Introduction: It's hard to pin down the aspect of Gregory Maguire's Wicked that is likely to fascinate book clubs the most. Is it the detail with which the author reimagines L. Frank Baum's fantasy world of Oz? The care with which Maguire takes the classic work and uses it to explore modern issues like justice and equal rights, superficial notions of beauty and ugliness, ecological concerns and domestic violence? Or, perhaps, is it the sheer delight in watching an immensely gifted writer take a set of familiar characters and imbue them with an entirely new life.
Of course, it is the Wicked Witch of the West herself who dominates this time around: Elphaba, as she is called, is now the complicated centerpiece of a story that once seemed to belong to the relatively simple Dorothy. Brilliant, troubled, passionate, and powerful, Elphaba stands in marked contrast to the girl from Kansas, who, on the whole, takes a backseat to the natives of Oz in this version. Maguire's method with Elphaba's tale is to unpack the simple idea of a "wicked witch" and ask the question, How do you get to be "wicked"? The novel offers the possibility that what from one perspective is a simple case of villainy could be, from another point of view, a life that doesn't resolve into a simple set of "good" or "bad" actions. Book clubs will be particularly interested in following how, as a heroine, Elphaba is a strong, deeply modern woman, whose intelligence is both her great strength and a curse almost as powerful as her more fantastic features, emerald skin and monstrous teeth.
Beyond the issues of moral character raised by Elphaba's story, Wicked provides readers with a host of delights, some of which echo the original Oz books and some of which are completely original. Reading groups will find that Maguire's language, and particularly his facility for making the world of Oz both contemporary yet fairy tale–like, provides fertile grounds for conversation about just where the difference between the "fantastic" and the "realistic" can be drawn, a skill which may invite comparisons to writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.
Reading groups will perhaps find their greatest pleasure in discussing what Maguire has taken from the original book, and how he has altered or mutated Baum's world. Book clubs may even be interested in comparing the famed film version of The Wizard of Oz with the novel, to see what the author has borrowed from that source. In this sense Wicked is far more than a cleverly twisted tale about good and evil witches, Munchkin society, and talking animals — it is a book that shows how a children's story can become a larger myth for an entire society. Maguire invites us to think about how and why we read fantasy, what we take from it as children, and what we can see in it as adults. Wicked may be "updating" L. Frank Baum's original work, but it also reveals how the original remains so captivating to generations of readers, young and old. —Bill Tipper for Barnes & Noble Reviews
1. When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?
2. Gregory Maguire fashioned the name of Elphaba (pronounced EL-fa-ba) from the initials of the author of The Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum-L-F-B-Elphaba. Wicked derives some of its power from the popularity of its source material. Does meeting up with familiar characters and famous fictional situations require more patience and effort on the part of the reader, or less?
3. Wicked flips the Oz we knew from the classic movie on its head. To what extent does Maguire's vision of Oz contradict the Oz we're familiar with? How have Dorothy and the other characters changed or remained the same? Has Wicked changed your conception of the original? If so, how?
4. The novel opens with a scene in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and theTin Woodman gossiping about her. She's "possessed by demons," they say. "She was castrated at birth...she was an abused child...she's a dangerous tyrant." How does this scene set the stage for the story, and what themes does it introduce?
5. What is the significance of Elphaba's green skin? What are the rewards of being so different, and what are the drawbacks? In Oz — and in the real world — what are the meanings associated with the color green, and are any of them pertinent to Elphaba's character?
6. One of Wicked's key themes is the nature and roots of evil. What are the theories that Maguire sets out? Is Elphaba evil? Are her actions evil? Is there such a thing as evil, a free-floating power in the universe like time or gravity? Or is evil an attribute of the actions of human beings? (Hint: Turn to pages 231 and 370 for scenes that will draw you into the conversation.)
7. Discuss the importance of the Clock of the Time Dragon. Does the Clock simply reflect events, or does it shape them? Why is it significant that Elphaba was born inside it? That Turtle Heart was killed by it? What revelations does it offer to Elphaba and the reader when she reencounters it at the end of the book?
8. The first section of the book ends powerfully but enigmatically when the young Elphaba is discovered under the dock, cradled in the paws of a magical beast as if sitting on a throne. How do you interpret this scene, and what do you think it foretells, if anything?
9. The place of Animals in society is an important theme in Wicked. Why does Elphaba make it her mission to fight for Animal rights? How else does social class define Oz, and why?
10. [Galinda] reasoned that because she was beautiful she was significant, though what she signified, and to whom, was not clear to her yet" (page 65). Discuss the transformation of Galinda, shallow Shiz student, to Glinda the Good Witch. How does she change — and by how much? What is her eventual "significance," both in Oz and in the story?
11. Discuss the ways in which Elphaba's determination and willfulness lend purpose and order to her life, and the cost of being such a strong character. Elphaba isn't the only strong female character in Wicked. How do Nessarose, Glinda, and Sarima deal with the issues of power and control? Where do each of them draw strength from? Is the world of Maguire's Oz more or less patriarchal than millennial America?
12. Wicked is an epic story, built along the lines of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, in which the seeds of Elphaba's destiny are all sown early in the novel. How much of Elphaba's career is predestined, and how much choice does she have? Do you think that she was no more than a puppet of the Wizard or Madame Morrible, as she fears?
13. Early in their unlikely friendship, Galinda catches a glimpse of Elphaba and thinks she "looked like something between an animal and an Animal, like something more than life but not quite Life" (pages 78-79). Discuss the dual, and sometimes contradictory, nature of Elphaba's character. Why does Elphaba insist that she doesn't have a soul?
14. Who or what is Yackle? Where does she appear in the story, and what role does she serve in Elphaba's life? Is she good or evil — both or neither?
15. Was Elphaba's story essentially a tragedy or a triumph? Did she fail at every major endeavor, and thus fail at life; or because she refused to give up or change to suit the opinions of others, was her life a success? Is there a possibility that Dorothy's "baptismal splash" redeemed Elphaba on her deathbed, or was this the final indignity in a life of miserable mistakes?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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