Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz include treatments of the modern fairy tale (written by L. Frank Baum and first published in 1900) as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. Scholars have examined four quite different versions of Oz: the novel of 1900, the Broadway play of 1901, the Hollywood film of 1939, and the numerous follow-up Oz novels written after 1900 by Baum and others.
Tin Woodman wonders what he'd do if he ran out of oil. "You wouldn't be as badly off as Rockefeller" the Scarecrow responds "He'd lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened."
— John B Wells (@JohnBWellsCTM) October 7, 2019
The political interpretations focus on the first three, and emphasize the close relationship between the visual images and the story line to the political interests of the day. Biographers report that Baum had been a political activist in the 1890s with a special interest in the money question of gold and silver, and the illustrator William Wallace Denslow was a full-time editorial cartoonist for a major daily newspaper. For the 1901 Broadway production Baum inserted explicit references to prominent political characters such as President Theodore Roosevelt.
In a 1964 article, educator and historian Henry Littlefield outlined an allegory in the book of the late 19th-century debate regarding monetary policy. According to this view, for instance, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, and the Silver Shoes (Ruby slippers in the 1939 film version) represent the Silverite sixteen to one silver ratio (dancing down the road). The City of Oz earns its name from the abbreviation of ounces “Oz” in which gold and silver are measured.
The thesis achieved considerable popular interest and elaboration by many scholars in history, economics and other fields, but that thesis has been challenged. Certainly the 1901 musical version of Oz, written by Baum, was for an adult audience and had numerous explicit references to contemporary politics, though in these references Baum seems just to have been “playing for laughs”. The 1902 stage adaptation mentioned, by name, President Theodore Roosevelt and other political celebrities. For example, the Tin Woodman wonders what he would do if he ran out of oil. “You wouldn’t be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller“, the Scarecrow responds, “He’d lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened.”
Littlefield’s knowledge of the 1890s was thin, and he made numerous errors, but since his article was published, scholars in history, political science, and economics have asserted that the images and characters used by Baum closely resemble political images that were well known in the 1890s. Quentin Taylor, for example, claimed that many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events and ideas of the 1890s. Dorothy—naïve, young and simple—represents the American people. She is Everyman, led astray and seeking the way back home. Moreover, following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value. It is ruled by a scheming politician (the Wizard) who uses publicity devices and tricks to fool the people (and even the Good Witches) into believing he is benevolent, wise, and powerful when really he is a selfish, evil humbug. He sends Dorothy into severe danger hoping she will rid him of his enemy the Wicked Witch of the West. He is powerless and, as he admits to Dorothy, “I’m a very bad Wizard”.
Hugh Rockoff suggested in 1990 that the novel was an allegory about the demonetization of silver in 1873, whereby “the cyclone that carried Dorothy to the Land of Oz represents the economic and political upheaval, the yellow brick road stands for the gold standard, and the silver shoes Dorothy inherits from the Wicked Witch of the East represents the pro-silver movement. When Dorothy is taken to the Emerald Palace before her audience with the Wizard she is led through seven passages and up three flights of stairs, a subtle reference to the Coinage Act of 1873 which started the class conflict in America.”
Historian Quentin Taylor sees additional metaphors, including:
- The Scarecrow as a representation of American farmers and their troubles in the late 19th century
- The Tin Man representing the industrial workers, especially those of American steel industries
- The Cowardly Lion as a metaphor for William Jennings Bryan
Taylor also claimed a sort of iconography for the cyclone: it was used in the 1890s as a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab country into a land of color and unlimited prosperity. It was also used by editorial cartoonists of the 1890s to represent political upheaval.
Other putative allegorical devices of the book include the Wicked Witch of the West as a figure for the actual American West; if this is true, then the Winged Monkeys could represent another western danger: Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The King of the Winged Monkeys tells Dorothy, “Once we were a free people, living happily in the great 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, long before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land.”
In fact, Baum proposed in two editorials he wrote in December 1890 for his newspaper, the Saturday Pioneer, the total genocidal slaughter of all remaining indigenous peoples. “The Whites,” Baum wrote, “by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation?”
However this may have been sarcastic or a rhetorical question, as he also wrote “An eastern contemporary, with a grain of wisdom in its wit, says that ‘when the whites win a fight, it is a victory, and when the Indians win it, it is a massacre.'” The beginning of his Saturday Pioneer editorial in 1890 also seems sympathetic to Sitting Bull: “He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies.”
Other writers have used the same evidence to lead to precisely opposite allegorical interpretations.
Apart from intentional symbolism, scholars have speculated on the sources of Baum’s ideas and imagery. The “man behind the curtain” could be a reference to automated store window displays of the sort famous at Christmas season in big city department stores; many people watching the fancy clockwork motions of animals and mannequins thought there must be an operator behind the curtain pulling the levers to make them move (Baum was the editor of the trade magazine read by window dressers).
Additional allegories have been developed, without claims that they were originally intended by Baum. The text has been treated as a theosophical allegory. In 1993, W. Geoffrey Seeley recast the story as an exercise in treachery, suggesting the supposed “Good Witch Glinda” used an innocent, ignorant patsy (Dorothy) to overthrow both her own sister witch (Witch of the West) and the Wizard of Oz, leaving herself as undisputed master of all four corners of Oz: North, East, West and South (and presumably the Emerald City). She even showed her truest “Machiavellian brilliance” by allowing the story to be entitled after the weakest of her three opponents. Glinda could have told Dorothy that the “silver slippers would easily do the job [of returning Dorothy to her beloved home] but decided that a destabilizing force such as Dorothy might be just the thing to shake up her other rival [The Wizard of Oz].” Kassinger, in her book Gold: From Greek Myth to Computer Chips, purports that “The Wizard symbolizes bankers who support the gold standard and oppose adding silver to it… Only Dorothy’s silver slippers can take her home to Kansas,” meaning that by Dorothy not realizing that she had the silver slippers the whole time, Dorothy, or “the westerners”, never realized they already had a viable currency of the people.
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