Looking Behind The Curtain

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

Looking Behind the Curtain:
Allegory in L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Of the many things I learned in this class, one in particular stood out in my mind even though at the time, it was essentially just an add-on comment that you mentioned only once before whizzing on to a next slide. This one idea stayed with me, until I found that I had researched it thoroughly, enough so that it blossomed into the following final essay.

This comment that I refer to was made during your introduction to L. Frank Baum & Victor Fleming’s 1939 extravagant production The Wizard of Oz. In an off-hand second-thought type of way, you informed the class that this film (and the book that it was based on), were suspected by many scholars of being an allegory or metaphor for the political climate of 1890’s America – the days in which the tale was initially written.

During my initial investigations into this notion, I learned that this comment was quite the understatement, as there are literally dozens of academic papers critically examining each and every scene. After reading many of them (and completely ignoring any amusing connections this film may have to the music of Pink Floyd), The Wizard of Oz truly does appear to be allegorical in some way – albeit one painted with bright colours, filled with fine music and disguised in family-appropriate language.

Before I discuss late 19th century American politics as being the most commonly accepted interpretation of the film (if such as allegory even exists beyond the film simply being a witty and exciting children’s story), let me first relate some of the lesser known theories for these are, in my mind, equally interesting but infinitely more amusing.

One of these ‘lesser’ theories dissects and examines the film as being a metaphor for Baum’s theological and even theosophical leanings, including notions of equality, anti-intellectualism, reincarnation and other ideas discussed in Asian religions. In these discussions, much is made of the importance of colours in the film – the black and white opening, the Yellow Brick Road, the Red Slippers, and the Emerald City. Apparently yellow, for example, has traditionally been thought of have intellectual or cerebral connotations, contradicting the Scarecrow’s apparent lack of such qualities, and symbolizing Dorothy and Toto’s journey to valuable knowledge. Emerald on the other hand, has connotations of versatility, ingenuity and resourcefulness; all of which are required for Dorothy to get back to Kansas; by using these traits wisely along the way.

Infamous author Salmon Rushdie, who inspired controversy with his book The Satanic Verses and was later exiled from his home country, once had his own theory recorded during an interview, during which he described The Wizard of Oz as a tale “whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults…which ends not with an escape from a fantasy to a home, sweet home…but relates how imagination can become reality, and that the only ‘real’ home “is the one that we make for ourselves.”

This sounds rather romantic and is in stark contrast to another theory that claims the film is rife with pervasive Freudian elements. This author, Daniel Dervin, claims that Dorothy projects her budding sexuality onto the real world in the form of a phallic tornado; “a remarkably apt representation of the paternal phallus in its swollen, twisting, penetrating state, which is part of the primal scene.” While this theory is mildly disturbing, it sets a precedent for Dervin to expound on Dorothy’s progress down the path to sexual maturity. She wants to get off the farm but is scared to be on her own. The person she is closest to in her life is Auntie Em, (‘M’ in pronunciation) somehow symbolic of the word Mother – a recurring theme throughout his theory. According to Dervin, Dorothy, a pubescent orphan with an adoptive mother, will struggle with her search for a father figure, confused by her feelings towards an idealized “Good Mother” figure, Glinda, and a “Bad Mother” figure – none but the Wicked Witch of the West.

Still other interpretations follow more ancient and predictable themes: religion vs. secularism, spirituality vs. materialism, individualism vs. collectivism. One of these theories became a book by Dr. Paul Nathanson, who speculates that “modern societies may appear to be more secular than they actually are” and that films such as Oz are about rebellion from such primitive organized parties as comprise religious authority structures.

More widespread theories revolve around the analogous complexities in what is otherwise one of the most beloved children’s fantasy films of all time, involving capitalism, free markets and of course, the almighty dollar.

If one subscribes to these theories of finance – the first such ‘hidden’ complexity is hidden in plain sight. Oz is a symbol for ounce. Gold is measured in ounces. What is the yellow brick road, if not a path made of bars of solid gold, leading to an emerald city, that is green and purely theatrical in nature, much like our paper money? This theory is my personal favourite, and it only gets better.

The Scarecrow or Straw Man represents a ‘commoner’, peasant or unemployed man or woman, who sadly has no brain and no obvious purpose without one being presented to them from someone else – at first glance, from a faceless powerful someone who resides in an expensive emerald city – akin to Washington or New York perhaps.

The Tin Man represents a working-man, a blue-collar member of society who worked himself so hard for money that he literally stopped functioning. If he had had a heart and soul, he may not have worked so hard.

The Cowardly Lion was the typical bully, all bluff and bluster and threat – with no substance to back up his or her claims; all claws and no courage. That is, until he receives an ‘award’ of courage from the authority in the land, thereby promoting him to the position of a bully with a badge – an officially recognized authority figure.

Even little Toto has a place in this capitalistic theory – his name in Latin means in total, or all together –a somewhat fitting description considering this little dog is the only one who remains unafraid throughout the film, seemingly unperturbed by both Ms. Gulch’s dognapping attempt and all of the great Wizard’s holographic theatric effects. In fact, all it took was Toto revealing to the others that the Wizard was simply a façade, and the tables turned.

Still other interpretations of The Wizard of Oz imply strong gay and lesbian undertones, utopian visions of a land free from disease and poverty, and an increase in the availability of drugs and subsequent drug addiction.

John Beebe’s theory on The Wizard of Oz argues that the story is a moving depiction of Carl Jung’s psychological theory revolving around the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. This theory applies some of Jung’s common archetypes to the Oz characters, including the mother, the shadow, the animus, and the trickster.

A 1997 essay printed in The Washington Post takes another approach, claiming the story to be “an exercise in Machiavellianism”, showing how the supposedly Good “Witch Glinda” actually used an innocent, ignorant pawn named Dorothy to overthrow both her own sister and the ruler of the land, leaving herself as “undisputed master of all four corners of Oz.”

But by far the most popular, well-researched, and strongest argument for hidden meaning in The Wizard (again presuming that there is any, for Baum consistently denied such notions) is known as The Parable on Populism. Most historians seem to have accepted a basic notion that the World of Oz works well as an allegory of turn-of-the-century American politics. Whether Baum’s popular children’s story actually is a populist fable in disguise, or may have even been a secretly written political tract of sorts has inspired great debate and research for over 40 years.

It all started in 1963, when a history teacher in upstate New York named Henry M. Littlefield used Baum’s book to educate one of his classes about turn-of-the-century sentiments belonging to what later became known as the Populist Movement. Littlefield alleges that Baum, who used to march in parades supporting politician William Jennings Bryan, dressed up his 1900 fairytale as a Populist allegory, encouraging socio-political change.

Bryan was best known as a three-time Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. Noted for his deep, commanding voice and orating style, he was often called “The Great Commoner.” A strong proponent of popular democracy, critic of banks and railroads, peace advocate, prohibitionist, Presbyterian and opponent of Darwinism, Bryan was a leader of both the Populist movement and 1890’s Free Silver Movement promoting bimetallism. These last two items merit some short explanation.

The ‘Silverites’ were an American political group in the mid-19th century that advocated for silver’s continued usage as a monetary standard along with gold. This group wanted to lower the gold standard of the U.S. to silver, thereby inflating the economy at a ratio of “16 to 1”, that is, the ration of 16 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold. The promotion of re-continuing utilizing both silver and gold currency is at the core of bimetallism.

The other movement, Populism, was a discourse in clear support of the common people versus those considered the ‘elite’. Often urging drastic changes to the current political system, these Populist arguments were typically engaged in by members of social movements competing for advantage within the existing party system. While William Jennings Bryan was soundly defeated by William McKinley in both of the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 Presidential elections, he retained his control of the Democratic Party for many years following his defeat. During his in-class lectures, Littlefield would make the following metaphorical comparisons between the Populist Movement and Baum’s popular story:

The black and white opening of the film is the rural worker’s despair and the unfulfilled hopes of the common man, a man who struggles to eke out a living for himself and his family.

The tornado, which transports Dorothy (note her last name is Gale) and Toto to Oz, is either the triumph of silverite at the polls or the political revolution that would transform an economic drought into a land of prosperity through political upheaval.

Dorothy’s character is the Everyman; a naive and innocent citizen who knows little about the workings of government, yet who is determined and resourceful – the embodiment of how Americans tend to see themselves.

The Wicked Witch of the East, who kept the Munchkins enslaved until she was flattened by Dorothy’s house, represents corrupt government officials kowtowing to Eastern financial interests.

The Tin Man is hardened industrial workers, caught up in the rise of assembly line-style labour common in American factories at the time.

The Scarecrow is the farmers; who were selling their crops to other states, at inflated prices and with little security or insurance for their lands.

The Cowardly Lion is Bryan himself, a candidate with strong opinion and an even stronger voice, but little in the way of accomplishments or strong policy planning

The Munchkins are plain old ordinary citizens – peasants and commoners if you will – all dressed the same, all eager to please, even while being manipulated by greater forces.

The Lollipop Guild, which only appears in the 1939 film version of Oz, is a labour union, the head council representing Munchkin interests.

The Wicked Witch of the West might represent either the threat of monopolies, (particularly certain railroad monopolies that charged exorbitant shipping fees); or “malign nature” – the difficult physical environment in which Plains-based farmers tried to make their living.

The Yellow Brick Road is the aforementioned Gold Standard.

The Wizard himself, lord of The Emerald City and head of the Emerald Palace, is the President of the United States. The fact that the Wizard is primarily an illusory being and is in fact just a man after all is important to note. The Emerald City therefore represents Washington D.C., and the Emerald Palace might very well be the White House, or the Congress building.
One gets to this Emerald City via the Yellow Brick Road – a road composed of gold bricks. This gold path leads to a green city – symbolic of paper money, also an illusion in its own right. By wearing silver slippers (changed to ruby in the film to show off the great potential of Technicolor), one can escape from Oz back to a world where things make sense – symbolic of the silverite-supporters desired return to a bimetallic coin system.

In his lecture, Littlefield extrapolates on these shorter notions, explaining that The
Tin Man was rusted and helpless until he began to work together with the Scarecrow; i.e. a coalition between farmers and labourers, effectively ending the unemployment trend that had closed many factories and laid off large numbers of workers in the late 1890’s.

While Littlefield makes little mention of flying monkeys, Toto, or the poisonous poppy field, other Baum scholars who support Littlefield’s analysis have additionally presumed that the flying monkeys are First Nations people now corrupted by money and greed; Toto is a ‘teetotaler’ or prohibitionist who abstains from errant desire on the journey to truth and equality; and the poppy field symbolizes the dangerous rise of the opium trade.

When all is said and done however, Baum, as author of the work in question, never once admitted that the original story was an allegory for politics, although it neeed be stated that the vast discussion and theorizing over the idea did not truly begin until years after his death. In his introduction to the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum wrote that it 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.”

Others dispute this introduction however, incorporating it into Baum’s fondness for satire and sophisticated intellect, suggesting that this disclaimer may have actually been Baum’s sarcastic hint that he truly had intended to conceal a broader message in the text. It is true that Baum was well informed; he had been a journalist, an editor and a political activist. He was very familiar with the issues and controversies of the time period, and liberally discussed them publicly. His friends and family have attested to his “penchant for jesting and playful dissemination.” Renowned author and social critic Gore Vidal quoted as saying in his essay “On Rereading the Oz Books”, that Baum had “very definite ideas about the way the world should be.” Vidal writes of his suspicion that Baum “seems to have resolved on the level of fantasy, certain political issues that troubled him.”

In light of all of this – Baum’s political background, trickster personality, and written work – it is nearly conclusive that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a deliberate work of political symbolism in some shape or form. Either way, the question of Baum’s true intent becomes secondary when examining his book and subsequent film as allegory. Regardless of Baum’s motivation, it is clear that millions of people of all ages have been fascinated and entertained by his most famous work. The fact that it may have truly been a somewhat subversive document which damned the very establishment that made it’s existence possible only serves to make this elaborate work of classical storytelling seem that much more compelling.

Sources Used

1. Baum, L. Frank. The Wizard of Oz, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
2. Beebe, John. “The Wizard of Oz: A vision of development in the American political psyche.” Book chapter in Thomas Singer (ed.), The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics and Psyche in the World (New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 62-83).
3. Budd, Christopher Houghton. “The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy 98 (August 1990)
4. Dervin, Daniel. “Over the Rainbow and Under the Twister: A Drama of the Girl’s Passage through the Phallic Phase”. Bulletin of the Meninger Clinic, 42 (1978),
5. Littlefield, Henry M. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” American Quarterly 16; (Spring, 1964)
6. Nathanson, Paul. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.
7. Parker, David B. “Oz: L.Frank Baum’s Theosophical Utopia”, Faculty Colloquium Speech given at Kennesaw State University, 1996.
8. Rushdie, Salman. The Wizard of Oz, Series: BFI Film Classics, BFI Publishing, 1992.
9. Vidal, Gore. “On Rereading the Oz Books”; book chapter in The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Harmetz, Aljean. Hyperion Publication 60th anniversary edition paperback. 1998.


~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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