The Elements of Baum's Novel
Over the years, L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has been interpreted from virtually every angle. Feminists, populists, Marxists, historians, economists, political scientists, and Freudians and other psychologists have all interpreted the characters and events of the novel in terms of their particular points of view. The book has been looked at as a commentary on American life and as a statement about New World ways replacing Old World ways. Presidential scholars have considered the possibility that the Wizard of Oz represents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, or a combination of the three. Still other scholars interpret the novel as a fable about substitutions: Dorothy lives with substitute parents; she returns to a substitute farmhouse; a common man has substituted the identity of the Wizard for his own; and the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are all made happy with substitute charms. Baum himself never lent credence to any of these interpretations, and Oz scholars generally dismiss claims that the story is any kind of social or political commentary. So, what is it about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that compels academics to seek out subtexts in the novel?
When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, it was a dramatic departure from existing children’s literature. Other children’s books were morality tales written in lofty language meant to instruct and guide young minds; Baum’s novel was a flight of fancy for the imagination. It presented a child protagonist (a female one, which was particularly unusual) who spoke and acted like a real child. The story was told from her point of view, and she turned out to be an independent child who embodied many of the qualities Americans admire. Add to this innovative protagonist the wildly imaginative places, fantastic people, and nonhuman creatures, and this book was very different from others in its genre. This brought the book a lot of attention and scrutiny. While most critics embraced it, others did not; but above all the book grabbed the reading public’s attention. This led to a wider readership than was originally intended, and many of those readers began looking to interpret the story as symbolic of some larger reality.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains numerous elements that open it up for interpretation. For example, the book has a dominant good versus evil theme, and it is presented in a straightforward manner that is easy for children to understand. From an adult’s point of view, however, the places and characters representing good (a child, the North, the South) and those representing evil (the East, the West) can be fitted into ideological categories. Populists’ interpretation, for example, viewed the East as the enemy of the West. They believed that wealthy eastern politicians were destroying the hard-working farmers of the West; so when Dorothy’s house comes from Kansas and kills the Wicked Witch of the East, they viewed this as a symbol of retribution and justice. From a political perspective, the wicked witches are powerful leaders who enslave and oppress people. They rule like tyrants, having no regard for the happiness or well being of the common people. When Dorothy frees them, they choose kinder leaders and different forms of government that allow them to have a say in the way their lands are governed. The Winkies, for example, choose the Tin Woodman as their ruler after Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. An analogy to real-life rulers and political systems can easily be drawn.
Baum’s use of opposites also engenders multiple interpretations of the novel. He has the land of Oz divided into the North, South, East, and West. Dorothy arrives from the dull familiarity of the Kansas plains to the colorful and unfamiliar land of the Munchkins. The beauty of Glinda contrasts sharply with the ugliness of the one-eyed Wicked Witch of the West. Readers can easily...
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