How Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West broke my heart

Verity Rose

My New Year’s resolution for 2024 was to finish all the books I hadn’t yet finished, and one of the most intimidating books was Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. As a child, I was obsessed with the hit Broadway musical Wicked, and once I was mature enough to read ‘big girl books’, it was a natural rite of passage for me to immerse myself in the original novel the Wicked musical was based on. I began reading Wicked on and off when I was 15, and it took me 6 years to read it in its entirety. I did not expect this book to be as heavy, mature, confronting, or heartbreaking as it was. Do not begin reading Maguire’s book expecting a whimsical fairy tale with a happy ending—instead, take your idealised version of the Lyman Frank Baum’s Land of Oz and throw it out the window.  

 

 

At its centre, Wicked aims to confront the question of whether evil is born or created. The main character, Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, is the daughter of  an incredibly dysfunctional family, with the unique maladies of having green skin and an allergy to water. Apart from some regular toddler chaos, infant Elphaba’s actions don’t reflect the ‘monster’ those around her view her as. This made me wonder how much this forced identity shapes Elphaba, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I expected that Elphaba’s abuse and mistreatment at the hands of those around her would be more than enough of a push for her to become the evil witch we know her as. Instead, Elphaba grows reserved and empathetic to others who face discrimination, especially the sentient Animals of Oz. Elphaba fiercely protects and fights for the rights of those less fortunate, particularly those who she is close to. At Shiz University, she becomes roommates with Glinda, the future Good Witch. They become friends, with Glinda acting as an anchor to ground Elphaba when she goes flying off the handle. But, in a bittersweet act, Elphaba abandons Glinda to continue her fight for Animal rights. Without Glinda to hold her back, our lead ends up becoming a vengeful extremist with little regard for her own wellbeing. Despite this, Elphaba continually fails to fight against the extreme prejudice in Oz and loses those she loves in the process. Whenever I hoped things would improve for Elphaba, something would go wrong, and another lovably compelling character would be wronged, tortured, or brutally killed.   

 

Leading the charge to enslave Animals and rule over all of Oz is the Wonderful Wizard, assisted by the aptly named Madam Morrible. Together, the two enact their goals by enslaving, killing, and manipulating anyone they must, with little remorse. Maguire’s villains are reminiscent of sketchy politicians, and the believability of these characters, their actions, and their motivations are daunting. It seems almost impossible for good to triumph over such tyranny, and it becomes even more so as the Wizard and Madam Morrible become obsessed with taking down Elphaba and the revolution she is fighting for. Together, they track down, capture, and murder almost every one of Elphaba’s allies and loved ones, sending her into a blind rage, earning her the title of the Wicked Witch of the West. She finally becomes the monster she had been accused of being her whole life. As more tragedies befall Elphaba, she breaks down into a shadow of her former extremist self, which begs the question as to whether she is simply removing a mask to reveal her true evil self. In the end, Elphaba’s attempts to change Oz to be a freer and more accepting society are in vain, and it seems that the ideals that she fought for will die with her.   

 

Throughout Maguire’s Wicked, we’re introduced to a very mature interpretation of Baum’s Land of Oz. The war and bigotry of the world is confronting, and the characters and their relationships are complicated and mature. Long gone is Baum’s polished fantasy world of magical characters and the Emerald City. Maguire’s tale replaces those fancies with murder, extremist religion, and politics. If Dorothy’s whimsical story in Oz was the tale we loved as children, Wicked is the mature story we read as adults. Wicked made me realise that stories, no matter the original target audience, can be altered to fit any kind of narrative the author chooses. I think having a mature fairy tale I’m able to learn from in my 20s is a real treat and something I never thought I’d read. Books and their stories are supposed to educate us and make us grow as people, and Wicked certainly ripped the rug out from under me and sent me on a journey. The Wizard of Oz’s polished childhood whimsy tells a clean story of good versus evil where good reigns victorious, whereas Wicked’s gritty, mature narrative explores the complexities of morality and the ideas of right and wrong, and how the two can often blend together. After having my day ruined by the despairing ending to Wicked, I’d argue that it comes down to whether an action’s consequences positively or negatively impact the majority, rather than the individual, that determines if a person is good or bad—or, perhaps more accurately, selfish or selfless. In Wicked, Elphaba transforms from a good and selfless individual who fights for justice into an evil and selfish witch who seeks revenge on those who’ve wronged her. I’ve read this metamorphosis for over 6 years of my life and, in the end, Maguire’s iconic novel has broken my heart.  

 

Verity Rose (she/they) is a Meanjin-based (Brisbane) poet, screenwriter, and novelist working on the 2024 Content Writing Team at ScratchThat. She has been writing stories since she was four and has studied screenwriting at universities since she was sixteen. Verity consistently incorporates the new experiences and ideas that she’s gotten from living and travelling around the world—from North America to outback Australia—into her writing.

 

Art by Erin McKenna @erinxisobel