62 pages 2 hours read

Gregory Maguire

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

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) by Gregory Maguire reimagines the central antagonist of the iconic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in 1900 by author L. Frank Baum and became central to American popular culture through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland. Allusions to the original story recur throughout film, television, and novels. Decades later, expressions like “we’re not in Kansas anymore” or “somewhere over the rainbow” live on, as do prominent symbols like the Yellow Brick Road and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. In Wicked, Maguire adapts these symbols and stories to give voice to the original’s stock villain, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. In humanizing this antagonist, Maguire questions the stark binary between good and evil. His retelling constructs a magical topsy-turvy world that parallels the socioeconomic and political themes of his contemporary reader’s society. Part revisionist history, part social critical analysis, Wicked employs various literary devices to develop a narrative that transports readers to a setting that is both fantastical and all-too human.

Maguire’s interpretation of Baum’s classic was adapted into a sensationally popular Broadway musical called Wicked in 2003. As of 2017, it was the second-highest-grossing musical in Broadway history. Its success in America lead to numerous productions across the globe, firmly placing Maguire’s story in the popular imagination of audiences worldwide.

Plot Summary

Wicked begins in Munchkinland, a region of Oz composed of farmers and peasants. Melena, a pregnant woman from the upper echelons of society, lives in the countryside with her husband Frex, a minister. Frex is called into town to investigate the Clock of the Time Dragon, an enormous traveling mechanism controlled that wreaks havoc by putting on puppet plays that depict the various sins and scandals of the townspeople. Frex’s interference angers the town, and Melena, who is in labor, must flee their home to avoid an angry mob.

The midwives help evacuate Melena to a cemetery, where the clock has been stored for safekeeping. There, she gives birth to a baby girl with green skin and sharp teeth. The girl, named Elphaba, grows up isolated from other children, hidden away while Frex leaves to fast for weeks at a time. Melena resents Elphaba but finds comfort in the arrival of a passing stranger named Turtle Heart. She begins an affair with Turtle Heart that leads to another child, Nessarose, who is born beautiful but without arms. When Turtle Heart is killed, Frex and Melena move their family to Quadling Country, where Turtle Heart is from. Their family is completed by the arrival of a son, Shell, but Melena dies in childbirth.

Years later, Elphaba moves to attend college at Shiz. She has grown into an intelligent young woman with a passion for politics who has learned to ignore people’s judgments of her. At Shiz, she meets several other characters, including her roommate, Galinda; her controlling and dismissive headmistress, Madame Morrible; her mentor, Doctor Dillamond; and her friend, Boq.

Galinda is a beautiful young woman from a respectable family. At first, Galinda is ashamed of Elphaba, but they soon forge a friendship in which they push each other to think, wonder, and experience the world. Elphaba sneaks out of their dorm to assist Doctor Dillamond, who is an Animal (an individual with mind of a human in the body of an animal), with his experiments and to spend time with Boq. Galinda and her closest girlfriends form a social circle with Elphaba, Boq, and new arrival Fiyero. Their circle widens with the arrival of Nessarose, Elphaba’s younger sister. However, their lives are changed when Doctor Dillamond is murdered, likely by Madame Morrible’s tiktok (a contraption that essentially acts as her spy). Galinda changes her name to Glinda out of respect for Doctor Dillamond.

Madame Morrible offers Nessarose, Elphaba, and Glinda a mission: All three young women have the potential to grow into powerful women, and Madame Morrible is tasked with molding them into agents for the Wizard, who rules over Oz. Suspicious of Madame Morrible, Elphaba and Glinda travel to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard themselves. He is a terrifying, despotic specimen of lights and smoke. Elphaba decides to stay in the Emerald City to advocate for Doctor Dillamond’s Animal Rights findings, while Glinda returns to Shiz to fulfill Madame Morrible’s plan.

Years later, Fiyero, who is married and has three children, travels to the Emerald City for work. He recognizes Elphaba on the street, then follows her to her apartment and forces her to acknowledge him. Although reluctant to rekindle their friendship, Elphaba is lonely and agrees to meet with Fiyero from time to time. They fall in love and begin a passionate affair, but Fiyero is worried for Elphaba. She lives in a wretched room and works for some secret organization whose mission is to kill the Wizard. Fiyero secretly follows Elphaba on one of her missions. When her plan is foiled, Fiyero returns to her room to wait for her, but he is attacked by the Wizard’s forces and brutally killed. Elphaba, in a fit of heartbreak and terror, finds sanctuary in a convent with a nun named Yackle.

Many years later, Elphaba leaves the convent with a little boy named Liir. Her goal is to travel to Fiyero’s homeland and apologize to his widow, Samira. On her way there, she saves a baby snow monkey, names him Chistery, and tries to teach him language. Samira is welcoming but refuses to hear Elphaba’s story about Fiyero. She invites Elphaba, Chistery, and Liir to move in with her family. Liir has a difficult time fitting in with the other kids, and everyone is curious about Elphaba’s relationship to Liir. The children gossip that she is a witch. Elphaba’s only token from the convent is a broom that Yackle inexplicably gave to her. Elphaba begins to embrace her new witchy label when she finds a mysterious book of spells called the Grimmerie in Samira’s library. Elphaba is surprised when her childhood nanny shows up at Samira’s door looking for Elphaba. Nanny moves in and takes care of Liir and Elphaba.

One day, one of Samira’s sons convinces Liir to hide in a well. Liir goes missing for a long time, and when the adults finally find him, he appears dead. Elphaba revives him, and when he awakes, he reports that the fish in the well told him that Fiyero is his father. Nanny asks Elphaba if Liir is her son, but Elphaba is unsure because her first year at the convent was a blur of deep melancholy. In retaliation for Liir’s near-death experience, Elphaba kills Samira’s son by dropping an icicle on his head.

After the death of her brother, Samira’s daughter Nor is playing outside when she encounters a group of soldiers. She invites them back home, and against Elphaba’s objections, the soldiers move in. Oz has become fraught with civil wars and paramilitary battles, and Animals have been completely reduced to inhuman life. In this political climate, Elphaba doesn’t trust that these soldiers are simply looking for hospitality. When Nor borrows Elphaba’s broom to clean the soldiers’ quarters, she discovers that the broom can fly. Elphaba learns how to control the broom and flies to her family’s estate, where Nessarose is now the most powerful woman in Munchkinland.

Elphaba’s family is happy to see her, but Frex worries that Nessarose is not a good leader because she is too devoted to her religious advisors. He asks Elphaba to help her, but she refuses. When Elphaba returns to Samira’s home, Nanny says the soldiers took the family away in chains. Elphaba spends years trying to find out what happened to Samira and her family under an increasingly dangerous political climate.

A tornado rips through Oz and brings with it a house from a distant land. The house crashes on Nessarose, killing her immediately. A girl named Dorothy and her dog Toto are inside the house, and the people of Oz are immediately taken by her charm and innocence. They fantasize that Dorothy is the reincarnation of the Ozma Regent, who was deposed by the Wizard many decades before. Glinda, who has become a powerful sorceress, shows up at the scene. She gives Dorothy Nessarose’s sparkly red shoes and sends her to the Emerald City for help.

When Elphaba visits her father to deal with her sister’s untimely death, she and Glinda are reunited for the first time in years. At first, they are happy to see each other, but Elphaba is enraged upon learning that Glinda gave the shoes to Dorothy. Elphaba worries the Wizard will use these magic shoes to control Munchkinland. At Nessa’s funeral, an emissary from the Wizard approaches Elphaba to set up a meeting.

Elphaba meets the Wizard again, this time in his true form as a diminutive man. Elphaba asks about Samira’s family. He reveals they were executed, all except for Nor, who is chained and dehumanized as a slave to the Wizard. He tells Elphaba that he is a stranger from outside Oz who came to Oz for the Grimmerie. Elphaba proposing exchanging the Grimmerie for Nor’s freedom, but the Wizard doesn’t trust that Elphaba won’t try to retrieve Nessa’s slippers and become all-powerful in Munchkinland.

Elphaba travels around for more information on Dorothy. She runs into her old friend Boq, who has met Dorothy. He reveals that Madame Morrible is still alive, so Elphaba goes to Shiz and murders her. She returns home to continue her work: Elphaba has trained her animals and Animals as her familiars. When she hears that Dorothy has been tasked with killing her, she sets her familiars after Dorothy and her travel companions.

Dorothy’s new friends the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man all want something from the Wizard. If they kill the Wicked Witch of the West, as Elphaba is called, then the Wizard will grant their wishes and send Dorothy home. Elphaba’s familiars are killed in the struggle with Dorothy and her friends. Elphaba sends Chistery to collect Dorothy and the Lion. When they show up, Dorothy is apologetic about Nessa’s death and insists the shoes are stuck on her feet due to Glinda’s spell. While Dorothy begs for her understanding, Elphaba accidentally sets her own clothes on fire. Dorothy tries to help her by dousing the flames with a bucket of water, but Elphaba has always been allergic to water. She dies in Dorothy’s arms.

Oz celebrates the death of the witch, but when it is revealed that Elphaba was the Wizard’s daughter, he gives up on his life in Oz. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West become legendary, while Elphaba is lost to history.