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Exploring the Classics: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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1900 cover of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

L. Frank  Baum’s first published work for children, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains, in its introduction, the supposition that fairy tales were written to impart ‘fearsome’ morals to children and argues that since children are now, generally, being formally educated they no longer require their literature to be edifying. Because of this, says Baum,

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please the 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.

The suggestion that children do not require didacticism in every text they encounter (which they don’t) and that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz doesn’t contain any (which it does) may provide exoneration under the charge that the novel imparts a confused set of messages which I’ll return to later. Baum has certainly produced in his first book a ‘modernized fairytale’ which, while sharing topoi with the stories of Grimm et al., feels fresher and simpler in the reading. Baum is no great writer – his prose is clumsy and artless – but his plot is expedient and thoroughly enjoyable, and for this the novel deserves its place in the American literary landscape.

Scarecrow gives the Tin Woodman a hand in Denlow's original illustration

Scarecrow gives the Tin Woodman a hand in WW Denslow’s original illustration

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the subject of a famous bit of dodgy scholarship dating to 1964. Written by a man with patchy economic and historical knowledge named Littlefield, the work claims that WWoO (as it is much more fun to refer to the book) is a ‘subtle parable’ concerning American fin-de-ciecle monetary policy. To readers unfamiliar with the minutae of 1890s midwestern political debate, which, let’s be honest, is pretty much all of us, the allegory can be broken down into a series of lazy symbols which I will try my very best to outline concisely:

  • The yellow brick road represents the Gold Standard
  • Dorothy’s silver slippers represent the silver coinage of which no one quite realises the power (the shoes and yellow brick road combined demonstrate the view of the Silverites, those who advocated a bimetallist monetary standard).
  • The munchkins are Baum’s lumpenproletariat, as is…
  • Scarecrow, specifically representing the farmers of Kansas who are ignorant and lack self belief, as well as…
  • The Tin Woodman, specifically representing the worker who knows only one trade and is dehumanised by Capitalism
  • The Wicked Witch of the West represents nature, a force that, on the plains and prairies of Kansas, must be battled against.

In this model the Wizard is benignly evil, ultimately powerless and motivated by benevolent self-interest. His Capitol, the Emerald City, a land of glitz rather than substance. Aside from a shudderingly racist winged monkey/Native American comparison that will make you want to pull your eyes out with a fork* the argument is certainly a compelling one.

Littlefield’s essay (called ‘ The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism’)  is available online and I urge you to make up your own mind, but this interpretation is divisive, and I, as you may have gathered, think it’s hogwash. I am not a historian or an economist or even much of a critical thinker, but my reasons for disbelief are thus:

  • Baum, says Littlefield, ‘never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment’. In other words, the allegory goes out of the window whenever it threatens the plot (and only works until half way through the novel), which really, really isn’t how allegory works.
  • If a political satire had been Baum’s intent he probably would’ve mentioned something about it.

Now, I’m not claiming the allegory is not there (for allegory can be found anywhere if one looks hard and squintingly enough), nor that it doesn’t have its uses as a pedagogical tool, but Litchfield and his ilk shuttle back and forth between implying (or claiming) that Baum intended the allegory and claiming (or implying) that it’s quite accidental as well as reading the supposed allegory as both pro- and anti-Populist depending on well, on I’m not sure what. The whole thing’s a mess**.

Frankly, neither side of the debate can produce much in the way of proof. Arguments are built on inference and scant circumstantial evidence, and though Littlefield’s claims have been expanded upon by scholars such as Hugh Rockoff in 1990 (and smashed to pieces by Micheal Hearn the following year) it seems unlikely that we’ll ever get to the bottom of the claim***.

Theories abound as to the ‘true’ meaning of the text. It has been read as anti-government or even Atheist (for, after doing all that’s required of them, the travellers of the Yellow Brick Road discover that the Great and Powerful Oz is impotent); it has been read as Marxist, anti-American, theosophical and  just plain evil too. Such is the power of Oz.

L-R ?, ?, Judy Garland & ? in MGMs 1939 screen verison 'The Wizard of Oz'.

L-R Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland & Jack Haley in MGM’s 1939 screen version The Wizard of Oz.

I subscribe to a simpler view of Oz. The text is certainly rich in symbolic content (especially in Baum’s use colour and the abundant phallic and castration imagery****) which lends itself to a psychoanalytical reading, but in its most simple form  it is a straightforward quest/return narrative which sees Dorothy transported from gray, dreary Kansas to the technicolour Land of Oz.

Dorothy is joined on her quest by the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion each of whom displays in abundance the characteristic they seek: the Tin Woodman is prone to tears, a sure sign he has a heart:

“This will serve me a lesson, ” said he, “to look where I step. For if I should kill another bug or beetle I should surely cry again, and crying rusts my jaws so that I cannot speak.”

the Cowardly Lion exhibits great bravery in the face of reasonable fear:

“I am terribly afraid of falling, myself,” said the Cowardly Lion, “but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it”.

and the Scarecrow applies his intellect to every impasse the travellers reach on their journey:

…they sat down to consider what they should do, and after serious thought the Scarecrow said:

“Here is a great tree, standing close to the ditch. If the Tin Woodman can chop it down, so that it will fall to the other side, we can walk across easily.”

By this it appears that the story is on of self-belief and self-reliance: with perseverance, belief and a little bit of dumb luck, we can achieve our goals.

It is worth mentioning here that it is a little girl who Baum lets out the show the world she can look after herself. Though undeniably racist and equally at home espousing Republican and Democratic policies, Baum was ardently feminist, married to the daughter of one of the founders of the National Womans Suffrage Association and writing frequently on the subject in his paper the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Baum was of the opinion that:

we must do away with sex prejudice and render equal distinction and reward to brains and ability, no matter whether found in man or woman.

Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, 1 Feb. 1890 quoted in  ‘The Wonderful Wizard of the West: L. Frank  Baum in South Dakota, 1888-91’,  Nancy Koupal

Thus his fiction is marked by its capable female protagonists of which Dorothy is the first.  She is generally self-reliant, practical, tough and calm, as likely to be rescuer as rescued (though in 1939 MGM would ignore this in favour of a passive, gentle Dorothy). She is,

[…] sensible, friendly, helpful, brave without being foolhardy, deeply attached to her friends and family, and resolute in pursuing her goals.  She does not change dramatically in the course of the journey, for this is not the course of someone who badly needs to change (like Bilbo in The Hobbit or Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden) but a story of self discovery, in which Dorothy comes to realize her own potential by the journey’s end.

 The Wizard of  Oz: The Shaping of  an Imaginary World, Susan Rahn (p.57)

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Dorothy is not the ‘Small and Meek’ as she suggests to the Wizard, but a sensible role-model of a 6-year-old, an unequivocal hero.

Dorothy is certainly not alone. As one more familiar with the film version of the story I was pleasantly surprised to find female characters who have great power – social or magical – throughout, most of whom are missing from MGMs adaptation. The Queen of the Field Mice, the Good Witch of the North and Gayelette are all erased in adaptation. It is a great, if entirely unsurprising, shame.

Despite Baum’s strong protagonist and powerful female characters, we have in WWoO a classic example of the battle between overt and  covert: Dorothy is capable and confident but she just wants to go home; she completes every task and overcomes every barrier in her way, but she does so by magic or by accident. She kills both Wicked Witches unintentionally; the silver slippers carry her home; she’s protected throughout by the magical kiss of the Witch of the North meaning we can never be sure if it really is Dorothy pulling herself out of trouble. These things work to undermine the emancepatory message of WWoO, but I do not think they are entirely successful in doing so and we can hardly expect a text from 1900 to be perfect. Following the romantic, sentimental improving fictions that were the mainstay of Victorian children’s literature, it is a definite improvement. Here we do not have the heavy portentiousness of Jean Ingelow nor the evangelising of Charles Kingsley. Baum’s didacticism is unintentional but it is there, and by comparison ir is wholely refreshing.

I will be returning to the Land of Oz later in 2013 (having not yet seen a pop-culture bandwagon I wasn’t willing to jump on in the name of postulant  scholarship) with the release of prequel-ish Disney offering Oz the Great and Powerful in the Spring. Meanwhile, here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

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* “like many Indian tribes Baum’s monkeys are not inherently bad” says Littlefield, with apparently no hint of irony, in the midst of a paragraph which would be laughable if it weren’t so earnest.

** The quote I began this post with, for example, is forwarded both as proof of conclusion by both sides of the debate: Baum saying ‘this is just a story’ is, bafflingly, both confirmation that it is and confirmation that it isn’t, depending on whom you believe.

***Except we will: it is pish.

**** No, really. With all those wands and broomsticks, floating heads and self-amputating woodman it’s a wonder a Freudian reading of the book isn’t more popular.

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