by Gregory Maguire
A friend recommended this book to me and, based upon his enthusiasm, I decided to try it. My grading: an A- for narrative art, but a D+ for shallowness and failure to deliver on the promised meaning.
Maguire writes well. His characters come to life. He keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next. Some of the silliness of his imagined country and its denizens may be due to L. Frank Baum's ordering of the Oz milieu, so maybe Maguire isn't responsible for some of the bizarre and distracting tastes and customs represented in his characters. In any case, he kept my interest, despite my displeasure at the book's deeper levels (or lack thereof), all the way to the end. So, imagine what he could do if he really had anything to say!
The author, of course, says that he has a lot to say, especially on the topic of evil. In the dedication, he writes, Finally, a word of gratitude to the friends with whom I nattered on about evil over the past couple of years . . . So it would seem that behind the story-for-story's sake, he's actually trying to communicate something he has perceived about the nature of evil.
Just quite what that perception is, is never quite clear. Is the "Witch" actually wicked, or just assigned that character by a society which marginalizes her? Elphaba (the "Witch") seems to be someone whom society never appreciates. This would seem to suggest that Nurture, rather than Nature -- or at least, social assignment by dominant groups -- has much to do with what evil "is." But then, the Wizard's wickedness is taken for granted, yet we see him as just as marginalized by his birth society as Elphaba. Her vision of our world in which the Wizard is an impotent failure, defeated by a sign saying NO IRISH NEED APPLY, would seem to indicate that he is no more evil than she is. Yet he calmly commits atrocities.
So, is it only the choices they have made that differentiate the Witch from the Wizard? What choices has she made? She is responsible, agnostic, scientific, cares for the rights of animals (and Animals) to the point of pursuing violent political activity, and loyally supports her father and sister. Her foils are irresponsible, religious fanatics, anti-scientific know-nothings, accept the oppression of Animals and are otherwise politically docile, and out for themselves only. Obviously she is meant to engage our sympathy. But have her foils been painted fairly?
All the religious characters in the book are crazy, manipulative, and/or sexually perverted. This is especially true of "unionism," an apparent calque on Protestant Christianity. Elphaba's agnosticism seems sane and moral only because all the alternatives are disgusting. Her intellectual pursuits are seen as worthy because everybody else is a fool. Her politics is shown with more nuance; one guesses that Maguire really understands the ambiguities of politics a lot more than he understands the ambiguities of moral theology.
Is Elphaba a martyr of sorts? Hardly. Though she is presented as almost the only "good" and "reasonable" person in the story, she ends up refusing to see Dorothy as "good" and "reasonable" for trivial reasons. The most enlightened character in the book ends her life as an example of pig-headedness. So is she a tragic figure? But what was her tragic flaw? The inability to give and accept forgiveness? This theme is introduced too late in the book to be seen as indicative of her character throughout. Is she actually wicked, or made wicked in the course of her experiences? It would not appear so. Thematically, the novel is a mess, a sophomoric morality tale enshrining the morals of a perpetual sophomore.
If you want to see this sort of thing done really well, I'd recommend The Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt. He sends his protagonists through an amazing kaleidoscope of corrupt religious hierarchies, fanatical secret cults, revolutionary political movements, betrayals and so on. Each one is faithfully sketched as believable temptations/opportunities for the young and confused witch and her lover. Loyalties are turned inside out, leaps of faith are required but with no assurances given. Every new movement or leader promises Final Deliverance; some are debunked, but others we aren't so sure about. In the end, we're pretty sure what evil is, but we're not really sure what goodness is; after all, while evil often wears a mask, sometimes good does, too.
But then, Pratt is a person of real depth, as well as an excellent author. If Maguire grows up some, he might be able to write that kind of story, too; after all, he has the talent. But I'll bet he grows satisfied (and rich) churning out books like Wicked, without realizing that "settling" is the greatest of temptations for a writer.