Study Guide

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

By Gregory Maguire

Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

Water

There's definitely "water, water everywhere" in Wicked (Coleridge shout-out). Well, there's water symbolism and imagery at any rate. Oz suffers a severe drought for a large part of the novel, which is significant. Water is all about Oz's opposing regions. In this novel, water is both a giver of life and a cause of death; it has very strong positive and negative connotations attached to it.

Elphaba's weird connection to water helps illuminate water's positive and negative connotations here. We all remember the Witch screeching "I'm melting!" at the end of the movie. And water definitely causes Elphaba pain, fear, and eventually death. But she's also oddly attracted to and enthralled by water throughout the book. Many of the instances of water imagery in the book tie in to significant things in Elphaba's life: her magical mirror, Fiyero, and the Vinkus, when she finally becomes a Witch.

She put her hand on the shining disk. The glass circlet caught the last blue of the sky, until it looked like a magic mirror showing nothing but silver-cold water within. (1.5.52)

The next time he came, he thought, he must wear a shirt open at the neck, so she could see that the pattern of blue diamonds on his face continued unbroken down his chest ...Since she seemed to like that. (3.2.18)

If one could drown in the grass, thought Elphie, it might be the best way to die. (4.1.2.22)

The Wizard too is a character strongly linked with water symbolism:

When the Witch realized what he was approaching, she tried to back out of the dream with a howl, but could not manage to disengage herself. This was the mythical ocean, and the Wizard walked into water. (5.11.35)

It seems that Elphaba experiences a perverse response to life-giving and baptismal water because of her unique position. Elphaba is a hybrid of two worlds and doesn't fully belong in either one or the other. Since Water really represents the "Other World" to Elphaba (with its "mythical sea"), it makes sense that she would react to it differently from anyone else in Oz (except for the other person who doesn't fully belong there: the Wizard). The three "foreigners" here – the Wizard, the Witch, and Dorothy – are arguably more important to Oz than anyone else. Water symbolism and imagery helps emphasize their anomalous statuses, especially Elphaba's.

Nessa's Shoes

First, we'd like to note that the shoes in Wicked are not ruby slippers. Instead they are described like this:

From a pile of ash shavings she withdrew a shoe, and then another. Were they silver? – or blue? – or now red? – lacquered with a candy shell brilliance of polish? It was hard to tell and it didn't matter; the effect was dazzling. (2.3.4.20)

Rubies are a slightly different animal in this book. Turtle Heart probably describes their symbolism best:

"To look in glass," said Turtle Heart, pointing to the roundel he had made as a toy for Elphaba, "is to see the future, in blood and rubies." (1.8.46)

If you are interested in reading more about rubies and blood, check our discussion of "Color" below. Here, though, we're interested in those sparkly shoes.

The shoes are the one thing the Witch wants above all else, both in the movie and the book, but Elphaba wants the shoes for slightly different reasons than her movie counterpart. And no, she doesn't turn into Carrie Bradshaw.

While the movie's shoes were symbols of power, the book's shoes are symbols of love, acceptance, and family. Above all else, Nessa's shoes represent Elphaba's need to be accepted, loved, and considered important, particularly to her father.

The shoes aren't just related to themes of family and acceptance, though. They also, as in the movie, represent power. Interestingly, though, that becomes more of an excuse for Elphaba to justify her obsession with getting the shoes from Dorothy:

Should she pursue Dorothy, should she snatch those shoes away – and what were her real motives? Was it to keep them out of the hands of the Wizard ... Or was it to snatch back some small shred of Frex's attention? (5.10.1)

Ultimately, Elphaba may turn the shoes into something more than they really are.

The Mirror

The mirror that Turtle Heart makes for Elphaba as a child helps to "illuminate" (pun intended) themes of sight and witnessing in this book. And themes of sight are also interestingly linked to childhood here.

As a child, Elphaba is captivated by the mirror. Aside from Turtle Heart, she is the only member of the family who can see things in it. What's more, these two characters can also fully understand what they are seeing. Looking into the mirror prompts Elphaba to say her first and favorite childhood word, "horrors":

She held it in two hands, and stared at it with one eye closed. She peered, she squinted; her open eye was distant and hollow. Reflection from the starlight off the water, thought Frex, hoped Frex, but he knew the bright vacant eye was not lit by starlight. (1.8.124-5)

As an adult, Elphaba not only loses her mirror, she also loses the ability to fully "see" as she did as a child. Instead she becomes ruthlessly practical, denying the existence of souls, other worlds, "Unnamed" and unseen gods, and occasionally magic itself. The adult Elphaba who has lost the mirror becomes blind in a sense, and she's aware of that fact. She often describes herself as not "visionary" (4.3.7.2) or as lacking in imagination or a sense of deeper meaning to things.

When Elphaba regains the mirror from the dwarf, she is only able to see the present in it. Again, her adult vision has been truncated. But it's notable that she gets the mirror back at a time in her life when she is revisited by people from her past, learns more about her family history from Nanny, and starts exploring memories from her youth. What sight she regains seems related to her regained access to her past and her youth.

But mirrors aren't just for seeing events and places; they are also for seeing the self:

"She thought: the Witch with her mirror. Who do we ever see but ourselves, and that's the curse." (5.11.21)

Ultimately, Turtle Heart's mirror represents the ability not just to see the world but to understand it, and to understand one's place in it.

The Familiars

Elphaba's familiars are like a bunch of pet-store rejects or characters in a Stephen King novel: a swarm of killer bees, a talking but taciturn monkey, some ominous crows, and an anti-social dog named Killjoy. Of course these are a Witch's familiars, so the creepy and weird factor is probably fitting. And the Witches in this book are definitely not of the Hermione Granger variety.

Elphaba's familiars demonstrate how appearances can be deceiving, which is a running theme throughout the book. All of these animals seem violent and mean, but they actually prove to be loyal, helpful, and even loving around Elphaba and her family. Elphaba definitely has a gift for dealing with animals, and it's no accident that her major political crusade involves animal (and Animal) rights.

The Grimmerie

The Grimmerie is a book of power, destruction, and mystery. We're never really sure exactly what it is or where it came from. Does its existence mean that magic exists in our own "Other World" as well as in Oz? Did Oz make the Grimmerie magical? Is the book inherently dangerous, or are the people using it the ones who are dangerous?

The Grimmerie is symbolically linked with the Wizard, and thus with themes of power and corruption. It's rather ironic that Elphaba uses the Wizard's book to conduct her experiments in genetic engineering. Ultimately, she uses the Grimmerie to play god, much as the Wizard wishes to. In fact, it's never fully explained why Elphaba, respecter of animal and Animal rights and dignity, conducts experiments on monkeys to make them fly. Her "speech therapy" sessions with Chistery aimed to prove he had a "spirit," but the flight experiments seem to have no such motive. However, the fact that Elphaba uses the Grimmerie for these experiments highlights its dangerous power and potential corruption.

The Clock of the Time Dragon

This is one messed-up clock. It doesn't actually tell time, it puts on semi-pornographic and riot-inducing shows, and it becomes the centerpiece of a very bizarre new religion: tiktokism, which seems to promote having a good time and using machinery.

So what is really going on with this wacky clock? Well, let's get a sense of what this thing looks like first.

It is nothing more than a tottering, freestanding theatre.... On the flat roof is a clockwork dragon, an invention of green painted leather, silvery claws, ruby jeweled eyes. Its skin is made of hundreds of overlapping discs of copper, bronze, and iron. (1.2.5)

The clock doesn't tell time; instead it tells people secrets from their past and present and predicts their future. Elphaba gets a private viewing of her very own life story with the clock and sees the legend of her namesake, the truth of her paternity, and a future shrouded in darkness. Oddly enough, the dwarf gives her back her mirror as a parting gift, perhaps suggesting that Elphaba should use it to divine her own future.

But while Elphaba's clock-told life story seems fairly accurate, the clock often exaggerates and even outright lies. It seems to demonstrate that people can't really be trusted to respond well to either truth or lies. And the clock is an interesting hybrid of many of the major themes (power, communication, fate, evil) and religions (the myth of the dragon that dreamed the world, tiktokism) in the book.

As a hybrid of themes and symbolic imagery, it's no wonder the book's other hybrid, Elphaba, is born inside the clock and likened to a young dragon during her childhood. If a dragon is lying beneath the earth, dreaming everything up (1.6.65), then perhaps Elphaba herself has more power to determine the shape of her world than even she realizes.

Color

It's fitting that color motifs play such a major role in the novel. After all, color is one of the hallmarks of the movie The Wizard of Oz. Who can forget the moment Dorothy steps out of her black and white world into the Technicolor explosion of Oz?

Movie Oz may be all about a rainbow, but the Oz of Wicked really emphasizes two colors: red and green. And not in a fun, Christmas way either.

Let's start with red. Turtle Heart probably best sums up what this color represents here, with his multiple references to blood, rubies, and the Wizard's red balloon in the first volume.

Red is the color of blood, greed, death, and power run amuck. It is also frequently associated with Nessa's shoes, even though the exact color of the shoes is indeterminate in the novel. The shoes are also described in terms of blood:

The surface of the shoes seemed to pulse with hundreds of reflections and refractions. In the firelight, it was like looking at boiling corpuscles of blood under a magnifying glass. (2.3.4.20)

These shoes are key to Elphaba's downfall in a way; her obsession with them drives her to do some crazy things. And the shoes also give Nessa a dangerous sense of self-importance and independence, which fuels her dictatorship in Munchkinland. Above all else, red is the color of a very dangerous kind of power and violence here.

Now for green, which is a bit more complex. If red is characterized by a series of synonyms (power, blood, greed, violence), then green is associated with a series of opposites.

Green is linked to both Elphaba and to Oz itself. We start hearing about the connections between Oz and green early on in the novel:

In the Oziad, a major mythical and religious text in Oz, we get this description: "Land of green abandon, land of endless leaf." (1.6.14)

We also have a series of important green objects that appear: the Miracle Elixir bottle, the Emerald City, the Clock of the Time Dragon, etc.

What's interesting is that green Elphaba is seen as an abnormality, a freak, an alien in the very "green" land of Oz. In a way, Elphaba is a more "of Oz," with her green skin, than anyone else in the book. And Elphaba is also associated with the green dragon who is dreaming up the world.

But Elphaba is definitely an oddity, someone who doesn't quite belong in Oz. What's interesting is that the Emerald City is depicted in the same way. It's a paradox: the city is sort of the centerpiece of Oz, but it's also seen as out of place and weird. (See Glinda's views on the Emerald City in the "Setting" Section). Elphaba and the Emerald City share an odd sort of symbiosis.

For all her singularity of complexion, it was astonishing how quickly she became camouflaged in the ragamuffin variety of street life in the Emerald City. (2.3.8.89)

It's also worth noting that the Wizard, Elphaba's biological father and the source of her strange hybridity, is most likely Irish, as we learn during Elphaba's dream sequence on (5.11.34). Ireland is of course known as the "Emerald Isle" and is tied to the color green. Green Elphaba got a double dose of the color, from Oz itself and from the "Other World" that she's tied to. Green may ultimately be both a color of belonging and of alienation.

Names

Juliet once said that a "rose by any other name would smell as sweet," which was a fancy-pants way of saying that she didn't care that Romeo was a Montague. In the world of Wicked, though, names really do matter.

Names and titles have a lot of symbolic power here: they define who people are and how they are perceived by others. They also symbolize the power of self-reinvention. We can really see this with the three major characters who undergo dramatic personal changes and have name changes to match: Galinda becomes Glinda, Elphaba becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, and Nessa becomes the Eminent Thropp/Witch of the East.

It's notable that characters both choose and are given names here. Galinda of course chooses to become Glinda, which is her way of representing the internal changes she undergoes after Dr. Dillamond's murder and Ama Clutch's slow decline and death.

Elphaba, on the other hand, is continually given names by other people: her resistance/terrorist cell calls her "Fae"; her family and friends call her Fabala and Elphie; Princess Nastoya declares her a "Witch"; the public at large grant her the moniker Wicked Witch of the West. Elphaba is thus defined and determined by the people around her, and she often accepts these names. Names and naming help demonstrate how Elphaba isn't always wholly in control of her own identity, which is rather fitting. After all, as the Wicked Witch of the West, she is almost more myth than reality.

In a 2008 interview, Maguire offered up an interesting thought on this motif and on the theme of evil in Wicked. He asks:

If everyone was always calling you a bad name, how much of that would you internalize? How much of that would you say, all right, go ahead, I'll be everything that you call me because I have no capacity to change your minds anyway so why bother. (source)