Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: Wicked

When I was in high school, my social group was formed largely from the music department.  I sang in the select choir, the jazz choir, and the women’s choir.  I had friends from all these groups, as well as from the band, and a lot of my acquaintances participated actively in teen musical theater.  We were all complete music geeks, and proud of it, and more than willing to spontaneously burst into song at random intervals.  And so, when the award-winning musical Wicked came out, it was an instant hit among my group of friends, and we all very quickly memorized the complete soundtrack.  To this day, we’ll still sing What is This Feeling? in two- or three-part harmony when we get together.

I say all this not only to give you a sense of what a social inept high school student I was (but also very happy with my wonderfully nerdy circle of friends) but also to provide some context for my recent reading of Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, upon which the musical was based.  Naturally, since we all loved the musical so much, most of us tried to read the book as well, borrowing it from libraries and each other.  I don’t know about the others, but I didn’t succeed.  I wasn’t ready for such a politically-charged, complex novel, and I was confused that the plot and character relationships differed so much from the musical I loved.  (It’s really VERY different, particularly the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda).  So, like most of my friends probably did, I skipped ahead to one of the juicy bits and then set the book aside.  When I was in college a few years later, my mother gave me my own copy, which looked great on my shelf, especially since almost my entire collection of fiction lived not with me but in my mother’s basement.  Again, I tried reading it, and again, I didn’t make it past part two (Shiz).  I’m happy to report that, probably because I’ve gained experience in tackling more difficult literature through my recent fervor for classics, Maguire’s Wicked has been both read and enjoyed!

Published in 1995, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, whom Maguire names “Elphaba” after the initials of the author of the original novel (L. Frank Baum – LFB).  It reinterprets events and character motivations and is a much darker story than the original.  Wicked is full of clever allusions both to the original novel, the film version, and moments from the series of books that followed The Wizard of Oz (many of which I read as a child, and most of which I can’t find anymore among the basement boxes of books).  In Maguire’s Wicked, Elphaba is not the evil witch of The Wizard of Oz, but nor is she the misunderstood good heroine of the musical.  She is an animal rights activist, yes, but also a terrorist and a poor mother.  Whether she is good or evil, and what the nature of evil might be, is one of the primary questions the novel explores.  Three other themes that jumped out at me as I read were gender, politics, and religion – exactly the topics a formal dinner conversation is supposed to avoid!

Wicked asks: what does it mean to be male and female?  If one takes on a man’s responsibility and power, must that person have male anatomy, or is a female in this position a transgendered male?  The book constantly speaks of shadows and other illusions that make it appear that Elphaba has male genitals.  I was left wondering: was Elphaba male, but in some kind of disguise?  Did she wish she were male?  Did she view the entire category of men as the enemy, since she herself did not present as one?  In one fascinating conversation, Nanny told Elphaba, “Oh, it was a merry chase here for a day or two, but of course the soldiers won.  Men always win” (329).  Maguire chose to continue straight on with Nanny’s speech, leaving readers with no indication of Elphie’s reaction.  And I so dearly wanted to see her response!

There is discussion of a great many political issues that were critical in the 1990s and continue to be relevant today.  The land of Oz is struggling for survival in the midst of economic crises and natural disasters, and the Wizard, a dictator who wrested power from the rightful ruler Ozma and her regent by force after he landed unexpectedly from his balloon, combats these contingencies through the systematic marginalization of minority peoples.  This allows the wealthy, who live in the more industrialized parts of Oz, to become even more prosperous and powerful, while the Animals and the southern Quadlings (peoples with different physical appearances than the northerners from the area around the capitol, Emerald City), are systematically stripped of their rights and their land.  It is a thinly-veiled criticism of American race politics.  In Wicked, genetic proof that there is no fundamental difference between peoples is seen as dangerous and seditious, reason enough for murder – a clear metaphor for modern struggles between science, politics, and morality born of fundamentalist religious beliefs.  Parallels run further: major political decisions by the Wizard redefine personhood in order to enable discriminatory or regulatory laws – does this sound familiar?  Defining when personhood begins is the lynchpin of the modern abortion debate.  Other politically-charged ideas in Wicked involve terrorism, personal responsibility in the face of injustice, political prisoners, torture, treason, and secession.

Maguire sees politics and religion as inescapably entwined.  In his characters, political and religious motivations are often one and the same, particularly in the character of Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister.  Elphaba is the closest thing this novel contains to an atheist.  She must contend with Lurlinism, a pagan religion that dictates the identity of the rightful ruler of Oz; royalism, the set of dangerous political beliefs that stem from belief in the fairy Lurline; unionism, which is all-encompassing and moralistic as stereotypical Catholicism but also glorifies Scripture and the simple telling of it as does the more fundamentalist Protestant denominations; and the so-called “pleasure faith,” which delights in sexuality and the revealing of secrets hidden within communities.  Maguire’s depiction of all of these religions is complex; all are flawed and all lead to dangerous choices.  Despite this, even Elphaba’s atheism seems to be ultimately insufficient; she wonders whether she has a soul and in the end, decides that she desperately hopes that she has one or can gain one.  Her death, melting in Dorothy’s thrown bucket of water, is presented as a sort of baptism, leaving readers to wonder whether Elphaba achieved some kind of salvation in the end.

If this review makes Wicked seem entirely too heavy, and heavy-handed, rest assured that it is still an enjoyable read, and if you want, you can ignore all of the parallels to modern politics and just enjoy the book for its clever reinterpretation of a childhood classic.  Despite all of her flaws, I found Elphaba to be a highly sympathetic character, and I loved reading an imaginative explanation for how she became as wicked as she seemed to Dorothy.  I also own the next book in the quartet, Son of a Witch, and hope to tackle it soon.  Have any of you read Wicked or the sequels?  What did you think, and do the sequels retain the cleverness of the first?  Did the intense politics and thinly-veiled allegories bother you?

Books I've finished (posts coming soon):
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Things I'm currently reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong


  1. This book takes me back to high school too. I played the Wicked Witch of the West in my school's production of The Wizard of Oz, and when this book came out, pretty much everyone I knew in high school asked me if I'd read it and when I was going to read it. I've actually read it twice now and Son of a Witch once. I admired the books more than I enjoyed them. Try as I might, I couldn't get immersed in Macguire's Oz the way I can in Middle Earth or Narnia or Stephen King's Mid-World.

    That said, I liked the books more than the musical. The songs are pretty good, and I could go along with the differences in plot until the ending. The ending infuriated me. I still tend to get ranty about it, so I'll stop there :)

    1. Actually, I'd really love to hear your rant. :-)

      If you got through Wicked in high school, I admire your literary acumen! Somehow, my reading just wasn't up to it at that point. But then, I had difficulty with Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte too.

      I'm with you - the world Maguire creates just isn't as compelling as those others. (Or I assume so; I haven't read Stephen King.) Wicked read more like fan-fiction to me, in the sense that he didn't create his own world out of nothing.

    2. I didn't actually read this in high school; it came out just after my college graduation. It's just that whenever I ran into someone I knew in high school, they'd ask me if I read it.

      As for my rant, well, the whole musical seems to be saying that when you believe in something you should be willing to sacrifice anything, including your life and including true love, for it. And that's what Elphaba seems to do, up until almost the last moments of the play. Except the stupid, happy surprise twist ending, says that no if you really love someone, what you should do hatch a plot to save him and to make sure that you get to stay with him. And all the Animals you were trying to save in the past? Forget them. You've got true love. That's what's really important.

      Really, I don't mind a happy ending, but a happy ending that SUBVERTS THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE PLAY?!?!? It just makes the whole story pointless, all for the sake of ensuring that the audience leaves happy. Bah!

      (See, I told you I get ranty.)

    3. I approve of your rant. :-) And I agree! To me, it just read like a huge writers' cop-out - much like in Stephenie Meyer's The Host, where the narrator was willing to die to do what's right but Meyer wasn't willing to let her, so the strength of that sacrifice is totally undermined by the obnoxiously saccharine ending. The musical Wicked seemed the same way, to me, like the writers weren't able or willing to give audiences a sad ending. Perhaps it's wishful thinking that I always imagined that Elphaba moved secretly away and established a secret sanctuary for Animals? (Because I really, truly, thought that was what happened, but your rant made me wonder if that was ever actually expressed in the musical.)

    4. Perhaps Elphaba did go found that sanctuary, and I just missed that line. That would temper my rant considerably, although it would still seem like a cop-out of an ending, just a less dramatically incoherent one.