I first read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked when I was in college, working on my master’s degree and wanting to take a break from the reading I’d been doing for classes. A classmate recommended the Maguire book, and I thought it sounded fascinating, so I picked it up.
And it was engrossing–a politically charged story full of magic, powerful women, and terrible consequences.
Nessarose is the Wicked Witch of the East, or the wicked witch who will be squashed by Dorothy’s Flying House. In L. Frank Baum’s original books, and in the adaptations of The Wizard of Oz up to this point, the Wicked Witch of the East only came into the story at her time of death. But this was something different.
This was a tale of young Elphaba, who would grow to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and her half-sister. It was how they came to be Wicked.
Nessarose is Elpahba’s younger sibling; she is beautiful. Those around her treat her very delicately due to her elfin looks and her disability (in the novel, she is born without arms due to medicine her mother takes to prevent having another green-skinned baby; in the stage-show, she is in a wheelchair). Her sister is often made to wait upon her, and she is lavished with attention by her father, who sees her as a symbol of the love between himself, his late wife, and their lover, Turtle Heart, but who also believes Nessarose’s disability to be a judgement for his wife’s infidelities.
Nessarose grows quite spoiled, vain, and over-pious from all of the petting and waiting upon her, and this grows worse when she is enrolled to study magic at an early age. Before she leaves, she is given a parting gift from her father—a pair of beautiful shoes with chameleon qualities, shoes more beautiful and intricate than anything he has ever given Elphaba, who was unceremoniously sent away to the same school the prior year. (Later in their lives, Glinda–or Elphaba, in the musical–fixes them for Nessarose, and the magic she uses allows Nessarose to walk unaided.)
Nessarose begins to work her way into Elphaba’s group of friends, and she becomes especially close to Glinda. When Elphaba disappears and the girls’ father dies, Nessa is tasked with ruling the Munchkins. She becomes Eminent Thropp, the ruler of the Munchkin people, and she secedes the land from Oz, making it a sovereign nation.
As ruler of the Munchkin people, Nessarose makes a lot of unpopular decisions. She uses sorcery to enforce many of her policies—and it is she who makes Nick Chopper (Boq, in the musical) into the Tin Woodman. She earns the title Wicked Witch of the East during her reign, a moniker from the Munchkin people she rules.
And, though Nessarose swears allegiance to a newer faith, she allows many ancient, ritualistic religious practices to continue in Munchkinland. Indeed, though she herself at one point opposes sorcery for religious reasons, she finds herself using a lot of magic.
And those shoes. For Elphaba, the shoes are a symbol of the neglect she felt, for the ways that her father always loved Nessarose best. For those in the kingdom, the shoes suggest magic and political power.
While not quite as sympathetic as her sister (who is, after all, the hero of the story), Nessarose Thropp is not a despicable character. She is not remorseless; she is not horrific. She is beautiful and tragic, and if she is sometimes cruel, it isn’t difficult to forgive her.
For Nessa, like many others, the monstrosity–and the wickedness–lies in the observer.