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really close readings

7 Theories of What The Wizard of Oz Is Really About

We’ll have to wait and see if Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful manages to become as iconic and enduring a part of our collective pop-cultural subconscious as the original 1939 Wizard of Oz movie and L. Frank Baum’s original novel. (Here’s a guess: No.) But one thing’s for sure: Over the years, both book and movie have fueled a number of elaborate theories as to the story’s deeper meanings. Some of these have been overtly political, some have been spiritual, some, um, monetary. Here are seven of the most notable ones:

A Parable on Populism (and American Monetary Policy)
This popular and well-documented reading sees The Wizard of Oz as being about the collapse of the Populist Movement in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. In this scenario, Dorothy represents the common citizen, the Tin Man is the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is a stand-in for farmers, and the Cowardly Lion is politician William Jennings Bryan (seen by many at the time as being all talk and no action). They travel along the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) to see the Wizard, who could represent President Grover Cleveland or William McKinley. (“Oz” itself is the abbreviation for ounce, which is the standard for measuring gold. The green of the Emerald City represents the dollar.) The Wicked Witch of the East represents bankers, and the Wicked Witch of the West — who, remember, gets killed by water — is drought. This theory, first put forth in the sixties by a high-school teacher named Henry Littlefield (whose original essay you can read here), has since been debunked, yet still maintains a hold over many.*

Religious Allegory
Over the decades, The Wizard of Oz has been seen by many Christians (and used often in sermons — see here for one example) as an allegory of faith. Consider: The Yellow Brick Road is the path to enlightenment, with the characters encountering a variety of emblems of sin and temptation along the way toward the Emerald City, which is a kind of a heaven. (In another reading, Oz itself can be heaven.) Also, the Wicked Witch is killed with water, suggesting baptism. (It also helps that there are a number of resonances between Baum’s story and John Bunyan’s influential spiritual tale The Pilgrim’s Progress.)

Atheist Allegory
Hilariously, this theory I.D.'s almost all the same elements as the religious allegory, but then interprets them in the opposite direction — that is, God, a.k.a. the Wizard, isn’t real, there’s a mortal behind the curtain, and all that spiritual mumbo jumbo is illusory. This theory corresponds better with the book, where Oz is more about duplicity and illusion, than the movie. (For example, in the novel, the Emerald City is only emerald because the Wizard makes everybody wear green glasses there.) In fact, early in the book’s publishing career, Christian Fundamentalists tried to get it banned for suggesting that humanity’s gifts came from within and were not God-given.

Feminist Allegory
First, consider the fact that anyone who actually has any real power in Oz — Dorothy and the witches — is female. And, perhaps just as important, note how the men are all lacking to some degree, be they wizards without power, lions without courage, tin men without hearts, or scarecrows without brains. This may not be incidental: L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law was the influential suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, a colleague of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many have noted how Matilda's radical feminism made its way into Baum’s Oz books. The author himself, who was very close to his mother-in-law, was the secretary of his local women’s suffrage club and edited a newspaper that made women’s rights its key crusading issue.

“The Jungian Thing”
Not unlike the way the characters in The Wizard of Oz correlate to important elements in the crusade against the gold standard, they also just happen to map out the various figures described in the psychoanalytic theories of C.G. Jung. Dorothy, the dreaming innocent, is on a quest toward individuation/self-actualization, and her companions correspond to the first three stages of Jung’s conception of the Animus — the male inner personality of the female. (The fourth stage, a mediator or messenger of “spiritual profundity,” is of course the Wizard himself.) Meanwhile, the Good Witch Glinda corresponds to the Jungian archetype of the Mother, Toto is the Trickster, and the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys could be Jung’s Shadow, the repressed and potentially dark side of the personality.

The Inadequacy of Adults
Salman Rushdie, a noted fan of The Wizard of Oz who wrote a pretty amazing BFI Classics book on the film, believes that one of the things that makes Oz so powerful is that it lays bare the weakness of adults (as witnessed by Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s inability to save Toto, and, of course, by the Wizard’s own powerlessness) and the need for children to do their own growing up: “As the Wicked Witch of the West ‘grows down,’” he writes, “so too is Dorothy seen to have grown up.”    

The Glinda Conspiracy Theory
Thanks to the Internet, over the years many Oz fans have circulated opposing (and, of course, usually tongue-in-cheek) theories suggesting that Glinda the Good Witch might actually be the true villain of Oz. Some have pointed to the fact that Glinda gloats a bit too morbidly over the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, calling for celebrations and then actually taunting the witch’s sister. Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that Glinda, though she knows the ruby slippers will send Dorothy home, hides this fact from Dorothy and sends the unwitting girl off to do her dirty work for her, all so she herself can finally rule over the land of Oz. Interestingly, Oz the Great and Powerful seems to inadvertently nod to this reading a bit, in that in the new film the Wicked Witch of the East initially presents herself as a good witch, and sends the unwitting Oz off to kill Glinda the Good Witch.

* This post initially stated that Eric Littlefield was the man behind the populist theory of Oz. It was Henry Littlefield.

Photo: Warner Bros.