Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Wicked; The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

I finished Wicked about three weeks ago and never got around to writing about it, and now the book’s gone back to the library, so I’ll do my best to make this coherent, although it might be quite short.

This is an alternative take on the well known Wizard of Oz story, told from the perspective of Elpheba, who come to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West. It starts as she is born, and her parents are horrified with her green skin and irrational aversion to water. She is born into an Oz that is very different from the world imagined from the original stories. It is a world full of religious and political unrest, with the Wizard being a fascist dictator and the old unionist religion being overcome by a more secular, pleasure seeking ‘faith’.

As the novel progresses we follow Elpheba through early childhood, college, political activism and her adult years, until the inevitable moment when Dorothy enters Oz her meeting with the witch, and it’s inevitable outcome. Although the motives behind this are very different to the version we are all familiar with.

We also come into contact with many other memorable characters , including Elpheba’s younger sister, Nessarose, born a normal colour but with no arms, and Elpheba’s room mate at college Galinda. These three girls become close eventually, but after being told their intended destiny by their headteacher each take very different paths. Nessarose ends up as the Wicked Witch of the East, and Galinda takes on the role of the Good Witch who gives Dorothy the shoes. And the shoes are so important, but again, not in a familiar way!

Sentient animals also play a large part in the story, differentiated from ordinary animals by a capital letter (lion, Lion). During the Wizard’s reign they are persecuted, and gradually their rights to live in human society are removed. Elpheba questions this, and this is one of the main factors which determines the way her life pans out.

But there is so much more to this book than just the basic story. It’s full of moral, ethical and political dilemmas. Elpheba never means to do evil. She does some questionable things, but, at least in her mind, they are all for ultimate good. It raises issues of the nature of good and evil, and whether someone can be perceived to be evil just because their actions go against the normal behaviour of society. Perception also comes into play with the issue of judging people by their looks. Wealthy Galinda initially judges Elpheba on her looks, and wishes to have as little to do with her as possible, but eventually starts to see through her looks to the person inside, and perhaps start to see that beauty doesn’t always equal goodness.

All in all, it’s an interesting read. Was she wicked, or was she just misunderstood? What does it mean to be wicked at all? Was her reputation based on her looks, negative propaganda spread by the fascist dictator who calls himself the Wizard, and belief in equality and justice for all? Or was her life determined from the start, and were her, her sister and Galinda just fulfilling the requirements of the spell placed on them by their headteacher at Shiz college?

I know what I think, but the book doesn’t really answer these questions. In fact it poses more questions than it answers. But read it, and see what you think.


Anonymous said...

Read this book and enjoyed it immensely. I like the author's entire concept of taking a look at the "bad" side of the story and presenting it from its perspective. As you pose the question, are they really bad or just misunderstood?

Great read for the Once Upon a Time IV challenge. :)

Jo said...

I really had to think, since its been a while since I read it! But my initial impression was misunderstood. And possibly manipulated by propaganda. I have recently read the follow up, Son of a Witch, which I think adds to that impression. I'd recommend that one too.

And I agree that seeing from the 'bad' side was brilliant. He does it very well in confessions of an ugly stepsister too.