Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
"Who are you?" asks the Wizard's giant green head in The Wizard of Oz.
The Wicked Witch of the West. Elphaba Thropp. Elphie. Auntie Guest. Auntie Witch. Fabala. Fae.
We'd like to suggest that all of the aliases Elphaba accumulates over the course of the novel are not evidence that she is a super-spy like Sydney Bristow on the aptly named Alias. Instead, they are symptomatic of the puzzle at the heart of the Wicked Witch of the West. We'll let Maguire explain it:
"Everybody knows about her, and no one knows a thing about her! No one knows anything about her!" (source).
This is exactly the difficulty with an iconic character like the Wicked Witch of the West: people can point her out in a lineup (possibly a bad example, considering that she is rather distinctive looking) but no one can tell you any personal details about her. She likes wearing black? She has a thing for snazzy shoes, dramatic entrances, and flying monkeys? Seriously, what's with the monkeys?
Given that the Wicked Witch of the West is known only superficially, the novel sets out to explore who exactly this woman is by examining the woman who became the witch: Elphaba. But the novel doesn't just tell us Elphaba's life story, or let Elphaba tell it herself. Instead, Elphaba's character is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle in the narrative. And even by the end, there are still some pieces missing. Let's start by exploring who Elphaba is.
It's Not Easy Being Green
Sing it, Kermit. Yes, Elphaba Thropp is green. It's always the very first thing people notice about her. But this book isn't just some after-school special about how one brave girl deals with being different. Elphaba's skin color has a symbolic meaning. It has themes, layers, metaphors, and imagery attached to it. No wonder Elphaba spends the book stressed out: she's essentially wearing the thematic weight of the novel.
Before we get into the various thematic functions Elphaba serves, let's check out how Elphaba views herself. We should point out that Elphaba would like nothing better than to escape herself.
I wouldn't mind leaving myself behind if I could, but I don't know the way out. (22.214.171.124)
Now I just think it's our own lives that are hidden from us. The mystery – who is that person in the mirror – that's shocking and unfathomable enough for me. (126.96.36.199)
Elphaba's "self" is a bit like one of those funhouses with the crazy mirrors – everywhere she turns, she only sees different versions of herself. She can't find the way out, or even figure out what "herself" really is.
As a child Elphaba is by turns silent, shy, withdrawn, and angry. Her own family is both repulsed by her and scared of her. It's no wonder that young Elphaba's first word is "horrors." Elphaba spends her entire life dealing with other people's reaction to her skin color, and as a result she gets very defensive about it:
"Like everyone else you refer to my looks. And you make fun of them."
"I adore your looks and I acknowledge them. Fae!" (3.8.32-33)
Fiyero, however, finds Elphaba's skin color beautiful and wonderful. Elphaba herself seems to accept her skin color as an unfortunate fact of life. And for much of the novel she never really looks, or is never able to see, beneath the surface "fact" of her skin color.
Smoke and Mirrors
Elphaba has myopic vision (which is a fancy way of saying she is nearsighted) of a metaphorical sort. In other words, she has trouble seeing what things mean. Now you may cry foul here: Elphaba is a realist and often makes cutting, smart remarks about a variety of topics. She's pretty much the only character who grasps the full implication of what the Wizard is doing to the Animals. But Elphaba doubts her own powers of vision, and she may have a reason to:
But she was not a visionary. Behind the blue and white marbleized paper of the lake [...] Elphaba couldn't see any deeper in.
Not about the raw material of life . [...] Nor about the gooey subjects of the empyrean: not about good, if the Unnamed God was good. Not about evil, either. (188.8.131.52)
We get a two-for-one thematic bargain here as the water motif comes back into play. Elphaba's life is like a giant reflecting pool. She only sees herself in the mirror, so to speak. Elphaba can't see beneath the surface of things, and she constantly struggles to grasp the big picture.
Of course, that doesn't stop her from tackling very large and very weighty philosophical issues: the girl spends her free time pondering religion, evil, politics, civil rights, human nature, etc. But Elphaba never stops feeling like she's missing something, and we'd like to argue that she's actually missing herself. Elphaba spends so much time trying to make herself disappear that she kind of misses the role she herself plays in certain events, as well as the nuances that exist in those events.
We aren't trying to make a point as trite as "Elphaba has low self-esteem, so she became evil." But we do think that Elphaba's self-perception drives a lot of the action in the book, and her limited self-awareness has a lot of thematic meaning. So let's check out some of the effects of Elphaba's self-image before turning our attention to Big Themes and one very Wicked Witch.
Loser with a Capital L
Elphaba really is a bit of a washout. She fails at her Animal rights campaign. She fails as an underground revolutionary. She fails in her efforts to protect Fiyero from the fallout of her political activism/terrorism. She fails to get Sarima's (verbal) forgiveness. She fails to protect Sarima and her family. She fails to rescue Nor.
Yeah, we can see why Elphaba sort of loses it near the end. The woman is pretty much the John Locke of Oz. Like the Lost character, Elphaba is a perpetual screw-up. She seems poised for greatness but never reaches her full potential. Well, she kind of reaches it, but she didn't really have much to do with it.
Part of the reason Elphaba has such a rough time is that fate is conspiring against her. Various powerful forces really are working to control her life. The Wizard hurts those closest to her, Madame Morrible has her watched, and we still aren't entirely sure what Yackle was up to, but it was something sinister.
But Elphaba herself also contributes to many of her failures. She keeps trying to make herself disappear or "become and un" as she puts it (3.1.82). The problem with making yourself disappear is that it tends to limit the things you can actually do. And Elphaba sometimes freaks out at the idea of doing anything, particularly if it's magical.
"I can't bring him back," said Elphaba. "I can't! I have no aptitude for sorcery!" (184.108.40.206)
For a future Wicked Witch, Elphaba is really surprisingly inept. But she's also painfully aware of this ineptitude, and it creates a constant negative feedback loop, with "fate" in the form of Yackle (and that weird dwarf) and her insane biological father (the Wizard) interfering at opportune moments. But what exactly is Elphaba kept from realizing, or unable to realize, about herself? Well, we have a few theories…
Elphaba is a child of two worlds, and her greenness is a key part of that. This is the major thing Elphaba never grasps about herself. She struggles with her oddness, she tries to embrace and emphasize her own uniqueness in her youth (particularly through her pro-Animal quest), and she seems at least somewhat aware of her "special" nature. But by the time she starts getting answers about herself and her origins, she's almost too jaded to register them.
Turtle Heart sums up Elphaba's unique character best:
"She is herself pleased at the half things," Turtle Heart said. "I think. The little girl to play with the broken pieces better." (1.5.13)
But Glinda actually gets at the oddness of Elphaba, laying the groundwork for the Dwarf's eventual proclamation that she is a child of "two worlds" (5.8.28):
Elphaba looked like something between an animal and an Animal, like something more than life but not quite Life. [...] You'd almost call it unrefined, but not in a social sense – more in a sense of nature not having done its full job with Elphaba, not quite having managed to make her enough like herself. (220.127.116.11)
Basically, Elphaba's appearance is a direct result of her biological father's meddling. But Elphaba's green skin also links her not just to the other world, but to the green land of Oz itself. (If you want to read more about the green connections in the novel, check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.)
There's something slightly "off" about Elphaba; she's like a walking paradox who is never quite what she ought to be – never fully "herself." But "herself" may just be a broken, unfinished paradox. In some ways, Elphaba is more "of Oz" than anyone else in the book. And as Yackle predicted, she and her sister have huge roles to play in Oz's history.
Elphaba's green skin also ties her to themes of magic (with the Miracle Elixir bottle), other worlds and realities (again with the Elixir), politics and power (via the Emerald City), the mythical and "all-seeing" (or all-imagining) Time Dragon, and various mythical aspects of Oz itself.
But Elphaba seems to miss all these connections as an adult. She is much more attuned to them as a child. Check out this scene:
"The dragon who has dreamt the world, and who will burn it in flames when he awakes --" [...]
Elphaba, on all fours, advanced on the uneven planks of the flooring. She bared her teeth – as if she knew what a dragon was, as if she were pretending – and roared. Her green skin made her more persuasive, as if she were a dragon child. (1.5.65-67)
But as an adult, Elphaba never grasps any of this stuff. She can kind of read the Grimmerie, but dismisses the ability. She starts showing some powerful natural aptitude for sorcery, but dismisses the fact. Nastoya invites her to make contact if she ever wants to do some political stuff, but Elphaba only contacts her right before she dies (5.18.1).
So how does someone like this become one of the most epically evil figures of all time?
Something Wicked This Way Comes
We get a lot of signs that Elphaba's Wicked Witch future is predestined, as is her watery death. The day she is born a riot occurs; she is born inside the Clock of the Time Dragon; she spends her toddler years gazing into a "watery" mirror (signs of things to come indeed). If all that symbolism isn't enough, Elphaba also gets a number of pep talks over the years that predict her future (kind of). Here's some comments from Madame Morrible and Princess Nastoya:
Miss Elphaba, you are an isolate, and even in my binding spell you sit there stewing in scorn of every word I say. This is evidence of great internal power and force of will. (18.104.22.168)
"Something told those bees to kill the cook," said the Princess Nastoya, with a glitter in her eye. Elphaba felt herself go pale.
"I didn't!" she said. "No, it couldn't have been me! And how did you know?"
"You did, on some level. You are a strong woman." (22.214.171.124-39)
People around Elphaba tend to recognize that there's something special about her, but Elphaba herself does not. This is crucial, because it's other people who create and define the Wicked Witch of the West.
We have two different narrative tracks concerning the Wicked Witch: the way other people understand her and the way she herself deals with the identity. Let's start with the first.
We get a sense of the Wicked Witch and her reputation in the very first scene of the novel:
"Of course, to hear them tell it, it is the surviving sister who is the crazy one," said the Lion. "What a Witch. Psychologically warped; possessed by demons. Insane. Not a pretty picture." (Prologue.4)
The key detail here is that the Witch is stunned by what these weirdos are saying about her. She's been so cut off from things that her own reputation has taken on a life of its own – a life largely influenced by rumor and gossip. In many ways, the Witch is a fabricated, exaggerated identity that's been almost arbitrarily tacked on to Elphaba.
And yet, Elphaba is the Wicked Witch of the West – or at least there is enough of Elphaba in the Witch to make her identifiable as such. So how does Elphaba, the political activist who desperately wants to "do no harm" (126.96.36.199), end up as one of the most infamously evil characters in literature? Elphaba's descent into wickedness is a slow and subtle one.
"I hate Animals with attitude." But the Witch could not stop to intervene. So far she had been unable to save Nor, she had been incompetent at bargaining with the Wizard. She had been a moment too late to murder Madame Morrible – or had she been just in time? Either way, she should not try what was clearly beyond her. (5.9.36)
It's events like these, far more than any "cruelty" inherent in her character, that lead Elphaba increasingly toward "evil." There's a relevant quote from Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century British political philosopher: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." In Wicked, evil exists in everyone and can "triumph" far more easily than good. Elphaba isn't some sort of evil monster, but she becomes so jaded and apathetic in her later years that she simply stops trying hard to be good. It's this sort of attitude, combined with her weirdness and her already prickly personality that pushes Elphaba toward Wicked Witch-dom.
But we still have one major question to ask about the Wicked Witch. Here's how she puts it:
"Does the devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil?" (188.8.131.52)
Is Elphaba asking why people are truly evil? Can the Wicked Witch of the West exist outside of people's imaginations if she is not embracing her own wicked ways?