Elphaba looked like something between an animal and an Animal, like something more than life but not quite Life. There was an expectancy but no intuition, what was it?—like a child who has never remembered having a dream being told to have sweet dreams. —Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West
This is the final post in my “Double Rainbow” guest blog series. I’ve had a great time with this guest blog, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading it. As part of wrapping up the series, I wanted to leave you with something fun. In the spirit of finding autists in popular fiction, I’m going to speculate about a character whom I almost included in my Valentine’s Day post, but who I ultimately decided to save until the end. I’m sure you’ve surmised who it is from the quotation above: I’m talking about Elphaba Thropp, as she appears in Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked.
Yep. I think the Wicked Witch is a little bit autistic.
For those unfamiliar with it, the novel has the tone and trajectory of a Greek tragedy. You go into it knowing that it can’t possibly end well—the protagonist is the Wicked Witch of the West, after all—but you’re not sure how you’re going to get to that final, fateful scene. (And for those who have seen the musical but haven’t read the novel, let’s just say that the book ends differently. But you know what I mean; odds are you’ve seen the MGM film.)
In the musical, Elphaba is characterized as a guarded nerd, but as she originally appears in Maguire’s novel she is distinctly odd. The first part of the book follows her early childhood, from the bizarre circumstances of her birth to the age of two. At an event I attended this past November for the release of Out of Oz, the final book in what became the Wicked Years series, Gregory Maguire said his original manuscript included a much longer account of Elphaba’s childhood, all the way through the age of twelve. (A not-so-subtle parallel of the childhood of Christ as portrayed in the Bible, by the author’s own admission.) I would be fascinated to see the rest of what Maguire originally wrote about Elphaba’s youth, but what made it into the book is enough to support my reading of Elphaba’s lifelong difference as “autistic” difference.
Elphaba starts as an unsettlingly quiet infant who doesn’t like to be touched or held. She grows into an intense and unsmiling toddler who “doesn’t respond like other children,” and she does not babble or speak a word until she is nearly two years old. In one passage, when she is given a small wooden bird to play with, she becomes preoccupied with its individual parts, snapping off its wings and trying to afix the eyes from her fish dinner to its head. This same aptitude for focusing on and reassembling components, coupled with her unconscious aptitude for magic (and perhaps, in Maguire’s Oz, those two traits are related) later allows her to create the infamous flying monkeys through a combination of magic and deft surgery.
As a young adult, Elphaba is something of a cross between Daria Morgendorffer and Luna Lovegood, with Mattie Ross’ stubbornness and precocious sensibility. She is whip-smart and sarcastic, but also withdrawn and weirdly fanciful. As portrayed during her college years, she sometimes says things that are just strange, rather than clever or insightful, like in one passage wherein she talks whimsically about turning her skin inside out in order to float up onto a rooftop. Like Luna, she just seems to have a different thought process than her peers. (And Elphaba’s speech patterns seem to echo the distinctive patterns of the witch portrayed by Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film.)
The “…not quite Life” passage that I quoted above has always nagged at me because for a long time I couldn’t quite understand it. About a quarter of the way through the book, Elphaba is briefly described from the perspective of her college roommate, Galinda (who later changes her name to the familiar “Glinda”). To Galinda’s eye, it is as though nature had not “done its full job with Elphaba, not quite having managed to make her enough like herself.”
Elphaba is written as a strong and fully-realized character, so it baffled and bothered me that she could be described as not “enough like herself.” What does that even mean? When considered in light of an understanding of how autism is perceived and constructed in a real-life context, the passage makes more sense. In the context of the story, the difference between animals and Animals is that Animals are gifted with the power of speech. It is not to too much of a stretch to connect the idea of being “between an animal and an Animal” to being between nonverbal and neurotypical. Language use is often conflated with sentience; the animal/Animal analogy shows us that from Galinda’s perspective, Elphaba does not seem quite like a fully self-aware being. In the real world, autists are frequently described as lacking intuition. We lack both the ability to decipher the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other people, and the “common sense” that represents some inherent understanding of how the world works. Without this fundamental understanding, Elphaba approaches both her interaction with Galinda and the world at large with an openness, an “expectancy,” and with the perplexity of “a child who has never remembered having a dream being told to have sweet dreams.” In a neurotypical-dominated society, the social intuition and “common sense” that autists lack are considered innate and essential human traits. From this perspective, an autist cannot possess full personhood–Life with a capital L, as opposed to mere life–even if, like Elphaba, she is a fully-realized and articulate individual.
For all of her intellect, Elphaba is consistently driven by an understanding of the world that is unyieldingly black-and-white. She has a tendency toward fixation and single-minded obsession, manifest in her dedication to Animal rights and, later, when she has begun to lose her mind, to obtaining her dead sister’s silver shoes. In her youth she is sometimes overly trusting and, most striking of all, she does not tell a single lie until she is nearly forty years old: “To the best of her recollection she had never lied before in her life.”
In this way Elphaba strangely resembles Christopher Boone, the protagonist and narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who muses, “I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.”
Of course Elphaba is never explicitly described as autistic—she inhabits a fantasy world in which no such label or construct exists. But as I have argued, in light of a real-world understanding of autism and its attendant tropes, Elphaba’s particular brand of strangeness might itself be termed “autistic.” And if one reads Elphaba as an autistic character, given her own ambiguous gender identity, the overall nature of Maguire’s Oz, and the strong implications that attend Elphaba’s close relationship with Glinda, I think it might be safe to consider Elphaba Thropp a queer autist.
So there you have it. Again, I hope that you have enjoyed reading this series, as I have enjoyed writing it. Autism remains a subject of cultural fascination, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. As long as it endures, someone will be there to interrogate its intersections. Hopefully those interrogations will continue to press forward until they find a voice in mainstream discourse. In the meantime, popular culture is still sustained by a web of stories. Even in the face of culture-wide marginalization and erasure, those of us on the spectrum can find ourselves in existing narratives and push back with stories of our own.