This 1995 work is a long and complex novel. Its narrative flows rapidly, but it also jumps over long passages of time, which produces about five separate stories. The consistent character is Elphaba, the Wicked With of the West, and the novel is about how this sympathetic, victimized character evolves, and how and why she becomes wicked.
The entire work was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but is a rather free adaptation of the events that led up to the L. Frank Baum novel. Also, it’s for adults, not kids. Maguire interprets the events for his own purposes, one of which is to explore the existence of evil and the possible consequences in an afterlife. But in doing so, through the five stories, he creates a confusing narrative, as the surrounding characters change in each story and Elphaba herself changes.
Also confusing for a long while is the presence of Animals and animals. The former have human characteristics, but are not recognized as human by much of society, which nevertheless uses them. The lowercase animals are mere animals. Upper case Animals are close to the slaves of our past, but Maguire does not stress this.
The land of Oz consists of five separate governments, none of which trusts the other; and the Wizard as the villain apparently wishes to dominate Oz overall. (Note that his role is quite small; and he is no jovial, unthreatening Frank Morgan.) Thus, there is a strong political element to this novel, an element which for me offers an unwanted distraction from the adventures of the main characters. Although I do grant that some of the characters are deeply involved in this struggle for power.
In the first story, Elphaba is born to an evangelical-type minister, but has green skin, a temper, and a deathly fear of water. When a sister, Nessarose, is born, she is quite beautiful, but has no arms. She is her father’s favorite and Elphaba becomes jealous of her.
In the second story, Elphaba go off to Shiz University where she rooms with snobby and beautiful Galinda, watches over Nessarose, and meets other friends. There is a murder over the status of Animals, and Elphaba decides she must rebel and join their cause.
The third story, five years later, has Elphaba deeply involved in the underground. She has a futile affair, and, after failing to assassinate a target, she flees, mute, to a nunnery.
In the fourth story, seven more years have passed. Elphaba is called by her father to Munchkinland to help set “queen” Nessarose on the right path. Nessa promises to give Elphaba her magic ruby slippers when she dies. Elphaba wants these slippers because she has learned how to do magic. She is on her way to becoming a witch.
The final story, another seven years later, begins when Dorothy’s house from The Wizard of Oz falls on Nessa and kills her. Elphaba expects to get the shoes now, but Galinda, now Glinda, arrives first and gives them to Dorothy for the girl’s safety. Elphaba is furious; the slippers are rightfully hers. This turns Elphaba into the Wicked Witch of the West, as she plans to kill Dorothy to get the slippers.
Thus, Elphaba has become wicked, even though she has done much good in life, i.e., supporting the Animals and rebelling against the dictatorial Wizard. This contradiction is what enables Maguire to raise the question of evil. Are evil acts ever justified? Can/should a good person commit evil acts, and remain good?
At the end, Elphaba is evil. But how much has this grown out of her unfortunate circumstances: her green skin, her temper, her paternity, etc., and how much has been introduced by the author—both to conform in part to Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and to enable him to explore the complexity of existence, such as whether there is a God (the Unknown God) and an afterlife. This is what might prompt one to reread this work. Knowing the conclusion, even though Maguire does not resolve those eternal issues, would one appreciate the issues better? Would one also detect more clearly the author’s Catholic background?
I have not seen the musical, Wicked, but my impression is that Glinda has a more prominent role there than she does in the novel. Is it because the musical presents only part of the novel, the early portion when Glinda is more prominent? More likely it is a reworking, based on the realization that someone has to be in dramatic conflict with Elphaba.
To sum up, this is a story of fantasy, evil, and politics. Its content is the fantasy, its core is the evil, and its theme is the political struggle in Oz. Wally Lamb sums up this work quite well: “Maguire’s adult fable examines some of literature’s major themes: the nature of evil, the bittersweet dividends of power, and the high costs of love. Elphaba…is as scary as ever, but this time in a different way. She’s undeniably human. She’s us.”
Maguire achieves here what many authors strive for: a sympathetic villain. He creates sympathy with the good that Elphaba does in her family life and her political life. Then he confronts her with emotion and circumstance that twists her frame of reference. It is a twist I am still reluctant to accept at face value, even as I understand how it works in the novel. So A for effort; B+ for achievement. There is a certain confusion when the separate adventures, as entertaining as they are, do not flow from one story to the next. (July, 2013)