In 1995, Gregory Maguire published Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a novel in which he set out to tell the story we do not get in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, or any of the movie adaptations that followed. When I read the novel two years later, I was forever changed. That may sound cliché, but it’s true. I recommended the book to everyone I knew. I told my family that if I ever went back to school to get my Master’s in English, that I would find a way to write about this book. In 2008, I graduated with my Master’s; the subject of my thesis was Wicked. Many may wonder how such a popular piece of fiction could lend itself to scholarly study. This novel is more than a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. It’s about how we as a society treat the “others” around us. Those who are different. Those who don’t hold the same religious or political beliefs as us. Those who don’t look like us. And anyone who watches or reads the news knows that this “othering” happens countless times a day.
In his study of fairy tales and subversion, Jack Zipes notes, “The reutilized talesfunction against conformation to the standard socialization process and are meant tofunction for a different, more emancipatory society which can be gleaned from the redirected socialization process symbolized in the new tales” (Fairy Tales 60). Fairy tales had come to be used as a way to socialize children and teach them their proper roles in society. But according to Zipes, later authors, such as Dickens, Wilde, and Baum, came to believe that these tales too often repressed children and society, and they began to write alternatives that questioned these standards. In Maguire’s novel, there is an overwhelming sense that the need to free society from its comfortable, stereotyped ideas is essential for its survival. The problem, however, is that stereotyping and othering are so embedded in society that we cannot really escape it. Ralph Ellison notes in his introduction to Invisible Man, that literary works enable us to tell “the truth while actually telling a ‘lie’” (Ellison xxii). Though we are more likely to find truths in novels that take place in our world, can we reconcile the idea of finding truth in a fairy tale? It is, after all, a fantasy. Yet somehow we cling to the story and characters that Baum brought us, so there must be something in fantasy to which we can relate. Bruno Bettelheim notes that as fairy tales are told and become more refined with each telling, “they came to convey at the same time overt and covert meanings – came to speak simultaneously to all levels of the human personality, communicating in a manner which reaches the uneducated mind of the child as well as that of the sophisticated adult” (6-7). Even though they are fantasy, fairy tales speak to us on a deep, psychological level, regardless of our age.
Religious, political, and racial/cultural othering is ever-present in our world, and always has been. Marie-Louise von Franz notes, “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expressions of collective unconscious psychic processes” (Interpretation 1).If fairy tales express our unconscious psychic processes, including how we see others and express our fears, then finding different types of otherness in Wicked is not a surprise. As Maguire tells the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, he also gives us a look into human nature, especially our need to define our own identities at the expense of those who are not like us. We do not really know much about the Wicked Witch from Baum’s original story. We are told she is wicked, but in the end she does not seem any worse than the Wizard himself. She is certainly made out to be much more evil in the film, chasing Dorothy and her friends around Oz and threatening to kill them. Maguire’s version of the story gives us a very different impression of the witch. Wicked gives us Elphaba’s origins, including her family life, her passions, her mistakes, and eventually her death. But what we learn about Elphaba makes her a sympathetic character, and instead of cheering her death, we find ourselves mourning her.
Borrowing from Jung’s idea of the Shadow and Self, we can see in Wicked just how easy it is to vilify someone who embodies those things which we fear or don’t understand. We don’t need to look far in our everyday lives to see the same tendencies. One look at the days headlines is enough to illustrate Jung’s theory. Obama is called a socialist because he wants all Americans to have access to health care. Democrats are threatened and harassed for voting to pass the health bill. Political extremists in this country are calling for rebellion and, apparently in some cases, threats of violence against lawmakers and their families. We are a scared country right now. Our economy is a mess. Our education system is in ruins. In a culture where rumors get more airtime than the truth, we are stuck in a culture of fear and blameshifting. If anyone took the time to understand what true socialism was about, they wouldn’t be using it as an expletive.
As a country, we have lost our identity, and we are flailing around in the dark, desperate to find anything, anyone to blame. When we can’t trust what we read and see, how do we define ourselves? We are too used to defining ourselves by who we are NOT and have no idea what to do when faced with a crisis of self. The country is having an identity crisis and we don’t know how to handle it. This is why Wicked is relevant to our times. It’s why Wicked will always be relevant. We will always be facing an identity crisis because we know no other way to define ourselves. We’ve stopped listening to our inner selves. We rely too much on others to tell us who we are, what we should believe. We must break this cycle. We must define ourselves, based on who we are, what we believe to be true in our hearts. We must take the time to educate ourselves on the issues we face and not take at face value anything, especially what we get from the media. We must seek out multiple perspectives. We must accept that we have all have a dark side, a shadow, and that it’s ok. Because it is only when we recognize our Shadow and come to terms with it that we can truly be free of the othering that plagues our society.
Some of the content above is adapted from my thesis, “EVERY OTHER WITCH IS JUST A SHADOW” : CONFRONTING THE SHADOW AND OTHER IN GREGORY MAGUIRE’S WICKED
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.
von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.
—. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.