One day, while vacationing at The Hotel Del Coronado, a prominent California seaside resort, I overheard an interesting discussion. An enthusiastic and animated young woman and an elderly couple were engaged in a conversation in one of the hotel’s gift shops while I was shopping. My interest perked after I overheard the young gal proclaim that The Wizard of Oz was actually a political parable. Coincidentally, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, was a frequent guest at the Del, and he wrote several books during his stays. Also, several gift shops display Baum’s works.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published as a children’s storybook in 1900, but could it be that it was really meant for a grown-up audience?
The young woman continued to talk with the couple, and I got as close as I could while remaining inconspicuous. I overheard the girl say, “Did you know The Wizard of Oz was written to make a political statement?” and the first thought I had was, “What?!” I continued to eavesdrop, taking it all in with a healthy bit of skepticism.
“The author used symbols within the story to make a point.” The young lady went on at a rapid pace as if she were excited to share the news. “For example, the Scarecrow represented farmers who the elite thought of as ignorant, and that’s why the character didn’t have a brain. The Tin Man represented the industrialist without a heart, and the Wizard was a symbol of the powerful bankers. . . .”
I decided to leave while the conversation was still midstream, I didn’t want to take a chance that I’d be discovered eavesdropping. As I walked away, I decided I would not take the young woman at her word, but I would research the topic. After all, if this were true, why hadn’t I heard it before? My mind was racing as fast as the young woman had been speaking; “Is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz really a brilliantly written symbolic literary representation of Baum’s political point of view? Or, is it just a wonderfully written fairy tale?” Here’s what I learned. . . .
Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead—1902 Musical Extravaganza
A stage adaptation of Braun’s book opened as a musical extravaganza to critical acclaim in 1902. The stage version, aimed at mature audiences, differed from the book slightly, and Baum had little control over dialog changes. Writer Glen MacDonough poked fun at President Theodore Roosevelt, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Senator Mark Hanna, and others. For example, the Tin Woodman wonders what to do if he runs out of oil. The Scarecrow jokingly chimes in, “You wouldn’t be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller, he’d lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened.”
Parable on Populism
High school teacher Henry Littlefield was the first to publically illuminate the concept of a political theme with his 1964 article “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism.” In the piece, Littlefield chronicled Baum’s life, including his political influences of the 1890s, and methodically formulated a strong argument to support the idea that Baum carefully crafted symbols of these same political forces into the characters, scenes, and events in the book.
Even the word “Oz” is political, claimed Littlefield, as the abbreviation for ounce is “OZ,” which was a familiar term to those who fought for a 16 to 1-ounce ratio of silver to gold in the name of Bimetallism. This American political movement, advocating the use of silver in addition to gold as a monetary standard began in the second half of the 19th century. Baum’s son disagreed with the assertion, claiming he’d always believed his father got the idea for the name Oz from a file cabinet labeled A – N and O – Z.
The following are just a few symbolisms highlighted in Littlefield’s piece:
COWARDLY LION: The Cowardly Lion has a loud roar, but no bite (or power). When the Lion first meets the Wizard he sees him as a ball of fire. He “could scarcely bear to gaze upon it” and as he approaches the Wizard, his whiskers become singed.
This character is said to represent William Jennings Bryan, described as a “cowardice politician.” Bryan supported the free silver movement in the late 1800s.
CYCLONE: The violent cyclone lifts Dorothy and Toto in their house. Then drops them “very gently” in the Land of Oz, resulting in the death of one of the two genuinely evil influences in Oz, the Wicked Witch of the East.
The cyclone is representative of both a political upheaval and the free silver movement.
DOROTHY: When Dorothy meets the Wizard, he appears like an enormous head that is “bigger than the head of the biggest giant.”
Dorothy represents the American people and American values. Dorothy is the only one of the four seeking help from the Wizard for a real problem. The Wizard’s large noggin would likely be the image portrayed to a naïve and innocent citizen who feels small.
EMERALD CITY and EMERALD PALACE: The Emerald City represents the Nation’s Capital. The Emerald Palace typifies the White House.
FLYING MONKEYS: The leader of the flying monkeys cautions Dorothy, “Once we were a free people, living happily in the forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody Master. . . . This was many years ago before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land.”
The flying monkeys are a symbol for the Native American, and the statement appears to parallel the plight of the Native Americans, whose land was seized by Americans.
GOOD WITCH of the NORTH and SOUTH: The North and South contrast the wicked industrialists of the East and the railroad moguls of the West. The good witches are less powerful then the Wicked Witches of the East and West.
The Good Witch of the North illustrates the workers of the north. The Good Witch of the South embodies the farmers of the south.
KANSAS: The great gray prairie represents the deadly environment that dominated everyone and everything, except for Dorothy and her pet.
MUNCHKINS: These little people are a symbol of the “common” folk. In addition, the Lollipop Guild epitomizes child labor.
OZ: A unit familiar to those who fought for the 16 to 1 ounce (oz.) ratio of silver to gold; a political hot topic in the 1890s.
SCARECROW: The Scarecrow complains that he doesn’t have a brain. When he meets the Wizard, he sees him as a lovely gossamer fairy. The Scarecrow typifies the Western farmers; with the impression of an idealistic Kansas farmer. Although the Scarecrow claimed he didn’t have a brain, he was a clever problem solver.
SILVER SLIPPERS: In the book, the slippers that Dorothy wears are silver (rather than ruby). Silver represents monetary and political issues. Some have also speculated that the silver slippers represent the power to vote.
TIN WOODMAN: Referred to as Tin Man, he symbolizes the Industrialist with “no heart,” and the industrial workers, often dehumanized. The Tin Man was in the same position for over a year because of corrosion. The rust parallels the condition of the majority of Eastern workers after the depression of 1893.
When the Tin Man meets the Wizard for the first time, he sees him as a horrible beast. The vision signifies the exploited eastern laborer after the trouble of the 1890s.
TOTO: Dorothy’s small dog experiences the entire adventure. Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the Wizard is a fraud. Toto is said to be another representation of the American people.
UNCLE HENRY: Henry Cantwell Wallace, known as “Uncle Henry,” was a famous farmer in the late 1800s. He was the editor of a leading farm magazine.
WICKED WITCH of the EAST and WEST: Evil ruled both the East and the West. The Wicked Witch of the East symbolizes the populist view of evil Eastern influences on honest labor.
The Wicked Witch of the West is said to represent President William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, and the last veteran of the American Civil War elected. McKinley upheld the gold standard and promoted pluralism among ethnic groups. He defeated William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the platform of the free silver movement.
WIZARD: The Wizard can be everything to everybody. Just like a politician, he says what the people want to hear. At the end of the story, readers discover the Wizard is just a “common man.”
The Wizard could represent any of the presidents of the United States, from Grant to McKinley. And, some considered Mark Hanna The Wizard of Oz. Hanna was an American industrialist and Republican politician from Cleveland, Ohio. He rose to fame as the campaign manager William McKinley, the successful Republican Presidential candidate in the 1896 election. He became one of the most influential members of the U.S. Senate. It is interesting that the Wizard is from Omaha, Nebraska, which was a center of populist agitation.
YELLOW BRICK ROAD: This represents the gold standard, such as a brick of gold. The road of gold leads to power. Dorothy walks on the gold road with silver slippers. Together the road and slippers represent the Silver Standard. It is worth noting that the Yellow Brick Road does not go in the direction of the Wicked Witch of the West.
You be the Judge
In the years since Littlefield’s 1964 article, historians, economists, literary scholars, and even movie producers have examined and developed possible political interpretations of The Wizard of Oz. The majority of the public, however, has not heard the political angle and considers it just a beautifully written fairy tale.
In his introduction, Baum appears to suggest that his story was a fairy tale, written “solely to please children. . . .” But, before you make up your mind, remember, someone as clever and talented so as to intertwine political dogma with pure fantasy (concealed in such a brilliant way that people are still discussing it more than 100 years after publication) would most likely carefully craft the introduction.
Introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:
“Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations. 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.”
Political Statement or Pure Fantasy
So, is the story a political parable or pure fantasy? Gee, — if only I could ask an enlightened Whiz—“We’re off to see the Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz!”
About the Author
Deb Wax describes herself as a “procrastinating perfectionist who is also introspective.” She is an avid photographer, ’70s music junkie, and writer. Deb has written for several online publications, and her writings cover a hodgepodge of topics from the hot-button issues and cracker-barrel philosophy of today’s coffee culture to the Gordian Knot on the secular view of faith and religion. Deb previously wrote for Squidoo as the “70s Disco Queen Contributor,” before the website closed its Internet doors.
Deb recently completed the 2016 Dogwood 52-Week Photography Challenge and is currently participating in the advanced challenge. She is a photo contributor on Shutterstock, and you can find a number of her photos, including her challenge pictures, on her blog: Introspective Pics @ https://introspectivepics.wordpress.com
Deb has been married for over twenty-five years and describes her existence as a Darby and June life.
You can follow Deb on Twitter, Google +, Flickr, Instagram, and Shutterstock @DebW07