The Wizard of Oz is a well-known novel and film filled with eccentric characters and an adventurous story line, which will stay a part of American culture for a long time. As a young child, I distinctly remember watching this film over and over with great intrigue. In a recent history lecture, the concept of this movie having political meaning was brought to my attention. The film is said to be filled with political allegories relevant to the 1890’s. The allegories were supposedly aimed at the Populists, whose ideologies did not complement the traditional views of the main parties during this time period. In the 1900’s, author Frank Baum published his book, The Wizard of Oz. Eventually in-depth interpretations created a whole new perspective and intrigued numerous scholars . Frank Baum created a remarkable story and earned a spot in history with The Wizard of Oz, but the story appears to have a deeper meaning regarding politics and the state of America in the 1890’s.
As editor of a small newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Baum had written on politics and current events in the late 1880s and early 1890s, a period that coincided with the formation of the Populist Party (Taylor 1). Baum’s writings on politics root the suspicion that this movie is an allegory. The symbolism appears obvious if one is informed about who the Populists were. The Populists, also known as the People’s Party, were the agrarians who were at the bottom of the totem pole. They originated in Kansas where poor farmers were abundant and they eventually represented a rise in third parties. The Populists threatened the Democrats and the Republicans who had been the dominating powers since the beginning of the American government. The Populists quickly diminished when the Democrats began lynching anyone who supported them. Although this party was short lived, their values and ideals lived on.
The main character in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, is seen as innocent and may represent the individualized ideal of the American people. She is quirky, care-free, and consumed with dreams of being “somewhere over the rainbow”. She and her family represent the typical, poor Mid-Westerners of the 1890’s. The film opens to a dreary view of farm land in Kansas that has been horribly affected by drought. Dorothy’s farm looks especially lifeless. The paint is stripping off the house, there are absolutely no crops to be seen, and the animals are becoming sick. “This grim depiction reflects the forlorn condition of Kansas in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, when a combination of scorching droughts, severe winters, and an invasion of grasshoppers reduced the prairie to an uninhabitable wasteland” (Taylor 1). Due to the awful droughts, the farmers had difficulty growing even a single crop and this is exactly what is depicted on Dorothy’s farm. Auntie Em’ and Uncle Henry, Dorothy’s dull, over-worked guardians, are struggling to maintain their farm because of the extreme conditions they must deal with. It is very obvious where Baum got his inspiration for the setting of Dorothy’s homeland.
Dorothy is taken to Munchkin Land away from her home by an enormous twister and her house happens to land on the Wicked Witch of the East. The Munchkins are now free from enslavement by this Wicked Witch. The Witch represents eastern financial-industrial interests and their gold-standard political allies, the main targets of Populist venom (Taylor 1). The Populists of the Midwest often blamed the Eastern industrialists for keeping them under their control, just as the Wicked Witch had the Munchkins under her control. In the book, Dorothy acquires silver shoes for killing the Wicked Witch of the East. She is eventually told to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Wizard of Oz, who can help her return to Kansas. Buried within that is the symbolism pertained to the Populists era. The Yellow Brick Road leads Dorothy to all the eccentric characters and scenes. She is confronted by talking trees and tons of obstacles. Luckily, the silver shoes that Dorothy is wearing provide her protection. The shoes and the Yellow Brick Road represent the fact that the Populists had ideologies that were unimportant to America, yet not completely unimportant. Industrialism, gold mining and banking began to become more popular for the American economy. Many Populists were the silver miners in the West who despised all these new economic necessities that lessened the necessity for silver mining. The Yellow Brick Road represents the country’s necessity for gold in the 1890’s. In addition, the protection that the silver shoes provided Dorothy represents that even though gold mining was the main priority, silver was still necessary for America.
Not only can the beginning of the film be allegorically interpreted, the remainder of Dorothy’s adventure to Oz proves to be allegorical as well. Her adventure first leads her to a goofy scarecrow who comes off naïve, but ends up being Dorothy’s most resourceful friend. According to the Scarecrow, he does not have any brains, which simply represents the Populist farmers and their lack of education. Along the way, the audience realizes he is not as brainless as he seems. He guided Dorothy in the right direction towards Emerald City, thought to use the oil can on the Tin Man to get him functioning again, and even translated Toto’s message during time of peril. He proves to be very helpful on getting Dorothy to Emerald City. The Scarecrow’s lack of self-esteem also represents the Populists doubting their ability to succeed in politics. Dorothy and the Scarecrow eventually sing a song with a verse mentioning how the Scarecrow could be Abraham Lincoln if he only had a brain. This is referencing the fact that if the Populists farmers began to come to their senses, they could be as great as agrarian President Abraham Lincoln himself. Essentially, the Scarecrow is a huge representation of the Populist farmers who had been controlled by the elitist politicians.
During the 1890s, factory workers had to deal with horrible working conditions and were forced to work a lot of hours for minimal pay while under the control of prominent, Eastern businesses. Coincidentally, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the East from a human to a dehumanized Tin Man who can barely function and has no heart. The Tin Man can easily be a clear representation of the industrial workers of the 1890’s. Industrial workers of the Mid-West were either forced to work in vile factories where their bosses had no consideration for their well-being or they were unemployed due to the flow of immigrants coming in. Additionally, children and immigrants were being taken advantage of by big business to profit, which put a lot of Americans out of work. The rusty, unemployed Tin Man becomes easily drained due to the fact that he was previously over worked. When his period of exhaustion border lines him not being able to function, he is forced to just oil himself up and continue on. This all can imply Baum’s presumptions about the conditions for the industrialist workers of the 1890’s.
The last one to join the journey to Oz and the most “cowardly” character is the Cowardly Lion. At first, Dorothy, Tin Man, and Scarecrow are frightened by him and then scorn him to be more courageous. His cowardly personality may be a direct pun for William Jennings Bryan, a Populist candidate who ran for president in 1896. Although he ran for President in 1896, he had been involved in Politics a couple years before. Even though Bryan had a rough start, he ended up being the most successful Populist politician. Populists actually became very fond of Bryan because of the multiple things he had advocated on; such as better factory conditions for the industrial workers and the promotion of free silver. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the Tin Man dislike the Lion for him trying to attack them, but then as the adventure progresses they both realize that he is courageous after all. William Jennings Bryan was also the last one to join the Populists party just as the Lion was the last one to join the Journey to Oz. Baum clearly had feelings about Bryan and may have incorporated his feelings with this very peculiar character.
There are many scholars who claim that Frank Baum was not a Populists advocate and that The Wizard of Oz is merely a children’s story created by an author with a vivid imagination. In 1991, Michael Hearn, a leading Frank Baum scholar, published a letter in the New York Times based on interviews with Baum’s biographer and son (Taylor 1). These findings demolished the idea that this movie is a political allegory and claimed that Baum was a Democrat. Scholars like Hern are viewing the film with such a closed mind. As previously mentioned, the symbolism appears obvious when one is informed about the Populist ideologies. It is actually very feasible that this movie has a deep political meaning. One well-known economist and scholar named Rockoff also believed that Baum was either a Populist or a Populist sympathizer (Hansen 1). With an open mind, this film can be very thought provoking. There should not be any relevance to whether Baum was a Democrat or a Populist. The truth of the matter is that the Populists could have still inspired him to create this whole story, even if he did not consider himself a Populist.
The Wizard of Oz has easily become a family classic and has even earned its spot into the minds of scholars. The several allegories identified in the characters and in the plot were easily noticeable. Being knowledgeable about the Populists can allow someone to view this film in a different perspective. Dorothy represents the ideal American, Scarecrow represents the farmers, Tin Man represents the industrialists, and the Lion represents William Jennings Bryan. Frank Baum created a controversial story and no one will ever truly know if The Wizard of Oz has deeper meaning buried within.
“Money and Politics in the Land of Oz: The Independent Review: The Independent Institute.” The Independent Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
Hansen, Bradley A. “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics. (Content Articles in Economics).” (n.d.): n. pag. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.