A discussion about the possible meaning of the Wizard of Oz and how it tells a story about turn of the century politics, the gold standard, and wealthy industrialists.
Although The Wizard of Oz is considered an American classic in film and literature, it was really a parable for the economic woes of American around the turn of the century when it was published in 1900. L. Franklin Baum told of an orphaned Kansas girl swept by a tornado into a fantastic world, but who wants to return home to her aunt and uncle.
Thinking the great Wizard of Oz can grant her wish, she sets out to meet him with her dog, Toto. Later she is joined by a scarecrow, a tin woodman and a lion.
Baum published the book in 1900, just after the US emerged from a period of deflation and depression. Prices had fallen by about 22% over the previous 16 years, causing huge debt. Farmers were among those badly affected, and the Populist political party was set up to represent their interests and those of industrial laborers.
At the time the United States was using the gold standard for the monetary system which valued the dollar according to the quantity of gold. The Populists wanted silver, along with gold, to be used for money. This would have increased the US money supply, raised price levels and reduced farmers' debt burdens.
Remember that in the book, Dorothy had silver slippers, not ruby ones.
Characters and Symbolism
Scholars, economists, and historians argue whether there is an allegory and which characters represent which group, but this is a standard break down:
• Dorothy: the symbol for the American Everyman
• Scarecrow: Represents the Farmer
• Tin Man: Represents the Industrial worker, oil uses to make him work again.
• Lion: William Jennings Bryan, politician who backed silver cause, but was considered a coward.
• Wizard of Oz: US presidents of late 19th Century
• Wicked Witch of the West: A symbol destroyed by the farmers' most precious commodity, water. Sometimes considered to be the American West
• Munchkins: Ordinary citizens
• Winged Monkeys: Native Americans or Chinese railroad workers, exploited by West. Baum even displayed an early sympathy for Native Americans of the plains, symbolized in the story of the Winged monkeys in the West, whose leader 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." (Dighe, Ranjit S., ed., The historian's Wizard of Oz: reading L. Frank Baum's classic as a political and Monetary Allegory)
• Oz: An abbreviation of 'ounce' for the measure of gold or, as Baum claimed, taken from the O-Z of a filing cabinet.
• Yellow Brick Road: The gold standard, which leads to the Emerald City
• Emerald City: A great green city built on Greenback paper money, exposed as fraud.
• Auntie Em: May stand for money
• Uncle Henry: The most famous farmer in America in 1900 was Henry Wallace; everyone called him "Uncle Henry.
Again, there is some debate over the story’s meaning, but there are so many parallels with historical events that there may be too many to argue with.
Bryan was a Democratic presidential candidate who supported the silver cause. But failed to win votes from eastern workers and lost the 1896 election. The Lion's claws are useless against the Tin man’s metal shell and ax.
The Wicked Witch of the West is associated with a variety of controversial personalities, mainly the industrialist Mark Hanna, campaign manager to President William McKinley.
The yellow brick road symbolizes the gold standard, the Emerald City is Washington DC and the Great Wizard is the president who is exposed as being less than truthful and appearing to be all powerful controlling his image with levers.
As Dorothy found out, the Wizard could not take her back home, but her silver shoes could.
When Baum adapted his story for the stage, he poked fun at Theodore Roosevelt and the Populists. It is unknown if he was doing this for fun, or attempting to goad them into action. The creation of the Federal Reserve on December 23, 1913 may have made the story lose its political criticism and remain as a story of an earlier time.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Populism spread rapidly throughout the Midwest and into the South, but Kansas was always the site of its most popular and radical elements. In 1890, Populist candidates began winning seats in state legislatures and Congress, and two years later they gained control of the lower house of the state assembly, elected a Populist governor, and sent a Populist to the U.S. Senate. The twister that carries Dorothy to Oz symbolizes the Populist cyclone that swept across Kansas in the early 1890s. Baum was not the first to use the metaphor. Mary E. Lease, an outspoken Populist speaker, was referred to as the “Kansas Cyclone,” and the free-silver movement was often referred to a political whirlwind that had taken the nation by storm. Although Dorothy does not stand for Lease, Baum did give her the last name “Gale” which may be another reference to the cyclone metaphor.
The name of Dorothy’s dog, Toto, is also a pun, a play on teetotaler. Prohibitionists were among the Populists’ most faithful allies, and the Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan was himself a teetotaler. As Dorothy embarks on the Yellow Brick Road, Toto trots obediently behind her, just as the Prohibitionists faithfully followed the Populists. Remember that Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion pass out when they walk through the field of poppies, but the Scarecrow and Tin Man are not affected, since they are no really alive, but a collection of farmers and laborers. England had used drugs to conquer China in the Opium Wars, and this may have been a warning that the government would try to use drugs and alcohol to calm the masses.
The Witch represents eastern financial-industrial interests and their gold-standard political allies, the main targets of the Populists movement. Midwestern farmers often blamed their woes on the corrupt practices of Wall Street bankers and the captains of industry, whom they believed were attempting to enslave the little people, just as the Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins. Populists viewed establishment politicians, including presidents, as helpless pawns or willing accomplices to the wealthy donors and industrialists. President Cleveland bowed to eastern bankers by repealing the Silver Purchase Act in 1893, which restricted much-needed credit. McKinley, prompted by the industrialist Mark Hanna, made the gold standard the centerpiece of his campaign against Bryan and free silver.
Toto may also represent the country as a whole, or in toto, meaning on the whole. He was unafraid of the theatrics of the Wizard, and began barking at the curtain. Dorothy then gets the nerve to go over and open up the curtain.
Although Baum did not take sides, his story was merely explaining the cause of the Populist movement, some of whom marched on Washington DC in 1894 to demand government improve their situation.
They demanded the use of silver with the gold standard was not met, although within a few years, inflation returned after discoveries of gold in South Africa and other parts of the world.
In Baum's story, Dorothy loses her silver slippers in the desert before she reaches home, which is a possible reflection of the decline of the silver cause after 1896.
Unfortunately the Populist Movement may have merged with the Progressive Movement and helped form the Federal Reserve.