Any website that deals with Kansas on a regular basis would be woefully deficient if it did not mention The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that classic children’s book by L. Frank Baum.
Is Oz an Allegory?
The notion that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might be allegorical is common. Most experts vary widely, however, in their opinions of just what the allegory is about.
You may be surprised at the number of theories.
Probably the most common interpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is as a political allegory, even though this theory did not originate until the 1960s. Baum is frequently alleged to have had Populist sympathies, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might be seen as a hidden history of the Populist movement. The book was set in Kansas, the cradle of Populism, and Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm was in a plight stereotypical in that time and place.
In this theory, simple, innocent Dorthy could be the average American, seeking her way in the world. The Scarecrow represents farmers (noble but lacking in brains), the Tin Man represents factory workers (having lost his heart and had his limbs replaced with metal), and the Cowardly Lion represents reformers such as William Jennings Bryan (nerveless; note that Lion and Bryan rhyme). The Wizard himself could be any of the Gilded Age presidents, using deception to manipulate affairs to his own profit. The Wicked Witch of the East stands for corrupt East Coast financiers. Faithful Toto got his name from the word teetotaler since many Populists supported prohibition; in fact, when he first sets out with Dorothy for the Emerald City, it was noted that he was “trotting along soberly.”
The perilous Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, while Dorothy’s silver slippers (not ruby-red as in the movie) represent free coinage of silver and its amazing powers to improve the situation. The dangerous poppy field where the Lion fell asleep might be the anti-imperialism that threatened to distract William Jennings Bryan from the all-important silver issue. The name Oz came from the Populist slogan “16 to 1,” meaning 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce (oz.) of gold. The Emerald City itself is an illusion maintained by greenback dollars.
Even the tornado is symbolic, representing the way Populism took Kansas by storm.
Another school of thought views The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as more of a reflection on everyday life in modern America, and not just the Populist aspects of that era. The Emerald City might represent the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, or it might simply represent urbanization in general. After all, everyone seemed to be headed to the city in both the book and in real life.
Each of the regions in the Oz books is represented by its own distinctive color:
- Blue for the land of the East; blue is connected with blue-collar jobs in America.
- Red for the land of the South, just like the red dirt of the American South.
- Yellow for the land of the West, like the yellow gold of California.
- Green for the Emerald City; green is also associated with greenbacks and thus American currency, which in turn is connected with Washington D.C.
The evil witches of the East and West may be associated with the corruption that prevented American progress, such as Eastern industrialism and capitalism and Western railroads and oil barons. Or perhaps the Wicked Witch of the West stood for an even more powerful enemy—drought. After all, she melted down into a brown mass like mud when touched by water.
The Yellow Winkies, kept as slaves by the Wicked Witch of the West might be Chinese immigrants in California forced to work in harsh conditions. The Witch’s other slaves, the Winged Monkeys, might be the Native Americans, as they too were once free but became pawns in the hands of other powers.
As for the Wizard himself, he has been said to represent Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park. Or perhaps he represented the clockwork animals put on display in store windows to attract fascinated customers. In that day, many Americans did not realize that the figures were automated—they suspected that the animals were operated by a man behind a curtain.
The Wizard of Oz can even be said to contain parallels to the philosophies of Freemasons. The three pillars of Masonry are said to be Wisdom, Beauty, and Strength, represented by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, respectively. These three friends are met as Dorothy travels down the Yellow Brick Road, her inner spiritual journey.
Likewise, to the East and the West live the two bad witches. Note that East and West form a horizontal plane on a compass rose, representing the evil material dimension. The two good witches live to the North and South, which form a vertical plane representing the good spiritual dimension.
One psychological viewpoint equates Kansas with Dorothy’s outer world, Oz with her inner world, and the Yellow Brick Road as her journey toward recognizing and living out her unique identity. Along the way, Dorothy must resolve her inner conflicts, like that between the Wizard and the Witch.
Also, proponents of the psychological explanation like to point out that the story honors the inner child.
The theosophical viewpoint proposes that The Wizard of Oz is a tale of spiritual growth. The story begins with a spinning tornado, representing a cycle of reincarnation. Dorothy next finds herself on the Yellow Brick Road—the golden path to enlightenment.
In theosophy, thinking, feeling, and call to action are important pieces of completeness as a human being. This could be represented by the teamwork of the Scarecrow (brain), the Tin Man (heart), and the Lion (ego).
The four friends meet up with a Wizard (a religious guru) who sends them off on an errand before he gives them the power to return home. Through this process, Dorothy learns to draw on her inner resources and solve her own problems through positive thinking, as exemplified by the cheerful tone of the story. At long last, Dorothy finds out that to return to Kansas she must use the silver shoes, representing the “silver cord” connecting the physical body with the spiritual. She wakes up to find herself back home (Nirvana).
Religious allegories were common in Baum’s time, and some feel that Baum may have written such a work, perhaps without even realizing it. Those who think that his classic work is a religious allegory equate the Emerald City with heaven. The Yellow Brick Road is the Way, the straight and narrow, so to speak. As long as Dorothy stays on the Yellow Brick Road, she is guaranteed to reach her destination.
An alternative religious allegory suggests that The Wizard of Oz actually teaches contentment. Dorothy’s Kansas world is gray, so dreary and hopeless that it is said Toto alone keeps her from growing gray like Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. The child then dreams about a bright, magical fairy region, only to discover that there are challenges even in her new dream world. In the end, she wants nothing more than to return home, where her loved ones live.
Meet the Man Behind the Curtain
So are any of these theories true? One of the best ways to find out is to know a little bit about the author himself.
As a child, Baum was a bit of a dreamer. He loved to read, play, and imagine, more so than most of his peers. He spent considerable time out in the fields of upstate New York, where his father raised crops and tobacco. A scarecrow was placed in the field to protect the grain, and this seemed to fascinate Baum in a rather terrifying way. At night, he would dream that the scarecrow was pursuing him; but always, just as it was about to grab him by the neck, it crumbled apart before his eyes.
By the time Baum was about 12 years old, he was already fretting at the strict Methodism practiced by his parents. His father and mother feared for his lack of discipline. They sent him to the Peekskill Military Academy for two years. He then transferred to the Syracuse Classical School, but never graduated. Baum eventually joined the secular theosophical movement.
After marrying a pragmatic suffragette named Maud Gage in 1882, Baum began to dream of having a daughter, whom he longed to name Dorothy. This wish never came to be, but the couple were still delighted with the births of their four boys. Baum told them fanciful stories from an early age.
Baum first visited Kansas in the early 1880s as an actor, his bride accompanying him. The couple visited both Topeka and Lawrence, a far cry from the flat, gray prairie scene described in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Nevertheless, the scenery did not impress Maud Baum, and she wrote to her relatives emphatically stating how much she hated Kansas.
While it is commonly asserted that Baum was a Populist, this is actually not true. He marched in a torchlight parade for William Jennings Bryan, but he also supported the progressive Republican William McKinley. A few lines from one of his original poems went:
Our merchants won’t be trembling
At the silverites’ dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!
However, Baum’s true political beliefs are somewhat hard to get at due to his deadpan humor. He once delivered a speech supporting a Republican candidate, then gave the same speech to support a Democratic candidate the very next day. A friend observed, “Everything he said had to be taken with at least a half-pound of salt.”
Baum became a writer through the influence of his mother-in-law. He loved nothing better than to create elaborate stories for the benefit of children. During the 1890s, Baum worked as a traveling salesman, peddling fine china. While he was on the road, he would invent new characters in his head; upon his return, he would tell his sons and their young friends all about them, usually in deadpan style. His mother-in-law realized that Baum could make a good children’s author, and, also being a practical-minded woman, told him that he would be a fool not to write down and publish his stories. So he did.
His first children’s book was Mother Goose in Prose (he had previously written a work on keeping Hamburg chickens). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz did not come about until 1900. At the time Baum was writing it, his beloved niece Dorothy died at the age of five months. Baum’s wife Maud collapsed in despair, so Baum dedicated the book to her, giving her the Dorothy that they never had.
Libraries across the country banned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as critics objected to everything from the idea of letting a child’s imagination run wild to the concept of talking animals, let alone a “good witch.” During the 1950s, a few experts even feared that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an allegory of a communist utopia.
Most readers, however, gave The Wonderful Wizard of Oz positive reviews, which Baum collected in a scrapbook. The first print run sold out in a month. These people must have had a deep respect for the value of a child’s imagination, like Baum himself:
I believe that dreams—day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing—are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.
What Did Baum Say?
In an interview with Publishers’ Weekly, Baum claimed that the name Oz came from a file cabinet labeled O–Z. It was this moment of inspiration, he said, that gave rise to the entire story.
One of Baum’s sons attributed the creation of the Tin Man to his father’s interest in window displays for shops. He once recounted a tale of how Baum decorated one display with a tin figure of a man, complete with a tin funnel on the head for a hat.
Experts still point out that Baum himself added explicit political references when working on the script for the Broadway version of the story in 1901. For example, the Tin Man at one point wonders what will become of him if he runs out of oil. The Scarecrow replies: “You wouldn’t be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller. He’d lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened.” Of course, some feel that this type of humor may have been employed to appeal to adult members of the audience.
In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum clearly stated a purpose:
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
Those who study Baum, however, point out his characteristic humor and suggest that if there ever was a sign he had a hidden motive, this introduction would be the giveaway.
In the end, we probably will never know if The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is allegorical or not. Nevertheless, it is a delightful fairy tale for children and grownups alike. It is now in the public domain and can be enjoyed by all for free.