Study Guide

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Memory and the Past

By Gregory Maguire

Memory and the Past

Elphaba the girl does not know how to see her father as a broken man. All she knows is that he passes his brokenness on to her. Daily his habits of loathing and self-loathing cripple her. Daily she loves him back because she knows no other way. (5.11.31)

There's a major style shift that occurs when Elphaba is having her flashbacks/Miracle Elixir-induced visions. In this passage, we shift to the present tense, which is a little jarring, since the event being described here occurred years earlier.

She didn't mention (and she never had) how depressed Melena became when Elphaba was born. There was no point.

Elphie listened to all this, impatient and annoyed. On the one hand she wanted to throw it out the window: The past was immaterial. On the other, things fell into a slightly different order now. (4.3.2.50-51)

Nanny and Elphaba both unknowingly share a similar view of the past here: the past is past and has no bearing on the present. We wonder, though, if Elphaba would have the same attitude if Nanny actually spilled the beans about Melena's postpartum (after giving birth) depression.

"Melena hated her life at Colwen Grounds, you know. That's why she contrived to fall in love with Frex and get out of there." . . .

"She always talked about it so lovingly!" said Elphaba, astounded.

"Oh, everything is gorgeous once it's gone." (4.3.2.37-9)

We love that last sentence. It's classic Nanny, smart (even profound) idea spoken in a very offhand way. And it also introduces a cool theme: the idea of romanticizing the past. We see Elphaba do this during her reunion with Boq, when she waxes nostalgic about their exciting college days and complains about what middle-aged losers they have become.

"I was in no state to know what was happening to me, and I spent about a year in a deathly sleep. It's just possible I brought a child to term and delivered it. ... I have no motherly warmth toward the boy" – she gulped, in case this was no longer true – "and I don't feel as if I've ever gone through the experience of bearing a child." (4.3.1.35)

Elphaba raises a really interesting point in this somewhat soap opera-ish (or Kill Bill Vol. I) plot twist. For her, it seems that being a mother is tied to certain necessary memories and experiences.

Life outside the cloister seemed to cloud up with such particularity – the shape of her seven years past was already being crowded out. All that undifferentiated time, washing terra-cotta floors without dipping her hands in the bucket – it took hours to do a single room, but no floor was ever cleaner. (4.1.1.20)

The descriptions of Elphaba's time in a nunnery are really powerful, especially the idea of "undifferentiated time." For seven years of her life, time pretty much came to a halt.

But surely evil was beyond proof, just as the Kumbric Witch was beyond the grasp of knowable history? (4.1.1.50)

This idea of "knowable history" basically sums up Wicked, which constantly asks the question: how much can we really know a person?

How quickly you could be thrown back to the terrible uncertainty of your youth! (5.3.63)

This idea of returning to youth, and its accompanying uncertainty, affects both Elphaba and Glinda in their middle age. These women certainly couldn't be more different on the outside, but they share a lot of important traits.

They had too much common history to come apart over a pair of shoes, yet the shoes were planted between them, a grotesque icon of their differences. Neither one could retreat, or move forward. (5.3.101)

It's interesting that Glinda and Elphaba's common history is referenced here, given that they really didn't spend all that long in each other's company – just a few years out of a lifetime. But history here could refer more to significant experiences than length of time.

Those times are over and gone, and good riddance to them. We were hopelessly high-spirited. Now we're the thick-waisted generation, dragging our children behind us and carrying our parents on our backs. We're in charge, while the figures who used to command our respect are wasting away. (5.5.36)

Boq would make a super spokesperson for the AARP. Unlike Elphaba, he doesn't seem to miss his youthful days, even if he isn't exactly thrilled with being middle aged either, as his rather negative word choices demonstrate ("dragging," "carrying," "wasting").

To the best of her recollection she had never lied before in her life. (5.6.15)

This sentence is pretty clever. Elphaba may not have told a lie to another person, but she's certainly lied to herself over the years, or at least been in severe denial. (Just think of Liir.)

Or was she only glorifying herself in hindsight?

If it was the same Lion, grown up timid and unnatural, it should have no bone to pick with her. She had saved it when it was young. Hadn't she? (5.14.10-11)

Elphaba starts asking herself more and more questions as the novel progresses. This helps demonstrate her increasingly tense and uncertain state of mind.

"That's a question for the future," said Nanny sensibly. "I'm asking you about the past. The recent past. Since your marriage."

But Melena's face was vague and blurry. She nodded, she shrugged, she rocked her head." (1.4.73-4)

The contrast between the two women here is really evident on a stylistic level. The "sensible" Nanny speaks in clear, brief sentences. Melena, on the other hand, is described with longer sentences that include short, choppy clauses and very evocative descriptions and actions.

To the pleasure faithers, with tiktok affections, it was the sound of clockworks uncoiling their spring and running down at a terrible speed. It was the release of vengeful energy.

To the essentialists, it seemed as if the world had suddenly found itself too crammed with life, with ...atoms shuddering and juggernauting their casings.

To the superstitious it was the collapsing of time....

In short: a tornado. (5.1.4-9)

The summary of reactions to the tornado places a huge emphasis on themes of time and memory. Every group here connects the tornado to time, whether it's clocks, time collapsing, or atoms exploding. The mention of atoms and energy also suggests an atomic bomb, which helps emphasize what a calamity this tornado was in Oz.