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Monday, April 26, 2010

Wicked the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Discussion


by Gregory Maguire

genre: Fantasy

Nothing is ever what it seems, and stories told are never truly accurate - only vaguely true from one point of view, and most importantly evil is perhaps only as evil as perceived goodness.

As though reading from some lost journals of the family Thropp from which came the famed Wicked Witch of the West and consequently also the Wicked Witch of the East, we are taken deep into their personal lives to see a whole history we never knew from the stories we are so familiar with. We are not taken to the account of Dorothy landing in Oz until the very end because this story is not about Dorothy, it is about a young green girl in search of truth and right and unwittingly a soul.

Born to a promiscuous mother, devoutly crazy father, Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch) grew up as an outcast. Her green skin, strange looks and intense allergy of water sets her so far apart that she becomes the quintessential goth girl of Oz. Sent off to boarding school she sees a life even more confusing and frustrating than the one she endured as her father's example of the consequences of evil to his converts. In her fervor to champion the rights of others, she begins a journey of searching for the nature of evil only to find that evil and good can easily become entangled, and life in pursuit of higher righteousness in whatever form (proselytizing, terrorism against tyranny, or living martyrdom) only produces sorrow. In the end, she seeks forgiveness and finds that this one thing withheld from her, is the one thing that will be her undoing, or from another perspective, it became her salvation.

I found this book so much more meaty that I had ever expected. I was enthralled and repulsed simultaneously by my anticipation of suffering. Even when I thought the book had maybe traversed the passages that scared me, I would turn a corner into another phase of nervous reading. Politically charged with themes of evil, good, individual rights and causes, it forces me to question everything I thought I knew. Is a person fighting for the right cause still good if they choose a path of destruction endangering innocent lives? If we don't agree with their path, does that necessarily make them evil though their intent is right? Is a person devout of faith truly good if they use their faith to raise themselves above others? Are they wrong to think that way even if they might be better than the people around them? Is a person asking for forgiveness truly deserving of it simply because they had enough sense, humility or goodness to ask for it? Would forgiveness truly set that person free if they had been granted it?

I believe the greatest asset of this book toward raising these questions is to highlight that they are truly unanswerable. Sure we have a set idea of right and wrong. Sure we think we could point and say no, that was wrong. But the issue itself has a multitude of angles leading to it that result in a multitude of answers leading away from it. How do you know which of these to choose? The consequences of the choice you make might still turn out as damaging as any other choice. Most pointedly proving this is the way that Elphaba who has fought for right in every way she thought she could, turns completely to rash and harmful, even murderous actions very quickly when she feels cornered.

A quote from page 357 best sums it up, "People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us...It's people who claim that they're good, or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of."

ADDED:  I've been thinking about this review and the book for a few days and I wanted to add some thoughts.  First, it isn't so much that the evil acts in the book are difficult to define as evil, because they are most assuredly that.  It is though that the people behind the acts are not so black and white which is I think the part that is surprising.  In the sense that we can have a tendency to look at someone who has done something terrible and not be able to see that they are not the embodiment of the act they committed.  It doesn't make their actions or culpability any less, but it does point out how easy it is to fall into those actions if we are not careful.  Or how easy it is to judge others without background information.


Clowncar said...

What I really loved about this book - and it's been awhile since I read it - was that you'd be going along, enjoying the story, and suddenly be reminded of Nazi Germany, or of religious fundamentalism, or slavery, and it would just stop you in your tracks. To have these bone-chilling reactions embedded in the middle of a children's fantasy is such a delicious juxtaposition. Maybe it's a gimmick, but it is a very good one.

Gordo said...

I have a confession: I haven't read it. Yet. I will, I promise.

meno said...

I loved Wicked for taking a simple, simple story, and giving us something that makes me go, "yes, THAT'S much more plausible."

I've read the two sequels too, 'Son of a Witch' and 'A Lion Among Men.'

I just love his writing for the little pithy phrases sprinkled throughout, like the one you quoted, that made me stop and admire their truth.

de said...

I'm feeling terribly guilty for not commenting, even to say that it's been too long and I can't remember anything other than that I loved the book. I was infatuated with Elphaba. I 've had the second book lying around the house for years, but haven't gotten to it.