodness Schwartz was there to slog through the muck and give the world a truly amazing musical.
- Maguire, Gregory. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Narrated by John McDonough. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2000. Audiobook. 19 hours, 37 minutes. ISBN: 9780060987107. Source: Library.