The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” (1995) is an acclaimed parallel novel by prolific American author Gregory Maguire, whose fame was brought to dizzying heights with the multiple Tony winning and internationally reveled musical “Wicked” based on the same. Maguire, who published his first novel “Lightning time” in 1975, has to his credit a flurry of short stories and adult novels including “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”(1999) “Mirror Mirror”(2001) and “Lost”(2003), which were all bestselling revisionist adaptations of well-known children’s fables, where secondary characters in the originals often became the unlikely heroes in his tales. True to his style, Maguire does just that with his retelling of L. Frank Baum’s timeless classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as he adds on deeper meaning with the use of over the top humor, drama, vivid imagery, political and religious satire as well as numerous adult situations, which in this case includes (gasp!) witch sex. A much darker depth will be noted in comparison to its childish counterpart as the book ponders on the ambiguity surrounding the thin axis separating what mankind perceives as right and wrong, good and evil, as well as delving and exploring the expanses of a myriad of other human emotions such as motherly guilt, lovers remorse, obsession to a cause and desire to avenge the loss of someone deeply precious.
The book revolves around the tragic life of Elphaba, the misunderstood green girl who is fated to become the notorious Wicked Witch of the West, while rebelling against a cruel world where lower citizens and Animals (creatures with voices and souls) are persecuted or exiled and any resistance is thoroughly neutralized by the will of the tyrant Wizard. The story takes place during the Wizard years just before Dorothy’s own crash landing into Oz. Though all occurrences take place in this fabled land, the setting changes with the travels and actions of the heroine through the course of the book, ranging from the fertile lush plains of Munchkinland to the arid tribal mountains of the Vinkus and finally the posh royalty in Emerald City where the Wizard himself resided. The story shapes with Elphaba’s own maturity and age with the arrival and passage of key figures, mainly classmates Galinda, Fiyero and sister Nessarose.
The story begins in ominous fashion as her mother is left writhing in the belly of a Clockwork Dragon, a religious relic, by her caretakers after being shocked away by the unholy nature of the baby she had birthed. They announce “she consumed blood even before milk” to note that her abnormally canine teeth had maimed an innocent fondling finger, insisting that this would be a harbinger of disastrous times to come. The repulsed mother and father were unable to deal with this burden, left it to Nanny who fought to bring normalcy in the girls’ life. Soon was the arrival of a sister, Nessarose, who was beautiful and had the “right color” but was harmless, leaving her in the constant care of Elphaba. Little Elphaba would spend her childhood travelling Oz with her overly zealous father convinced on the idea that salvation could only be brought by the will of the “unnamed God”. Elphaba was skeptical, but Nessarose embraced the ideology becoming everyone’s sweetheart to her older sister’s annoyance.
At Shiz University, she became roommates with Galinda, a pretentious Gillikin of semi noble blood which she only wished to enhance by befriending those higher than her while snubbing her emerald neighbor like others all the same. As fate would have it and after numerous skirmishes with the pompous headmistress Madame Morrible, who was behind a government movement to remove the civil rights of sentient Animals (marked by a capital A) and the death of Animal Dr. Dillamond before his breakthrough discovery shedding light on the similarities between humans and Animals , they teamed up and headed for the Wizard to plead their “Save the Animals” cause, who with a display of flashy magic threatened to take their lives if they dared insolence. Galinda, Nessarose and Elphaba, after a meeting with Morrible were enchanted into believing that their destiny lied as sorcerers with the wizard. Troubled by this thought of having her destiny dictated by a murderer, she ran away leaving behind all familiars.
Years later Prince Fiyero corners his old classmate, and through a series of exchanges learns about her involvement in plots to take down the Wizard, which soon inadvertently leads to them falling deeply in love with each other, starting a sizzling passionate affair, which brings peace to each other’s manic life, despite Fiyero’s obligations to his own family. Later, Fiyero is lost after an attempt to ensure Elphaba’s safety after her part in a particularly deadly assignment. This loss compelled Elphaba into brief comatose which was followed by deadly depression, painful remorse and finally burning anger which made her take up witchcraft and marked her arrival on the scene as a usurper, the Wicked Witch of the West. Her anger at her loss later shape shifts into madness as she becomes paranoid of the interest of those around her and begins a reign of terror on those affiliated with the Wizard that finally brings her face to face with her final contender, little Dorothy, the girl from the land of “Kansas”.
The story, despite its childish origins, deals with deep and recurring adult themes including the detailed commentary on the true meaning of good and evil and what beleaguered its realization and perception. The narrator constantly brings into dialogue the concept of Elphaba’s own character, bringing the reader into many deep philosophical discussions surrounding the nature of morality, leaving them to choose whether to think of her as a heroic saint, bound to bring freedom to those lacking, or an eccentric revolutionary, blinded with anger over loss of loved ones, taking up witchcraft and trying to spearhead a bloody revolution at any cost. While guiding us through her tumultuous life, the narrator also shows us in detail the common folly yet lifelong necessity called “love” in its full effect as well as its high toll on the persona of the individual with its disappearance, in which case, was what drove Elphaba over the top.
Readers will be left wondering whether to pity the girl who was treated and raised to be an outcaste, lost her one true love and yet tried to bring a much-needed respite to the land or chide her for her murderous ways at the end. Nevertheless, we will come to understand, that had Elphaba not been in those tiring circumstances under contempt of the wizard, she would not have become the strong-willed champion who took it upon herself to relieve the world of its plight. “Wicked” is scary but only because we realize that the dreaded witch really isn’t too different from the rest of us alive. Though slow through the first few chapters, reading becomes much more fluid with the arrival fast paced, turbulent events that guide Elphaba to her eventual power, making it a worthwhile read. At the end of the book one is left to wonder whether Dorothy’s splash was her righteous punishment for being the murderous freak she eventually became or whether it was an act of redemption, baptizing her and freeing her from her sins, commitments and her lifelong bondage to society after being submerged under the wills of others for so long. The answer may elude us, but it definitely does not rest in the confines of the book, or even in the character of the Wicked Witch. It lies within the confines of all those with a soul, who have to live that labyrinth called life and face their own tumultuous triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses. May the soul-searching begin.
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