By Rumeana Jahangir BBC News
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the world’s best-loved fairytales.
As Judy Garland‘s famous film nears its 70th birthday, how much do its followers know about the story’s use as an economic parable?
Dorothy in Kansas conjures up nostalgic thoughts of childhood Christmases hiding behind the sofa from the Wicked Witch of the West. Or those flying monkeys.
It’s unlikely its young fans will have been thinking about deflation and monetary policy.
But the story has underlying economic and political references that make it a popular tool for teaching university and high school students – mainly in the United States but also in the UK – about the economic depression of the late 19th Century.
At a time when some economists fear an onset of deflation, and economic certainties melt away like a drenched wicked witch, what can be learnt from Oz?
The 1939 film starring a young Judy Garland was based on Lyman Frank Baum‘s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. It told of an orphaned Kansas girl swept by a tornado into a fantastical world, but who wants to return home to her aunt and uncle.
Thinking the great Wizard of Oz can grant her wish, she sets out to meet him with her beloved dog, Toto, joined by a scarecrow, a tin woodman and a lion.
Baum published the book in 1900, just after the US emerged from a period of deflation and depression. Prices had fallen by about 22% over the previous 16 years, causing huge debt.
Farmers were among those badly affected, and the Populist political party was set up to represent their interests and those of industrial labourers.
The US was then operating on the gold standard – a monetary system which valued the dollar according to the quantity of gold. The Populists wanted silver, along with gold, to be used for money. This would have increased the US money supply, raised price levels and reduced farmers’ debt burdens.
Yellow brick code
In 1964, high school teacher Henry Littlefield wrote an article outlining the notion of an underlying allegory in Baum’s book. He said it offered a “gentle and friendly” critique of Populist thinking, and the story could be used to illuminate the late 19th Century to students.
Since its publication, teachers have used this take on the tale to help classes understand the issues of the era.
SYMBOLISM OF CHARACTERS
Dorothy: Everyman American
Tin Woodman: Industrial worker
Lion: William Jennings Bryan, politician who backed silver cause
Wizard of Oz: US presidents of late 19th Century
Wicked Witch: A malign Nature, destroyed by the farmers’ most precious commodity, water. Or simply the American West
Winged Monkeys: Native Americans or Chinese railroad workers, exploited by West
Oz: An abbreviation of ‘ounce’ or, as Baum claimed, taken from the O-Z of a filing cabinet?
Emerald City: Greenback paper money, exposed as fraud
Munchkins: Ordinary citizens
And Littlefield’s theory has been hotly debated. He believed the characters could represent the personalities and themes of the late 1800s,with Dorothy embodying the everyman American spirit.
US political historian Quentin Taylor, who supports this interpretation, says: “There are too many instances of parallels with the political events of the time.
“The Tin Woodman represents the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is the farmer and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan.”
Bryan was a Democratic presidential candidate who supported the silver cause. But he failed to win votes from eastern workers and lost the 1896 election. In the same way, the Lion’s claws are nearly blunted by the Woodman’s metallic shell.
The Wicked Witch of the West is associated with a variety of controversial personalities, chief among them the industrialist Mark Hanna, campaign manager to President William McKinley.
In this scenario, the yellow brick road symbolises the gold standard, the Emerald City becomes Washington DC and the Great Wizard characterises the president – and he is exposed as being less than truthful.
Off to see the President
Yet none can help Dorothy return home. Eventually she discovers that her silver shoes (changed to ruby for the film) have the power to take her back to Kansas.
The possible implication is that gold alone cannot be the solution for the problems facing the average citizen. But Professor Taylor thinks it’s unlikely the book took sides. Instead he says it was merely explaining the story of the Populist movement, some of whom marched on Washington DC in 1894 to demand government improve their plight.
Their demand for the use of silver with the gold standard was not met, although within a few years, inflation returned after discoveries of gold in South Africa and other parts of the world.
In Baum’s story, Dorothy loses her silver slippers in the desert before she reaches home – a possible reflection of the decline of the silver cause after 1896.
But not everyone believes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz includes any hidden meanings.
“Nobody ever suggested it until 1964,” says Bradley Hansen, who is a professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington.
“There’s no solid evidence that Baum had written it as a monetary allegory,” he adds. “While it may have grabbed students’ interests, it doesn’t really teach them anything about the gold standard and, in particular, the debate about the gold standard.”
Professor Hansen thinks the author was just trying to create a new kind of fairytale, the “Harry Potter of its time”.
“ There’s no solid evidence that Baum had written it as a monetary allegory ”
Bradley Hansen, economics professor
Soon after publication, Baum adapted his book into a stage musical for adults which opened in 1902. Ranjit Dighe, who wrote The Historian’s Wizard of Oz, says it poked fun at Theodore Roosevelt and the Populists, but Baum was playing for laughs, like Jay Leno.
Little can be learnt from Baum about the modern economic crisis, says Professor Taylor, although in both instances people have demanded more government action.
The Bank of England has – as the Populists more than 100 years ago demanded – provided a boost to the monetary supply, although the term “quantitative easing” was probably little known in the 1890s. And ultimately the US defeated deflation by creating money from new discoveries of gold abroad.
L Frank Baum died before the debates over his true intent had started. But in the book’s introduction, he stated that he was only writing to please children.
He was no doubt unaware of its future appeal to economics students.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I never thought of TWOO as an economic parable, but it always makes me smile that poppies put you to sleep and snow wakes you up. Was that in the book or is it just Hollywood?
No real surprise – a children’s story with a deeper subtext. Look just a little closer and you’ll find a whole host of subtexts in children’s books most noticeably the assignment of gender roles, fears about the adult world, awakening sexuality etc. I’d be interested to hear possible deeper meanings of the sequel Oz books. I’m told that the Disney film Return to Oz, which I found very disturbing as a child, is actually very close to the books – with electro convulsive therapy, and a witch who steals the heads of beautiful young girls.
Having played the Tin Woodman in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz myself, and having taught a course in the relationships between literature and economics for years, I’m a long-time subscriber to the allegorical interpretation. Baum allegedly denied any underlying meaning, but lots of artists like to disclaim hidden agendas and let the audience do whatever the audience will do with the work. And what about the US’s geographical divisions: the Bad Witches are of the East and West; the Good, from the North and South. For East read banks and railroads; for West, read gold dealers and more railroads; for North, read the heart of the Populist movement; for South, the agrarian region most harmed by the depression. Sure, Baum was just playing around…
John Stifler, Amherst, Massachusetts, US
I had to smile when I read this story. People can choose to see anything they like. For decades, the gay community has had a fond regard for The Wizard of Oz, perhaps because it could be described as a bunch of misfits finding their way in the world. If you look hard enough and use a little creative licence, anybody can find anything in a movie like this. Interpretation is everything.
David Holder-Twomlow, Birmingham, UK
And there I was thinking that it was just another anti-communist rant.
Stephen Shingler, Cheadle, Staffs
Funny how many people seem almost offended by the idea that this fairytale is an allegory. Seems most people have forgotten what fairytales are… yes they are entertaining, but that is not their purpose. Like ancient (and modern) myths, they are an allegory first and foremost, intended to teach the (originally often ill-educated) public, both young and old, about various moral and practical aspects of their time and life in general. Whether or not the Wizard of Oz was intended as such is beside the point, if it now can function for that purpose, why not?
Alban Paul, Amsterdam
The Wizard of Oz always reminds me of the great Sufi poem, The Conference of The Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar, written almost 1,000 years ago. The story of a group of birds looking to someone else to solve their problems until they get to the end of the journey and realise that, through their trials and tribulations, they found everything they were looking for within themselves. Gregory Maguire – author of Wicked and Son of A Witch – mentions that themes in his book were inspired by this poem.
Samar Habib, London
I experienced the use of The Wizard of Oz as a teaching tool for both American history and economics. Whether Baum intended it or not, it does work, and it certainly helped me remember where everyone stood on the silver debate for my exams.
Barton, Minneapolis, US
Perhaps the Munchkins’ song was actually a clever prophecy about Sir Fred Goodwin’s post-RBS lifestyle:
We get up at twelve
And start to work at one
Take an hour for lunch
And then at two we’re done
Jolly good fun!
Martin Ruck, Oxford, UK
Maybe it’s a warning of the future? Dorothy (citizens) keeps being told by Tin Man (industrialists with no heart), Scarecrow (banks with no brain) and Lion (politicians who have lost control of the people or animals in the jungle), that when you reach the end of the yellow brick road (finish using the gold standard) you will reach the emerald city (start using fiat money) and everything will be OK. But the Wizard was a fraud, his gifts were shallow and it was all a fantasy. Just like the money which is created by the federal banks clicking its heels together, then demanding interest or they’ll send the monkeys after you.
Why do people have to find hidden meanings? The author himself insisted he was just writing for children, so why not leave it at that? And if no one decided about the hidden meaning until 1964, it smacks of someone trying to make a name for himself by picking on a well-known story and trying to make something else of it.
Anne Boyce, Halifax, England
Can we not be allowed to enjoy a fairytale as a fairytale, loved by millions of children (and adults), without this constant need to analyse everything? It would do society a great deal of good to get a life and start to use your imaginations again and enjoy musicals for their own sake even if they do have a deep meaning. Don’t we have enough doom and gloom in the world?
The Wizard of Oz is a simple political allegory of politicians running away from trouble when they find out and leaving trouble in the hands of the ordinary. The Wicked Witch is our blame culture, the one the politicians pin the problems on.
Elphaba, Kiamo Ko
Having read the book for the first time quite recently, none of this rings true and the very specific suggested allegory requires a real stretch of the imagination. The story of an ineffective unelected leader exercising control over the populace by means of trickery and deception could certainly be regarded as an allegory during a period when the power of monarchies was being eroded in many parts of the world, but merely follows a similar universal principle to the Emperor’s New Clothes and is therefore nothing new. While it is understandable that Baum would portray a politician as lacking courage, it is harder to see why he would portray farmers or industrial workers as lacking either brain or heart. Surely even a malign Nature or American West (as allegedly represented by the Wicked Witch) would be nourished by water rather than being destroyed by it? The book is nothing more than a rather pedestrian effort at a fairytale. The alleged link with the Populists seems to be the fancy of a man with too much time on his hands and an interest in a rather overlooked period of history. Marvellous film, but don’t read the book to your children unless you’re trying to bore them to sleep.
Iain Wishlade, Birmingham, UK
Iain, you need to watch the movie again. The scarecrow turned out to be the smartest member of the band of unlikely heroes, and the tin woodsman had the most heart. And they had them all along. I am certain that the story really is allegorical. I have also heard it described as a Marxist fable, and it can fit quite nicely. Like the LOTR trilogy, or Wagner’s Ring cycle, it taps into lots of ideas and themes that were floating around when the author wrote the story but it doesn’t correspond exactly to any of them, and it is more than a complicated allegory, because it also stands on its own, simply as a story. That’s probably why we are still reading it and watching it. For my money, it’s still the best “children’s” movie ever made, and it’s nice to have a girl for a hero for a change.
Diane Jenkins, Albuquerque, NM, US
I had always thought of the Wizard of Oz as a warning against advertising, as seen then in the catalogs, and the promises of their products solving life’s problems. Is this its own economic parable or connected to the one stated in the article?
David DeNaples, New Haven, CT, US
The remarkable art of the Wizard of Oz is its ability to appeal on several levels. It stands with the Harry Potter novels, and Mark Twain’s most prominent works, in its use of a children’s story to reach adults.
Frank S, Oyster Bay, NY
Economic parable? Strange. I had always thought that the story was a warning against putting trust in religions, gods, magic and other supernatural things. The wiz was “god” (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain), the emerald city was heaven (a lie – travellers were given green sunglasses to wear on entering the city) etc.
Mysturji, Basingstoke, UK
Maria, that the movie is not a faithful adaptation of the book underscores how unlikely it was that Baum was attempting to offer any allegory regarding the financial woes of the US in the early 20th Century. Certainly it can be said that authors, playwrights and screen writers can unwittingly impose some of their own beliefs into their works, I have found that it is seldom the case that there are “hidden” messages to be found. People will see what they want to see.
Sam Crawford, Sault Ste Marie, Canada
Baum may have been influenced subconsciously by the spirit of the times. However, I think the attempt to portray The Wizard of OZ as political allegory is much more a case of interpreting things backwardly than the case of basing it on allegorical political fact. Baum wrote a good a story. Leave it at that.
Yes, in my family we all knew – and were always astonished by how few people actually remembered the truth about this rather horrid little narrative. Certainly not actually children’s fare.
Maria Ashot, London, UK
The Wizard of Oz is also used to teach story-telling and screen-writing, which is more than just an incidental point. Much though the term is overused, the WoO is full of “universal themes”, making it very easy to see parallels with other stories or situations. It’s primarily a journey of discovery where the characters succeed by overcoming their own short-comings. Many stories are, so why not take the Lord of the Rings as a parable where the populist fellowship march to mount doom (Capitol Hill) in order to destroy the “gold standard” ring? So much sophistry.
Rob Egginton, Bristol, UK
I remember fondly watching this movie in my Advance Placement US History class and afterwards discussing the meanings behind the film. Though our teacher was pleased with how well we picked up the meanings, she was equally impressed with our knowledge of how the Pink Floyd album syncs with the movie, and other titbits about the movie.
Rob Rubinstein, Chicago, IL, US
Wait, wait… If you start Bernanke’s 60 Minutes interview the second time the MGM Lion roars you can hear John Lennon say “I am the goldbug” right before Dorothy’s house squishes the witch…
Here is a little known fact about L Frank Baum and the entire Oz series. Baum never lived in Kansas. He was actually born in a small town called Chittenago, New York, which is 12 miles from where I currently live. Buam’s wife was the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a prominent member of the Women’s suffrage movement here in the United States. Baum himself was a prominent supporter of Women’s Suffrage and it is no accident that his protagonist in the novels is female.
Joe Cooter, Syracuse, NY
The next story will be about the country with a leader having a pair of tailors, and a fabulous see-thru fabric to make a new suit. All the ministers will say how wonderful he looks in the suit, which really is figure hugging, and very modern, and they offer to pay for it. Needless to say this could only be fiction from the last millennium, and not relevant to us.
Derek, Sunbury on Thames
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By Rumeana Jahangir BBC News