Is The Wizard of Oz a satire of the French Revolution?

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Dear Cecil: ABC recently aired the movie classic, The Wizard of Oz, which brings to mind something I first heard in high school. A friend of mine had collected several of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and he said the one entitled The Wizard of Oz was in fact a satire of the French Revolution. The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion represented different members of the royalty, and the various witches were somehow opposing factions — or maybe it was the other way around. I know Animal Farm satirized the Russian Revolution. Did The Wizard of Oz do the same for the French Revolution? If so, what characters represent which actual people? Cameron G., Phoenix


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

This is the first I’ve heard about a connection between The Wizard of Oz and the French Revolution. Your friend is obviously confused. Everybody knows the satire of the French Revolution was “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.”

The story I got about The Wizard of Oz was that it was an allegorical treatise on the Populist movement in the U.S. in the 1890s. This interpretation strikes me as being about as crazed as your friend’s, but since it was published in an allegedly scholarly journal (Henry Littlefield, American Quarterly, 1964) … well, I’ll let you be the judge.

The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was written by L. Frank Baum. Baum had been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Chicago and South Dakota, where he had been in a position to observe the Populist agitation for agrarian reform. The Populists felt they were getting screwed by eastern capitalists who controlled the gold supply, among other things. One of their principal demands was for the free coinage of silver, which would make for “easy money.” Supposedly this was represented in The Wizard of Oz by Dorothy’s silver shoes (they only became ruby slippers in the movie version). The silver shoes gave her a “wonderful power,” could she but recognize it. You’ll recall that Dorothy treks all over Oz via the Yellow Brick Road, which represents the gold standard, the ultimately illusory route to salvation.

The Tin Woodsman represents the ordinary workingman, reduced to a dehumanized, heartless machine by eastern capitalists. The Scarecrow is the midwestern farmer, whose bumpkinesque facade conceals his native shrewdness. The Cowardly Lion represents politicians in general and specifically William Jennings Bryan, who was endorsed by the Populists for president in 1896. Bryan was a pacifist given to windy oratory, but deep down he was a gutsy guy. Dorothy herself represents the Little Guy, naive but feisty.

The Emerald City represents Washington, D.C., and the Wiz is El Presidente, who appears awesome but is really an ordinary guy. He sends Dorothy out to do battle with the Wicked Witch of the West, namely the malign forces of nature in the American West. On the way Dorothy and her friends are attacked by the winged monkeys, who represent (very subtle metaphor here) the plains Indians. Dorothy finally conquers the Wicked Witch with water, representing the power of … get ready for this … irrigation. Finally, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (representing Cecil Adams, symbol of universal righteousness), tells Dorothy she has had the power to return home ever since Page 16. This implies the kid has frivoled away an entire book’s worth of adventures for nothing. Our heroes learn they should look within themselves rather than to the government for the solution to their problems. The End.

The main problem with the preceding interpretation is that taken in aggregate it makes no sense. I mean, why should the forces of nature (the Wicked Witch of the West) be so hot for the free coinage of silver (i.e., Dorothy’s footwear)? Baum was given to occasional satirical touches in his work, I admit. But he was primarily a storyteller rather than a political commentator, and the bits of symbolism stuck into his books for the most part don’t add up to anything. However, I don’t want to be too critical. The article I’ve just been citing clearly reflects the hellish conditions all journalists face: too little time, too much beer. Been there.

Late news:  Populist theory repudiated!

Well, cast into some doubt, anyway, which we could have predicted. For an entertaining discussion of the subject, see “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism,’” by David B. Parker.

Cecil Adams

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