Literary Learnings

Dorothy and the Wizard

By Peter Barbour

On the first day of school, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, stood in front of our class holding a book with the cover facing us. I twisted in my seat trying to see the title, but I couldn’t make it out.

“Each day I will read to you,” Mrs. Wilson announced. “When we finish this story,” she paused as she walked to a closet opposite my desk, “one of you will get to select the next volume in the series.”

As she stood by my desk, I mouthed the title, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Sure, I knew about The Wizard of Oz from the movie, but I didn’t know it was only the first in the collection of tales about Oz. She opened the closet door, and on the top shelf, aligned in a neat row, sat the Oz books. I counted thirteen, fourteen with the one Mrs. Wilson held.

Mrs. Wilson returned to the front of the room and began to read. I can still hear her voice as I hung on every word from the gray country of Kansas to the colorful land of the Munchkins. I followed Dorothy as she traveled down the yellow brick road, gathering her companions, the scarecrow, the tin woodsman, and the cowardly lion. Over the course of the next year, Mrs. Wilson completed six of the books, each better than the last. I got to pick the third.

I loved the fourth grade, the wonder of those stories, and Mrs. Wilson for introducing them to me. When my kids were old enough to appreciate the journey through Oz, I purchased a set with original illustrations. I eventually finished all fourteen by the time our youngest read on his own. I had hoped I created a family tradition and imagined my children reading the Oz series to their children. Harry Potter put an end to that. Harry’s world appealed to the grandkids more than Dorothy’s.

In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author Frank Baum described the mission of his work as “solely to please children of today. It aspires to be a modernized fairytale in which wonderment and joy are maintained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” But is the story just a fairytale?

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared in 1900. Since then, Baum’s work has been interpreted by reviewers as allegorical, reflecting the period in which it was written, a satirical political commentary on the times. It is not just a modern fairytale, as Baum claimed in his introduction. Dorothy, the innocent farm girl from Kansas, represented everyday Midwestern Americans ignored by the government. These neglected Midwesterners found themselves on the short end of the bimetallism controversy, trapped between Eastern and Western banks.

Bimetallism refers to a currency standard reliant on a fixed ratio of value between two metals, in this case, silver and gold. Proponents of the gold/silver standard believed that having both allowed for more money to circulate, a hedge against inflation, and a more favorable and fair distribution of wealth. In the move toward one standard, the populists preferred silver, so did the Eastern bankers. The Western bankers favored gold. Apparently, nobody trusted paper, thought to be a fiat currency.

Dorothy’s home is swept up in a tornado and set down in Oz, landing on and killing the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy arrived in Oz in the land of the Munchkins, Midwesterners under the influence of the Wicked Witch of the East (silver backers), now freed by her death. Dorothy puts on the Wicked Witch of the East’s silver slippers (representing the silver standard). The shoes were not ruby as portrayed in the 1939 movie version of the story.

The good Witch of the North appears. Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home, but this is not in the Good Witch’s purview. The good Witch of the North sends Dorothy to the Emerald City, to seek the help from the mighty Wizard, who is believed to have the power to return Dorothy to Kansas.

The way to the Emerald City is a dangerous journey down the yellow brick road (the gold standard). Everything is green in the Emerald City (representing paper currency), but the green is a ruse. All the inhabitants must wear green-tinted glasses that are locked onto their heads. This sham foreshadows the discovery that the Wizard (paper money) is a fraud.

Along the way to the Emerald City, Dorothy meets the scarecrow, who has no brain (Midwest agriculture); the tin woodsman, who has no heart (Eastern industry), and the cowardly lion (one interpretation: the lion represents the U.S. military that performed poorly in the Spanish American War. A second interpretation, more consistent with the populist theme: the cowardly lion symbolized the impotence of the populist movement and the failure of its leader, William Jennings Bryant, in his bid for President).

Dorothy and her companions follow the yellow brick road, which becomes rough, unmaintained, disrupted by deep canyons, a river, and a field of poppies that induces perpetual sleep, from which she is rescued by the scarecrow, tin woodsman, and an army of mice. Once in the Emerald City, she and her fellow travelers meet the Wizard, who agrees to send Dorothy back to Kansas, give the scarecrow brains, the tin woodsman a heart, and the cowardly lion courage, but first, they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West (gold standard). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water (silver overcomes gold with all its promise of prosperity).

Dorothy and her friends return to Oz, where Dorothy exposes the Wizard to be a charlatan (fiat currency, or the leaders of the populist movement, your choice). In the end, Dorothy returns to Kansas, but the silver shoes come off en route and are lost forever (as was the silver standard along with the populist movement).

Prior to 1873, one could have their gold or silver ingots minted into coinage. The Coinage Act of 1873 ended the right of holders of silver bullion to have it coined but allowed holders of gold bullion to commission the government to mint their gold. With the discovery of the Comstock lode, silver was devalued and no longer monetized. Minting it was thought to be inflationary and ceased.

The silver backers called the enactment of the 1873 Coinage Act corrupt, believed that Congress knew it, but neglected to tell their constituents, leading to the panic of 1873. This set off a dispute lasting until 1900, when the gold standard was codified. In 1933, the U.S. went off the gold standard for fiat currency and then finally abandoned the gold link to dollars in 1971.

What did L. Frank Baum really intend? I’d like to think that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a great story and led to an entertaining series of books that captivated my nine-year-old mind. Certainly, its deep allegorical meaning was completely lost on this fourth grader. I doubt it was Mrs. Wilson’s aim to immerse us in the monetary controversy and populist movement of the early 1900s.

I’ll leave you with another thought. Dorothy’s goal is to return to Kansas; after all, “there is no place like home.” She ultimately travels south, to seek help from Glinda the Good Witch of the South. She learns that the silver shoes she has been wearing are charmed, and she could have returned home any time by just clicking her heels three times. Really. The “Good” Witch of the North could have told her that when she first landed in Oz in chapter two. This was shortly after Dorothy’s house came down on the Wicked Witch of the East, one of North’s rivals.

Instead of explaining the power of the silver shoes, the “Good” Witch of the North sends Dorothy on a reckless sojourn to see the Wizard. She sets the stage for Dorothy to expose the Wizard, cause him to flee Oz, and destroy the Wicked Witch of the West, the North’s only remaining opposition. She apparently had good relations with Glinda the Good Witch of the South. As a result of her deceit, the “Good” Witch of the North is elevated to the ruler of most of Oz. I find this all to be very Machiavellian.

Do the allegorical interpretations represent Baum’s intention? Henry Littlefield was the first to suggest this analysis of the Oz series in his essay, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” 1964.1 His hypothesis is based on Baum’s alleged interest in the populist movement, which allowed Littlefield to interpret Baum’s work the way he did. Littlefield made The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a political satire. Move over Jonathan Swift. However, Littlefield is purported to admit that there is no factual basis for his conclusion.*

*In the spirit of full disclosure, based on my limited research, however, I could not substantiate the report of Littlefield’s admission regarding the lack of factual basis for believing that Baum was politically motivated in the creation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. So be it.

  1. H. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, 16, 1, pg. 47-58, Spring, 1964.

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