“Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?”: Reworking of Good and Evil and the Contextualization of Other in Wicked

No one mourns the wicked
No one cries “They won’t return!”
No one lays a lily on their grave
The good man scorns the wicked!
Through their lives, our children learn
What we miss, when we misbehave
And Goodness knows
The wicked’s lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The wicked die alone
It just shows when you’re wicked
You’re left only
On your own

“No One Mourns the Wicked” – Wicked

In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a children’s novel which is one of the best-known stories in American culture. Along with the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and the Lord of the Rings trilogy of J.R. Tolkien, the Oz series is one of the seminal fantasy series, as well. It has been adapted into both films and stage productions repeatedly throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but for the purposes of this paper, I intend to consider the latest incarnation and reworking, as it is arguably the most dramatic in its commentary both upon the original work and the society in which it operates. Thus, I shall be analyzing the reworking which happens to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Wicked, primarily through an examination of the marginalization and centralization of Dorothy and the Witch in each work. In considering these two works, I will also reference the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, as the journey from the first novel to the musical must allow for the changes imposed upon the text offered by these two intermediary works.

Wicked, both the novel and the musical, rework the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to tell them from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, named Elphaba (which Maguire took from Baum’s initials: L.F.B.) (Wikipedia, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”) Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West follows Baum’s plot from after Dorothy’s arrival fairly faithfully, and could be seen as a parallel novel in some ways—the two could exist within the same universe, just different perspectives. Wicked differs—in some places greatly—from the novel, though it addresses the same themes and concerns Maguire deals with in his novel. However, Wicked could also take place in the same world as both Baum’s novel. While it has several nods to the 1939 film, it also has some significant differences—a text speaking to the original text and to the film and its own origin novel. Most of the actual nods to the film are small in-joke references, however, as the musical seems to try to stay more faithful to the original story.[1] Telling parts of the story through music is something the film did, as well, of course, but Wicked espouses its philosophy mostly through song, with the dialogue being far less memorable than the music—indeed, while the non-musical scenes allow for greater context, one can follow the major themes and arc of the play through listening to the soundtrack alone. (See musical and video examples at the end of essay)

Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”  (Schwartz and Holzman, Act I “No One Mourns the Wicked”)

            In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is a child who is torn from her home and has to find a way back, while having magical adventures in a fairy-tale land. In order to do so, she is set a quest: either she or one of her party must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. No reason is given besides the Witch being wicked. There is no questioning of whether such a quest is moral or proper—it is just what must be done. Dorothy fulfils the quest unwittingly, when she throws a bucket of water on the Witch in anger and the Witch melts. Once this is accomplished, Dorothy goes on a few more adventures in trying to get home before discovering that she has had the power to go home at any time.

In the 1939 film, Dorothy has become a teenager, and by the end of the film, it is revealed that her whole experience in Oz is nothing but a dream. In many ways, her adventures in Oz are a psychoanalytical working out of the issues she has been attempting to resolve in her waking life. The characters that show up in Oz are representations of those she knows in her real life, with similar behaviors and quirks. Thus, as the Witch is the representation of Miss Gulch, Dorothy’s evil neighbor, Dorothy’s killing of her is something like wish-fulfillment and passive confrontation of a real life problem. The film becomes a story of Dorothy’s coming of age, and recognizing the worth of what she has at home, her fantasy that she must put aside and accept reality in order to enter into the adult world.

In Wicked, however, both novel and musical, Dorothy is almost a non-entity. In fact, most people just call her “the child” or “the Visitor.” Since it is the Witch’s story, this seems a reasonable take, but it turns out the Witch is far less focused on Dorothy than the earlier works (especially the film) indicated. Elphaba can’t even be bothered to remember her name, let alone see her as a real threat. She is a tool of the Wizard, nothing more. Wicked returns Dorothy to childhood and marginalizes her importance to the story. In giving context to the battle between the Wizard and Elphaba, Dorothy can be seen as nothing more than a pawn, unimportant except in the way that she acts as a catalyst.

Dorothy’s killing of the Witch, nominally one of the most important points of intersection between the two characters in each work, but is likewise altered through each work. Each presentation of the act calls into question its intentionality. In all four works, Dorothy accepts that for her to go home, the Witch must die. However, how this is accomplished—with a bucket of water—is different in context in each work. Interestingly, only in the original novel and the musical does Dorothy act with potential malice. In the original work, Dorothy throws the water at the Witch in anger after the Witch takes one of her shoes by trickery. In the 1939 film and Wicked the novel, Dorothy douses the Witch in an attempt to keep the Scarecrow and the Witch, respectively, from burning. In the musical, however, it is strongly implied that Dorothy acts with an instinct to kill.

The foundation is laid early in Act II that water will kill the Witch.[2] Capitalizing on this rumor, Elphaba and Fiyero (her love interest who has been turned into the Scarecrow) hatch a plan where Dorothy will “kill” her with the water, and she seems to melt. It is revealed at the end, however, that it was a trick, and her death was staged in order to get out of the untenable position she had been put into by her actions and war with the Wizard. Thus, while the musical does put Dorothy back into the childhood the 1939 film took her from, it also casts a doubtful light upon her innocence, since seemingly she did act with the intention to kill the Witch, something not even the original novel fully allowed for (Dorothy’s act was malicious, but in the way of a child throwing a temper, not a deliberate attempt of murder). Throughout Wicked, we have been asked to question the wickedness of Elphaba—now we must, too, question not only the goodness of the Wizard and Glinda, but of Dorothy herself. The question is difficult to answer, however, since she is such a marginalized character: In the musical, even her face is taken away, as well as her voice—she acts only as an agent of the Wizard, seen in silhouette and heard as a voice crying in the dark. (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II)

If Dorothy’s role in the story is altered and marginalized in the progression from the original novel to the musical, even more so is that of the Witch, but in reverse. In Baum’s novel, the Witch is a figure from a fairy tale. She is every witch who ever was, the thing that children are afraid of and warned will get them in the woods. She has no separate identity, no history, no personhood of her own.[3] Instead, she is solely the embodiment of an archetype. In fact, she has no real malicious intent toward Dorothy until she comes to kill her. At that point, she attacks, but arguably to defend herself. The 1939 film makes her a malicious force to be reckoned with all throughout. She promises to kill Dorothy upon their first meeting and continues on this quest until she meets her fateful end. This new personal maliciousness can be seen as Dorothy’s subconscious adaptation of Miss Gulch into the Witch—the harridan down the road certainly seems to have it in for the girl, so why shouldn’t the Witch? Her motives are still amorphous, though, making her an even more evil figure—she does all of this to get her sister’s shoes back, something petty and ridiculous. Even more, we are led to assume that she only wants them for the power they contain, not because of any sentimental attachment.

In Wicked, however, both novel and musical, we are given the other side of the story. We see Elphaba’s origins, and learn the secret behind them as her story unfolds and she, too, learns it. We see her evolution into the Witch, and her downfall. But what Maguire (and by extension, Schwartz and Holzman) does, throughout, is not just call a previously marginalized character to center stage—he questions the very nature of wickedness itself. Is a person wicked because of intention, or because of consequences? In the novel, much of what is attributed to Elphaba she does not even cause to happen. She has no notion of the forces of ill will truly rising around her. She is just living her life, fighting her battles, and trying to do the best she can in the world. In the musical, however, Elphaba does cause a lot of damage: she mutates the monkeys into winged creatures, she tries to help her sister but only ends in running the man she loves off, she tries to save Boq after Nessa attacks him with an ill-advised spell and ends up turning him into the Tin Man, she tries to save Fiyero from the Wizard’s guards and turns him into the Scarecrow. Her intentions in all of these things were good—but bad came of them (except perhaps saving Fiyero). She herself recognizes this and laments it in “No Good Deed.” (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II)

In the world of Wicked, Elphaba is a freedom fighter for animals, a civil rights worker abused and vilified by a corrupt dictator. Her war is with the Wizard and his tyrannical regime. Where the Witch was the tyrant in the original novel, the Wizard takes on that role in both versions of Wicked. He is running an oppressive regime bent on silencing the talking animals throughout Oz, turning them into second-class citizens with no rights, merely because they are not human. His reasoning is given in the musical: Oz was a divided place with factions all fighting amongst themselves when he arrived and “best way to bring people together… is to give them a common enemy.” (Schwartz and Holzman, Act I) He turns the Other into the enemy (an age old move for those in power) and when Elphaba takes up their cause, he casts her in that light, too. While she is not particularly popular, no one fears her before the Wizard tells them to do so, running a smear campaign against her that would make any politician today proud.

Instead of Dorothy coming of age as she did in the film, Wicked is the story of Elphaba coming of age, finding her voice, losing her way and finding it again. As in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Elphaba has no personal vendetta against Dorothy—although she does want her sister’s shoes back. But we are finally given the reason for that: the shoes were a gift from their father and Elphaba enchanted them to allow the handicapped Nessarose to be able to walk. (In Wicked, the novel, Glinda cast the spell, but the result was the same) Elphaba cares nothing for the shoes’ power, but for their sentimental value. Even so, she doesn’t set out to torment Dorothy to get them—she just fixates them when she captures Dorothy, who has come to kill her. In fact, most of her anger at that point is because she believes Fiyero to be dead, and she is having a bit of a breakdown due to guilt. Still, the ridiculousness of the shoes as a motive is pointed out twice by the musical. Upon discovering Dorothy has taken the shoes, Elphaba herself merely exclaims in disgust, “I mean, who steals a dead woman’s shoes? Must’ve been raised in a barn!” (but vows no vengeance, as in the film) (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II) Later, when trying to remonstrate with Elphaba, asking her to let Dorothy go, Glinda—who has never really grasped where her friend is coming from in her thinking—exclaims, “I mean come on, they’re just shoes. Let it go!” (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II)

Elphaba is a fallible character, but one who nevertheless elicits sympathy and support from the audience due to her passionate belief in justice and her selflessness in giving up what she wants to try and construct a world free from prejudice based upon outside differences. She is the socially awkward teenager we all have been. From the time of her birth, she is discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Neither of her parents wants anything to do with her. The students at her school find her repulsive just because of her color—none even take the time to get to know her until Glinda takes that step, followed by Fiyero. Her dream of meeting the Wizard is that he will be wise enough to see past the color of her skin—and to maybe use his power to “de-greenify” her (turn her white), so everyone else will stop seeing her as Other, as different, merely because of her skin color.

The cause she takes up instead, the one that keeps her firmly against the Wizard and causes her to forfeit her own dreams of being accepted by Oz through acceptance by him, is that of the Animals. The talking Animals of Oz are being silenced through discrimination of their own. In vilifying them as the threat the Ozians must band together against, the Wizard has begun a campaign against them—no animals are allowed to teach in schools, a preacher is divested of his flock and no longer allowed to preach, cages are appropriate to house them in. By being denied their voice in citizenship, denied their avenues of expression, the Others are truly being silenced—the institutional silence has become physical and the animals are forgetting how to speak all together, reverting to the dumb animals that populate other worlds. (Wicked, Act I, “Something Bad”) It is in order to silence Elphaba’s challenging of this campaign of the Wizard’s that he launches the campaign against her, silencing her by discrediting her, and eventually, seeking her death for speaking out.

In addition to the issues of race that run through both Elphaba’s and the Animal’s silencing, Elphaba faces discrimination due to her gender, as well, though this is far more overt in the novel than the musical. In the novel, and the previous works, as well, it is the women who hold the power (are able to truly use sorcery), but also the women who must be subservient. In the musical, much of this has been erased (the school is co-ed from the start, for instance), but reverberations of it remain. Elphaba and Glinda, both, can only find their influence and voices in relation to that of the Wizard. It is he they speak for, or against. He has no power of his own, so he must use theirs. When Elphaba strikes out against him, declaring herself independent of any need for his approval[4], she is declared to be “wicked” immediately.

The idea of fighting against the patriarchal society of the Wizard is made even more explicit with the revelation that Elphaba is the Wizard’s daughter—it is the blending of two worlds that gives her such power (our world and Oz). It is our world’s influence, then, that shapes this fantasy world in more than one way: through the advent of the Wizard’s arrival and his reordering of their society, through Elphaba’s power—which she draws from her mixed blood, and through Dorothy’s intervention as a pawn in their game—doing what no one in Oz could do—“killing” the Witch and exposing the Wizard. But though Elphaba never receives her “due long overdue” from the Ozians, her actions set in motion the events that change their world toward what will hopefully be a more democratic and equal society.[5] She declared herself against the Wizard—a powerful woman who must be silenced. The Wizard and Madame Morrible conjure up a cyclone that brings Dorothy to Oz and kills Nessarose. Elphaba gets through, finally, to Glinda when the Wizard’s soldiers attack the man they both love. Glinda sends the Wizard away and steps up to use her popularity to change Oz for the better (reinstituting the matriarchal leadership Oz had before the Wizard overthrew Ozma), while Elphaba escapes her notoriety and leaves Oz with the Scarecrow.

Glinda and the Ozians try very hard to hold on to the old paradigm of “good” – to enforce that those who leave it must be punished. “No One Mourns the Wicked,” the song which opens the performance, sets forth a philosophy all children are taught—the wicked in the world are punished and left alone, lamenting their life. This is the message we are taught by fairytales, the patter on which The Wonderful World of Oz is built. The message seems to be challenged, but in the end, it sustains itself, but switches who we see as wicked. While the Witch is redeemed, the Wizard and Madame Morrible are seen to be as wicked as they paint her. The Wizard is banished from Oz by Glinda, forced to live with the fact that he had his daughter murdered (or so he believes). Madame Morrible is sent to prison, stripped of her rank and position. In the meantime, it is Elphaba—who has been shown to be the moral compass in a world twisted up—who is publicly reviled, perhaps, but gets to live happily ever after. Therefore, the overarching lesson perhaps remains the same, but on our journey to it, we, like Fiyero, are forced to view the world through new eyes, “looking at it in a different way” (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II, “As Long As Your Mine”). In doing so, we are asked to question our assumptions about our own world, and moral relativity, and who is the hero and who is the villain is a question that perhaps does not seem as simple as it does in a fairy tale land.

Works Referenced

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Public Domain Books. 2006. Kindle.


Maguire, Gregory. Son of a Witch. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.
–. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. Book.

Schwartz, Stephen and Winnie Holzman. Wicked. Premiered New York: Gershwin Theater. 2003. Play.

“Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiked:_The_Life_and_Times_of_the_Wicked_Witch_of_the_West. Web.

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack
Haley, Frank Morgan, Billy Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin and the Munchkins. Metro-Goldwin-Meyer, 1939. Film.

Multimedia Examples

“No one Mourns the Wicked” – http://youtu.be/5Ydxks1bMEc

“Dancing Through Life” – http://youtu.be/YbjlVIrH-Sk

“Something Bad” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuPVRy1LwwE

“Thank Goodness” – http://youtu.be/-FLJl_lkoEo

“The Wizard and I” – http://youtu.be/KwETtH_wVXE

“No Good Deed” – http://youtu.be/e5iQ3hpG3-o

“As Long As You’re Mine” – http://youtu.be/wzhx-BYSfdI

[1] The two most notable references are the use of the first seven notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in “Defying Gravity,” and the exchange between Nessarose and Boq at the party at the Ozdust Ballroom:
Nessarose: What’s in the punch? Boq: Lemons and melons and pears. Nessarose: Oh, my! (Schwartz and Holzman, Act I – “Dancing Through Life”)

[2] “They say her soul is so unclean, pure water can melt her.” (Schwartz and Holzman, Act II, “Thank Goodness.”)

[3] Interestingly, Elphaba tries to claim this in the Wicked novel, saying to Fiyero, “I have no colleagues. I have no self. I never did, in fact, but that’s beside the point. I am just a muscular twitch in the larger organism” (Maguire, volume 3, chapter 7).

[4] “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game…I’m through accepting limits, because someone says they’re so…soon I’ll match them in renown.” (Wicked: The Musical, Act I, “Defying Gravity”)

[5] At least in the musical. Maguire’s second novel in the series, Son of a Witch, calls this into question as we learn Glinda instituted some changes for the better, then went off to collect miniature furniture for a while, growing bored with ruling, or maybe being deposed—no one knows for sure. (Son of a Witch,11)