And Then There’s the Ugly Not-Stepmother:
A Mother and her Daughter in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

[Essay dated June 9, 2010] In this essay, L.M. discusses the lasting effects of a mother’s persona on her child.


Cinderella was never an underprivileged child. Her mother did not die before she ever got to meet her, although, growing up, she probably wishes she had never known her. Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Step Sister presents a mother shutting her daughter away from the world, and a submissive daughter who only ever follows what is set forth in front of her. The novel depicts Clara, the soon to be Cinderella, as a juvenile woman embracing the isolation that is set forth in front of her. But why must she embrace such a notion? Maguire shows the reader a young lady with loneliness thrown at her from a mother hanging power high above her head. Clara was never able to choose a life she wanted. She can only walk in the footsteps she was taught to follow, as a ghost.

Before any stepmothers, before any stepsisters, Clara van den Meer was a child isolated from all human contact because of her controlling mother, Henrika. The only moments she may make contact with the outside world is through an open window, but, alas, only for a moment. “[Clara] leans forward, peering down at Ruth’s face almost as if looking in a mirror. 'Thing,' says the girl, 'oh, thing, get away from here.' The onlookers watch warily. The girl’s mother calls- ‘Clara!’ And there is a flurry of action in the room. The girl is yanked back, the window slammed, the curtain closed” (Maguire 10). The author utilizes Ruth's face as a looking glass in order to show Clara's distorted perception of herself; she is the essence of beauty whilst Ruth is merely a "thing." Clara is a naturally an inquisitive child, wanting to reach out and grasp the world in her fingertips, yet, as soon as she gets the chance, she must be snatched away abruptly. Henrika feels no love toward her daughter but is only afraid that Clara might one day embrace ideas unlike those she gets at home. Henrika fears the world, so she continuously closes the curtains to keep Clara away from it.

Maguire uses the character of Clara’s mother as an icon of power and totalitarian rule over Clara. Henrika is a most upfront personality, preventing any bold personalities to erupt and overthrow her dictatorship within the van den Meer household. When she had married Cornelius van den Meer, her entire dowager was from her own grandfather, initiating the power that she presents in her home. There is even a portrait of her in the home to indicate her power, introduced when Iris first enters the van den Meer home; “One particularly, over a veneered hutch of some sort, shows a capable young woman in yellow and black silks. The way the skirts billow reminds Iris of a bumblebee” (69). Henrika is queen bee, even Iris, being new to this house, can see that. The contrasting details between the portrait show that everything in the house is lower and lesser in comparison to her.

Henrika is introduced when Iris, her mother, Margarethe, and her sister, Ruth, move into her home after their brief period of life with an impoverished painter across town. Within the blink of an eye, Henrika is already withering away, supposedly from childbirth. Later on, the reader finds she was poisoned by Margarethe. Maragrethe became aware that the two matriarchal figures could never coincide with each other under the same roof. Maragarethe sought to gain the power Henrika held in her home, so she took it away. Henrika is not present in the novel for an extensive amount of pages. Clara tried to look up to her mother, like daughters do, but it was difficult to do so when Henrika hoisted herself up so high. She was never there to teach Clara how to grow up, keeping her in a dangerous limbo between adolescence and adulthood.

Such a limbo will prove to have harsh ramifications upon Clara’s well being. After Henrika’s death, Clara becomes even more isolated from the outside world, shying away from all of society. Because of the stringent restrictions placed upon her by Margarethe (her new stepmother), she only finds comfort in cleaning. “‘…I’m the more secure in my kitchen. The more needed, the more private. Call me Cinderling,’ says Clara, standing up straighter behind her mask of ashes. ‘Call me Ashgirl, Cinderella, I don’t care. I am safe in the kitchen”’ (209-210). When speaking to her stepsister, Iris, in this statement, Clara has lost side of her identity and chooses to hide behind a smoky mask. The on-looker would only see a hazy figment of what was once Clara’s face. Furthermore, Maguire introduces Clara’s other identity name, Cinderella as symbol of Clara’s concealment, alluding to her crumbling persona. He uses a matter-of-fact tone to suggest this new “Cinderella” is here to stay.

The mother daughter relationship is a delicate balance between love and discipline. When love is absent, Clara proves tragedy will strike. As Iris had once told her ‘“You stand at the window and look up and down the street, but you can’t bring yourself to step a foot away from the door. You’re a coward’” (134). And Henrika has condemned her to this life of cowardice. Clara will fade into nothing because of her own mother.
L.M. 2010




Elphaba, Aelphaba, or L.F.B.?
The origin of names in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
[Essay dated June 10, 2010] In this essay, L.M. stresses the importance of character names to the character and the work as a whole.


‘That's why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it. As long as
people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from
convention’
(357).

Throughout literature, names become iconic symbols of characters, reflecting who they truly are. But only as the reader delves into the deep bowels of the plot may they notice such a connection. Gregory Maguire utilizes the power of character names to his advantage in his well acclaimed work, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Yackle, a mysterious magical creature seems to have full reign over the protagonist’s every move, yet their name contradicts such a character. Moreover, Elphaba, the most predominant character of the novel bares a name so intricately made that you could write an essay entirely devoted to the name. Man’s identity has a direct link to what they are called by, and Maguire’s world is no exception, but rather the epitome of this curious link.

Wicked tells the tale of The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of Elphaba Thropp and her journey to becoming the Wicked Witch of the West. She was born with green skin in Munchkinland. She will go on to attend the Shiz University where she meets Doctor Dillamond, a talking Goat whose life work is spent researching the differences between Animals (sentient animals like himself) and (animals like those we know). When he dies a mysterious death, Elphaba is triggered into continuing his research and becomes an advocate for Animal rights. After her years at Shiz, she disappears from the public eye, taking part in a radical groups attempt to overthrow the Ozian regime, only to have their plans thwarted by Fiyero a married prince whom Elphaba begins having an affair with. When he is killed for reasons kept from the reader, Elphaba falls into a deep depression and lives many years at a nunnery.

Several years later, the reader finds Elphaba with a young child Liir, whom she claims to have no relation to, yet it is found out that he is hers and Fiyero’s illegitimate child. She, dragging along Liir, sets out to Kiamo Ko, where Fiyero was prince, to give word of his death to his wife and children. Once at his castle, she lives out the rest of her days in the castle with Fiyero’s wife and six children, until she begins to explore a mysterious magic book called the Grimmerie. One night, after she enchants a broom to fly, she returns from her second flight only to find the rest of Fiyero’s family dead and Liir missing. On the flight, she finds that her sister was crushed by a house and a mysterious girl named Dorothy. When Dorothy travels to Elphaba’s castle to apologize for killing her sister, she accidently kills Elphaba by throwing water on her when she caught on fire by her broom.

Yackle, although not present throughout the vast majority of the novel, plays a crucial role in deciding Elphaba’s fate. Her name, however, states the exact opposite. To “yak” originally means “to meaningless chatter, incessant idle or gossipy talk,” as defined by Dictionary.com. This definition seems true in the beginning of the tale to the reader, however as the story progresses, the definition becomes a piece of irony. Yackle, in the long run, creates the monsters that are Elphaba and her sister. Maguire creates Yackle as a sketchy Godlike figure, overseeing the tragic tales of two girls. Furthermore, she never presents herself directly to Elphaba. She must piece together this crone through whispers of others and from books. By distancing herself from Elphaba, Yackle is made to be much more of a threat to Elphaba’s life.

The reader initially hears about Yackle when Nanny, Elphaba’s caretaker, searches for a supplement to prevent Melena, Elphaba’s mother, from giving birth to another child with green skin, as is what happened to Elphaba when she was born. Nanny runs into a gypsy woman by the name Yackle, who gives her the medicine but also recites a prophecy about Elphaba and her sister. Nanny regurgitates what Yackle had told her to Melena; ‘“Because Yackle predicted greatness for your children…She said history waits to be written, and this family has a part in it’” (59). What is most interesting to examine is what Nanny does not tell Melena; “Nanny didn’t mention that Yackle was certain the second child would be a girl too. There was too much chance Melena would try to abort her, and Yackle sounded quite sure that history belonged to two sisters, not a single girl” (59-60). Nanny believes so strongly in Yackle’s words that she feels obligated to protect the most crucial portions from the newborn child’s own mother.

The fact that this prophecy erupted at the same time and by the same person that is giving this mysterious potion to alter the new baby shows the subtle power Yackle has over the lives of Elphaba and her sister. Was it coincidence that Elphaba’s newborn sister, Nessarose, would be born as white as Elphaba is green? Or that Nessarose would be born without arms? The two sisters are now looked at by the rest of society as being intensely unique. If Elphaba had not been born green, Nanny would have never conversed with Yackle, which would have meant the two sisters having the chance of growing up with perfection. Instead, Nessarose becomes the hated dictator of Munchkinland while Elphaba manipulates herself into the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. As Yackle had predicted, the two sisters become two dark icons of the Land of Oz, dark, but great as well. What pops out of Yackle’s mouth may seem like “gossipy talk,” however she has proven herself to be the master of fates for these two sisters.

Elphaba is another name that raises eyebrows to the naked eye. But Maguire actually constructed the name using the initials of the author of The Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum, L.F.B. [407] This creates the first definitive sign of a link between Wicked and The Wizard of Oz. By distorting the initials into a name, Maguire also emphasizes the difference between the two works as well.

In the context of the novel, Wicked, however, Elphaba was named after Saint Aelphaba. Legend has it that Saint Aelphaba she only ever wanted to pray but she was the prey of men for her beauty. The pestered her so much for attention that she ran into the forest to hide. There she took off all her clothes hid in a cave behind a waterfall where she got to read scripture in peace while munching on grapes. Hundreds of years had passed, and many people had gone into the cave, but “…never had anyone seen Saint Aelphaba in her naked beauty. But all Saint Aelphaba had to do was open her mouth and speak the old speech, and they all knew it must be she, and they built a chapel in her honor” (281). So she performed good Christian deeds such as feeding the hungry and healing the sick, and then she took a big bunch of grapes and disappeared behind the waterfall again. That was the last anyone had seen of her.

The most crucial aspect of the legend is the religious background behind it. Elphaba’s father was a pastor and her sister was very religious as well, but never was Elphaba. She had gone through so many tragedies in her life that she could never bring herself to believe in God. Elphaba’s name had to be chosen by her father in hopes that she would grow up to act in righteousness. Elphaba does try to act in this way, becoming an advocate for Animal rights during her days at Shiz University. Soon enough, one thing leads to another and she becomes an extremist, working with a tight knit group of people planning on overthrowing the Ozian government and assassinating its ruler.

A common parallel, though, between Saint Aelphaba and Elphaba is their affinity for hiding away from society. Elphaba strived later in her life to only ever be left alone and live in solitude. She wanted so badly to be left alone that whenever she met people within her solitude, like Fiyero during her rebellion years, they would either get hurt or worse, die a cruel and tragic death. Fiyero had only come into Elphaba’s life because they fell in love with each other. Elphaba was fully aware of the dangers Fiyero put himself in by being a part of her life, but she mostly pushed that out of her mind. But that moment when she let her guard down to let Fiyero into her life was when he was taken by Oz’s secret police and presumably murdered. In contrast, when Saint Aelphaba had come out of the waterfall, she was able to helped people and was praised a saint. Elphaba is a fallen, broken version of the Saint.

Maguire spins a contemporary tragedy fraught with names foreshadowing fate, and labels leading to death. The character you read about becomes more than what they appear. The evidence of an author’s choice for character names is incontrovertible. The names portray pieces of persona shut away from even the character himself. Because in fairy tales, “In the life of a Witch, there is no after, in the ever after of a Witch there is no happily; in the story of a Witch, there is no afterward. Of that part that is beyond the life story, beyond the story of the life, there is-alas, or perhaps thank mercy-no telling” (406).
L.M. 2010