Like most literary works, The Wizard of Oz has been thought to contain a metaphor or two and its mystique may take decades to unravel. Ordinarily, a pair of shoes is a pair of shoes. In The Wizard of Oz, however, the kind of shoes you wear makes all the difference in getting you where you need to go. Years after the movie’s release, no one really questioned why it mattered what shoes Dorothy was wearing. That is, until an article written in 1964 by high school teacher, Henry Littlefield, unveiled new meanings behind the age-old favorite.
The movie is based on the Lyman Frank Baum novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. The author of The Wizard of Oz story passed away in 1919, well before Littlefield’s article, leaving us to speculate on the mysterious allegories he may have buried in his treasured tale.
When Baum first wrote the novel, he wrote in its introduction that the book was meant to entertain children. He details the plight of orphan girl, Dorothy, and her dog, Toto, who have been blown away from their home in Kansas by a tornado. When they find themselves in a new fantasy world, their adventure to return home begins as Dorothy is helped by a scarecrow, tin woodman and a lion. Even as the movie was released decades later, it was appreciated simply as a great family movie though any of its characters make speculation for a Wizard of Oz rich with metaphors seem fairly plausible. The “brainless” scarecrow, for example, is compared to the farmer who learns to rely on his own wits to pull himself through.
Starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it was the most expensive project MGM had taken on up to that point in time. The movie was a special effects extravaganza in its clever use of Technicolor, unforgettable songs, story and fantastic characters. Despite all the fanfare surrounding the movie that was nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture Award, there was never any real discussion on whether Baum had an ulterior motive other than writing an entertaining children’s novel.
However, in 1964, a high school teacher by the name of Henry Littlefield added a new dimension of mystique to the already popular classic. In his article, he surmised that there was plenty more than just one Wizard of Oz metaphor highlighting the economics of Baum’s era. Littlefield first described the circumstances surrounding the novelist before and during the time the novel was written. He noted that while Baum (born near Syracuse) lived in South Dakota with his family from 1887-1891, he bore witness to the severe difficulties of farming in the Midwest.
When he moved to Chicago in 1891, Baum was fully exposed to the rise of “Populism,” a farmers’ political movement of that era. The economic depression of 1893 must have also influenced Baum, who was also a journalist. Politically, Baum was known to have supported Populist Democratic Candidate William Bryan for President. However, the author was not an activist but more of a “tolerant” observer of the times. The depression was already finished by the time he started writing the book between 1896 and 1900, and the political spotlight accordingly shifted from economic policy to foreign policy as America and Spain went to war.
Examining all these factors, Littlefield found parallels between Baum’s story and the times surrounding his life, and the similarities are hard to ignore. The Yellow Brick Road is one such example of a Wizard of Oz metaphor that stands for the gold standard. While the yellow brick path leads to Emerald City where the Wizard of Oz reigns, in the end, he cannot help Dorothy get home.
Emerald City is akin to the nation’s capitol while the Wizard of Oz is similar to a president in his inability to solve people’s problems despite his image and position. Dorothy’s silver slippers, changed to ruby in the movie version, represent the Populist belief that silver should be added to the gold standard to help farmers get out of their bad situation. Dorothy symbolized the everyday American. So the list of Wizard of Oz allegories goes on.
There are some who point out, however, that before 1964, The Wizard of Oz was just a fairytale. Professor of economics at The University of Mary Washington, Bradley Hansen asserts that there is “no solid evidence” to support the theory that Baum intended his story to be a “monetary allegory.” This could be true and L. Frank Baum passed on way before the Wizard of Oz metaphor theories came to light so these theories will never be officially confirmed or denied. Still, his compelling story, with or without its allegorical mystique, continues to capture the imagination of kids and adults alike.
By Fatema Biviji