Teaching Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: Fate and Free Will, Determinism and Destiny

There are probably a lot of reasons why Wicked was my favorite book to read with my students during my Reading the Monster course.  This assertion may be surprising, on the one hand, because Wicked doesn’t fall under the traditional “horror” umbrella like many other texts on the syllabus.  And, as is obvious from reading this blog, I’m an avid fan and proponent of what might be called, more specifically, “art-horror”—the creation of fictional horrific events, morphed into cinematic and literary experiences.  Conversely, there’s so much imagination, and so much problematization (a la fiction) packed into Wicked, that Gregory Maguire’s book provides plenty of fodder for speculation, discussion, and debate, even as it delights, challenges, and entertains—all on a fairly consistent basis. What’s more—and this may be a far from ancillary point—I taught Wicked after my dreaded comprehensive examination was (more or less) over, so I had more time to put toward lesson planning and making the text particularly engaging to students.  The emerging result, for me, was a stronger interest in a text that I already enjoyed, but that I didn’t fully appreciate until reading a second time.

                I don’t think it needs to be stated that Wicked is a biography of The Wicked Witch of the West.  Given the omnipresent popularity of the theatrical rendition of the story, most people know at least the plot basics.  And I don’t think, really, that I’m necessarily going to say anything in this post that hasn’t been said about the text.  I did a little bit of research while I was making my lesson plans, and various incidents and instances have already been unpacked by critics.  Along those lines, students taught me a few things I didn’t know.  So I guess what I’m aiming for in this piece—insofar as it’s helpful to state my aim up front—is kind of a personal reflection on how the novel affects me, what it’s like to teach the novel, and what, I think, the novel can teach us.  I’m not necessarily aiming for new insights, because I feel I’m reaching too high by doing so.  But, I’m aiming for personal meditation.

                And I think the meditation is going to focus largely on what I wish I would have emphasized more with my students – not what I didn’t emphasize, but what I wish I would have highlighted with more insistence.  For a long time, after all—and perhaps I wouldn’t have gone into this detail with my students—I’ve been a little torn, as a human being, about how powerful and consequential our choices ultimately are, how capable we are of shaping our own destinies.  Oh, I know the popular answer is “very,” but for myself it’s a little bit complicated.  Things were first complicated when I started believing in a Higher Power and learned a lot of pleasant dictums about that God: everything happens for a reason, everything has a purpose, God has a plan, God knows best—you know, that stuff.  I won’t say I completely disregard this advice now, but it’s become a lot less salient to me in my daily life.  The idea that God has more say in my own destiny than I do is kind of a belief that I shelf and pull out of the rubble when I’m desperate and need consolation about something that particularly worries me.  As a recovering alcoholic who struggles with Bi-Polar Disorder (and who’s been diagnosed, in the present or past, with Depression, Schizoaffective Disorder, ADD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and anxiety issues, if not anxiety disorder per se), sometimes my only line of recourse is to put a situation in a Higher Power’s hands, lest I capitulate, sleep all day, eat too much (which I do, sometimes, anyway), or worse.  In any case, ever since this turn to spirituality, I’ve been somewhat puzzled by the tension of free will vs. fate.  How can there possibly be a reason for everything?  Look around; how can God be in complete control?  And yet, sometimes I have to give up control, regardless. 

                I imagine if you look up book notes online to accompany Wicked, you’ll see “free will vs. fate” as an important theme or tension.  After all, Elphaba grows up in what Sean Ferrier Watson calls a “classist dictatorship” – a characterization of Oz that, based on Wicked’s contents – I find quite apt and helpful when considering the ebb and flow of the plot line.  She is marked as the inherent “other” (a concept we covered extensively in class) when she’s born green, and with unusually sharp teeth and a feisty personality, but her otherization is magnified and complicated by her existence in a society that, much like (fascist) dictatorships of the past, is essentially trying to suppress, oppress, even annihilate perceived difference.  Elphaba, as a green-skinned woman, faces more personal-life segregation than she does legalized segregation, but the land of Oz is trying to legalize segregation for certain populations.  Elphaba devotes her life to (even gives up any semblance of a normal life for) the fight for “Animal” rights (with a capital ‘A’) – the rights of Animals that look like animals but have, otherwise, completely human characteristics, a group being systematically marginalized and oppressed by the Wizard.  How much power she ultimately has to shape her own fate in this dictatorship, when the options seem to be acquiescence to the Wizard’s mandates or social exclusion, is, to me, a pivotal question in the novel.  If Oprah Winfrey famously declares: “Choice after choice you make leads you to the place you’re in today” how do we apply this maxim to Elphaba, whose life becomes a hopeless sort of catch-22 situation?

Along with making me think of spiritual questions, to that end, Wicked makes me question how much free will we have simply by virtue of the material conditions of our lives.  And I approached this question with students – during one class period, we looked at the characteristics of a dictatorship and matched them with facts about Oz’s sociopolitical structure—but I don’t know that I mined the inquiry with as much depth and persistence as I would if I were to teach the unit again.  In a country that still revels in metanarratives like entrepreneurship, the American Dream, and the at least partially-mythic cliché of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, it can be unsettling to consider that free will may be, in some ways, an illusory construct. 

This postulation has always interested me in light of studying literary criticism: many theoretical schools (Marxism comes to mind the most) see our existence as almost a sole byproduct of our material circumstances.  I ponder this possibility frequently.  How has my place as a woman in a patriarchal society affected my life?  How is that life affected by my middle-class status in a capitalist economic system?  How would it further be affected if I had grown up poor?  We know, after all, that “ascending” from one class to another (lower to middle, middle to upper) is an illusion that we have in America; sociologists have proven how difficult, even rare, it is for individuals to change social classes in their lifetimes.  And yet, our choices do matter.  They have to, on some level, or else what’s the point?  Why not just spend our time, as my sophomore year philosophy professor stated “floating drunk in a bath?”  He was a professor of ethical theory; why study ethical theory at all, if human choice ultimately makes not much difference?  Why challenge ourselves?  Why stretch ourselves, if our fate is pre-determined, by God, by materialism, by any forces beyond our control—if our options, effort, and conviction all add up to very little?  Certainly, we have some power to shape our lives.  And more certainly, still, I don’t want to emphasize human powerlessness to my students; it’s not a motivating message for a group of people beginning their adult lives. 

In Wicked, The Clock of the Time Dragon portends peoples’ fates.  Elphaba gets drunk one night and stumbles home after murdering Madame Morrible and attending an unusual dinner party, only to see a dwarf who guards the clock show her the story of her life and her birth.  As the dwarf makes a few comments about fate, Elphaba questions, aloud, whether she was always doomed in life; whether she ever really had control of her destiny.  It seems, on the one hand, that she made a series of decisions that lead to her status as the quote-unquote Wicked Witch of the West: Her political affiliations, including her decision to attempt assassination earlier in life, left her a vulnerable outcast.  Her affair with Fiyero, coupled with those political affiliations, results in Fiyero’s death and leaves her guilty and shamed in front of Fiyero’s wife Sarima, for whom she ultimately voyages across Oz to make her apology.  Perhaps killing Madame Morrible – who is practically dead by the time Elphaba gets to her –further seals her fate, makes her more indifferent toward human life, more erratic in her gestures and behaviors.  All of these acts are, of course, Elphaba’s choices.  And yet, being born green affected her.  Being third, always, to Shell and Nessarose (her brother and sister) affected her.  Having an alcoholic, pill-popping mother who died young and couldn’t love her affected her.  Being outcasted at the University before she made friends affected her.  Her maltreatment by but ultimate friendship with Glinda/Galinda affected her.  Her upbringing in Quadling Country and her lower-class status at Shiz University affected her.  Her passion for Animal rights and her conviction to change things affected her.  We may imagine that she could have taken a different path, but it’s hard to imagine what that path would have been, not just because of her past, but because of the limited options available to her.  Despite all her hardships in life, her ultimate decision is to battle the status quo and fight the classist patriarchy that is the Wizard, no matter the consequences.  But, as the book indicates, those consequences turn out to be, in many ways, highly detrimental to her image, and perhaps to her interior personhood as well.      

Maguire is clearly interested in how we construct “evil.”  After Elphaba kills Madame Morrible, she visits an old nemesis, Avaric, who she’s sure will tell people about her crime, but he’s indifferent.  He invites her to the aforementioned drunken dinner party where the guests muse about the nature of “evil,” about what evil is and what it means (ultimately—although this word is never used) to be Wicked.  But it’s hard to extract anything like “pure” philosophy from political context when reading Wicked, and we may be left wondering, by the end of the book, less about whether or not it’s possible to become “evil” and more about whether or not it’s possible to become anything but what the forces that be dictate for us.  Certainly, I stumbled upon this question a little late in my reading, and, as I mentioned before, I think I would unpack words like “fate” and “free will” more carefully with my students if I taught the text again.  Wicked, ultimately, is a rich text that can be studied from a variety of lenses.  But one of those lenses is certainly a socio-political examination of how free we are in a society that sings the beauty of freedom but often keeps us stifled, contained, confined—a life that leaves us, often, flailing rebelliously in our so-called rightful places.          

Teaching Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: Fate and Free Will, Determinism and Destiny

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