Book Review: Gregory Maguire – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Gregory Maguire – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West


Wicked ‘hype’ is something that hit pretty hard amongst my friendship group, I know a great many girlies who absolutely loved the musical adaptation of this novel – however I was not amongst them. Not sure why, but it passed me by. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that there was a novel! When browsing a charity shop back in Yorkshire recently, I recognised this cover from the posters and advertising that I had seen splashed around various cities. Intrigued and curious as to what started this phenomenon I decided to give it a read. And I’m so incredibly glad I did.

This novel by Gregory Maguire revisits the world of Oz as depicted by Frank Baum in his stories The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Wonderful Oz amongst others. I read the originals about a year ago and was charmed by them; they sketch out a whimsical world inhabited by flying animals, a whole host of vivid creatures inhabiting different lands as well as witches (good and bad) and an all-powerful wizard. Maguire offers us a different perspective on this world, transforming idyllic scenery into an intensely political competition – full of religious zeal, sex, and superstition. The main political undercurrents that affect the protagonists are those concerning Animal rights. Animals are rational sentient beings with a voice capable of undertaking the same tasks as humans, and the difference between them and animals as we know them is marked by the capitalisation of the term (Animal vs animal, Goat as opposed to goat ect.). However this is not being recognised in Oz, and their rights are being stripped from them.

Following the Wicked Witch of the West’s life the novel begins with her birth. Elphaba as she is christened is born to a deeply religious father and superficial mother under a cloud of superstition. She is born green, an ailment which will afflict her for life. Painted as an unusual little ‘monster’ of a child, she arrives into the world with a mouthful of sharp teeth and spends much of her childhood mute. Desperate not to have another green child Elphaba’s mother takes potions throughout her second pregnancy intending to prevent such things; however her second child Nessarose is born as pink as a summer rose but without arms!

The novel skips forward sixteen years and introduces the character of Glinda (the good witch in Baum’s stories) who is travelling to the distinguished Shiz University. Separated from her chaperone due to a medical emergency upon arrival Glinda has no-one to represent her in room-mate arrangements. She thus ends up being room-mates with Elphaba who is ostracised from the other girls due to her skin colour. Although initially Glinda finds her strange the two end up becoming firm friends.

Through a Goat who tutors biology at Shiz, Doctor Dillamond, the two girls discover the injustice being done to Animals under the Wizard’s reign in Oz. Doctor Dillamond uses examples such as Animals are being forced to return back to jobs in fields, as well as travel separately (in pens) on public transport. The widespread nature of the attitudes towards Animals is discovered when the headmistress of Shiz uses university resources to further the propaganda. Elphaba becomes extremely close to Doctor Dillamond throughout her time at the university – he becomes a mentor and guiding figure for her.

However this all draws to an end with the murder of Doctor Dillamond whilst he is on the verge of proving the genetic links between Animals and humans. With Glinda’s help Elphaba discovers that it is the president of the university who has arranged for the murder to take place. Glinda and Elphaba travel to Oz in order to petition to the Wizard the importance of Animal rights. They are rebuffed by him, and it is with this that Elphaba decides never to return to the university.

I loved this explanation of Elphaba’s early life; for me it was the most interesting part of the book. From here on in she becomes increasingly drawn to political activism, which results in her attempting an assassination and then having to hide fearing discovery.  All the actions which lead to her being portrayed as a witch are a result of her becoming more and more confused and disorientated as events happen which are out of her control. I have to admit I found sections of this book a little complex as so much was happening, and it frequently took up storylines and characters from Elphaba’s childhood to explain the consequences in her adult life. This little touch made it a very clever read but I think as I was reading it whilst travelling it made it a bit tricky to follow.

The ending, with the introduction of Dorothy which results in her accidentally killing Elphaba is brilliant! The whole story of Oz as we know it; with Dorothy travelling with her companions to the Wizard, is wrapped up in a very short chapter. Dorothy is a perfectly nice, good country girl – if a little simple minded but not at all the main character in the story. Her appearing at the end only serves to underline the wit in this book; it questions the depiction of good and evil in fiction. What is true and real? Elphaba is portrayed as evil, but in this reading of a classic tale we see her passion, her righteousness and the unfortunate circumstances which lead her astray.

Have any of you seen the musical? I think I would really enjoy watching it now I have read the book; I’m so intrigued at how it would translate to stage!



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