Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (1995)

I remember going to see Wicked the play when I was about middle-school age. I had no idea what it was about, but I absolutely loved it. I’d heard that the book was more cringe-worthy, but a few months ago I got curious and decided to check it out from the library.

This would be a two thumbs down.

The story follows, well, the life and times of the Wicked witch of the west from The Wizard of Oz. The book dives into the witch Elphaba’s parents, childhood, education, activism, and journey to becoming the wicked witch of the west. The Wizard has overthrown the previous ruler of Oz and begun a military state that exploits the Animals (sentient animals) of Oz for some reason not really explicitly stated. Elphaba is one of the only liberal people in Oz and decides to protest/be a terrorist against him, but that ends up getting her friends killed. Later, she exiles herself to the Vinkus (a chiefdom land out west) to try and earn forgiveness but simply ends up leading the Vinkus in its leader’s absence. Finally, Dorothy comes to Oz, the witch hates her, and then Dorothy accidentally kills the witch while trying to put out a fire in her cloak. The book is meant to explore what evil is and what makes a person evil.

Entertainment: 2/5

Intellect: 1/5

Overall: 3/10

2 STARS

I normally have a “What I liked” and a “What I disliked” section in these posts, but I honestly can’t think of anything I liked from this book. So I guess let’s just go over the things I especially did not like (in ascending order of dislike):

World-building:

Wicked the novel is high fantasy, which means it takes place in a separate land with separate races, cultures, and history. You would think that this would be at least mildly interesting. There’s the Munchkinlanders, the Animals, the Vinkus chiefdoms… Greg spends a lot of time delving into these histories and customs, but for some reason it just doesn’t hit home. It feels like he’s adding in names just to add in names, making maps just to make maps, creating customs just to look like he’s creative. I don’t think I was ever interested in any of the cultures he created, so the time spent describing them was just extremely boring and off-putting.

Tone:

This was the main issue that lowered my entertainment levels while reading. It felt like I was reading a comedy from hundreds of years ago in a foreign country, because something about the way the characters spoke and reacted to different social situations just did not register for me. Things that I would think would offend a character greatly turned out to be no big deal. Things that I couldn’t care less about meant the world to these characters.

Yet you never found out what the characters thought in the moment. The story is very eye-in-the-sky. Inner monologue is basically nonexistent. While characters are having a conversation, I never know anyone’s motivations or reactions to anything. It doesn’t help that the tone is incredibly neutral: the narrator never shows any sort of hope, disgust, happiness, or shock at what’s happening in the story. This, combined with the characters’ unusual way of talking and the lack of inner monologue makes it seem like I’m reading a courtroom transcript from a lost culture with completely different mores.

What confuses me is why I hate this book so much but love A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) so much–but I think it has to do with the tonal reasons I listed above and the thematic reasons I’ve listed below. Wicked seems to be going for the exact same adult tone and world depiction as GoT: the characters screw, slaughter, curse, manipulate, and corrupt just as frequently in both books. But in Wicked, it seems like that’s all just for shock value, whereas in GoT it comes across as an authentic representation of middle-age English culture. In GoT, it feels like every sex scene advances the plot or character development, whereas in Wicked it feels like it’s explicit just to raise eyebrows and get attention. Even the parts that are thematically related, such as the treatment of Animals (ex. young Cows being slaughtered for veal) reads more like an Ayn Rand rant than a real depiction of how people would feel and act under those circumstances.

The theme:

I’m pretty sure this is the first book I’ve given a 1/5 in intellect since starting this blog, which is quite a feat. All books I read start off at 3/5 in both categories, and either gain or lose points depending on their content. To go below a 3/5 in intellect, a book has to be explicitly poisoning peoples’ minds or somehow making them less aware of human nature/social issues. And I do worry that people who’ve read this book are worse off for it.

The theme is one we’re all familiar with: bad guy is actually good guy, but bad guy’s actions are portrayed incorrectly. Though it’s not quite that simple in Wicked, you get the gist. Elphaba makes some questionable decisions but in the end wants to do good and be a good person. Meanwhile the Wizard (who in the original book is a fraud but not outright evil) in Wicked is depriving Animals of their rights and eventually gets people to use them as stock animals–selling them as property and killing them for food.

But while the theme itself is a little worn out, that’s not my issue here. My issue here is how poorly the book handles the theme. First off, let’s talk about the Wizard’s motivations for enslaving the Animals…none. If he has one, it’s never stated. He’s already in power, no one is ever shown to be pressuring him to do it or lobby him in favor of it. He has literally no reason to do it. If the book is asking us to question the nature of evil by viewing the true intentions of the wicked witch of the west, it just pushes that unquestioning evil onto the Wizard instead. In the original book, the witch was evil because because. In this book, the Wizard is evil because because.

Then, of course, the book takes an incredibly realist approach to morality and the nature of good/evil. Moral realism is the assumption that there is an absolute good and bad, whether that’s defined by God or capital-N Nature or capital-U Universe. Instead of being a concept that humans invented, it’s something that’s absolute, like the idea of a soul or of deities. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, takes a moral anti-realism approach: “good” and “bad” aren’t objective terms, they’re terms that we invented because they’re useful. There isn’t a right answer. It’s not even a gray area somewhere in the middle: asking “what does it mean to be evil?” is like asking “what do dragons really look like?” While useful, it’s a made-up concept.

The book has a grand total of two explicit conversations about the nature of evil, which is bad enough. But both of those conversations propose childlike suggestions, along the lines of “Maybe people are born evil!” or “I bet being evil is the lack of having a soul.”

I feel dumber for having read this book. I normally wouldn’t be so upset about it, but at the very back of my copy was a list of discussion questions. Those discussion questions seemed to imply that this book was meant to be taught in a classroom. I sincerely hope, with all of my heart, that no school district is exposing students to this and expecting them to work within its framework of “what is evil?” It would be like having students read some of Lamarck’s old publications on his theory of evolution: out of touch with modern tone and pointing people in the exact wrong direction.

Overall:

I do not recommend this book. I’m tempted to say that I would slap this book out of your hand before you can read it, but I’m sure you’ll be so bored by the end of part one that I won’t need to. I don’t believe in objective quality in art, so you’re allowed to enjoy this book if you want to (obviously other people did, if this got made into a musical). But if you’re on the fence and asking for my advice, my advice is a hard pass.

The musical, entertainment-wise is quite charming. I don’t remember its intellect being this delusional, but I don’t remember it being inspirational, either. But, at the very least with the musical, the songs are amazingly catchy.

One small instance where the book was not better.


One thought on “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (1995)

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s