Marvelous Metaphors: What Are the Hidden Symbols in The Wizard of Oz?
What is the political metaphor for The Wizard of Oz?
Let’s be honest.
Although this is a bookish blog – for most of us, our first exposure to the timeless tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was through the classic movie adaptation.
It’s difficult for me to think of a film that was more a part of my childhood than The Wizard of Oz.
So many of us may be unaware – or tend to forget – that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 – nearly 40 years before the movie was released in 1939.
Needless to say – the political situation in the United States was vastly different in 1900 – at the height of the Gilded Age – than it was in 1939 – after World War I, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.
So what was the political climate in the United States in 1900? Why do some experts think The Wizard of Oz is a political allegory?
Was The Wizard of Oz an allegory for the Populist movement?
Post-Civil War America was in a state of flux.
Railroads, increased immigration, and rapid industrialization – particularly in the Northeast – quickly changed the American economy and society.
America was transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrial one – leading to a dramatic shift in the population from rural to urban. Millions of immigrants flocked to employment in factories, mines, and railroads.
At the same time, the monetary and banking system was tightening – leaving farmers and other working people more vulnerable to financial disaster.
In the pre-Industrial rural economy, a farmer with a poor harvest or a stretch of bad luck could plead his case – often to a sympathetic ear – perhaps a local store owner – to make ends meet during a rough patch.
In the transition to an industrial cash economy, this type of “social safety net” – a small community that knew and cared about its members – began to erode.
The social issues surrounding these rapid societal changes found expression in the gold standard vs. bimetallism debate.
How does The Wizard of Oz relate to the gold standard?
Before 1873, American monetary policy operated on “bimetallism,” – meaning that coinage was minted in both silver and gold. Silver and gold were converted to currency based on a fixed exchange rate – and the abundance of silver kept the money supply reasonably fluid.
Over time, the discovery of vast silver deposits in the West decreased the market value of silver. This led Congress to end silver coinage to stabilize the money supply and curb inflation – an issue of particular importance to Northeastern industrialists and bankers.
So when Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1873 – effectively ending the practice of converting silver bullion into currency – the money supply tightened – benefitting banks and creditors – while the economy went into a depression.
A tighter money supply meant that credit was harder to obtain. And as the world expanded for many Americans beyond the boundaries of their small towns – they discovered that industrial businessmen and powerful bankers were indifferent to the hard luck cases of people they had never met.
To these “plain people”, the “free silver” movement represented taking power back from the powerful bankers who had concentrated capital in the hands of the few.
Understandably, these events led to a political divide: the “free silver” or “Silverite” movement – and the “gold bugs” who wanted the United States monetary system to operate on the gold standard – tying the value of the dollar to gold.
The issue came to a head in the Presidential election of 1896 – between Republican William McKinley, who supported the gold standard – and the leader of the “free silver” movement – Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
Is The Wizard of Oz an allegory for the election of 1896?
Whether or not the United States should adopt the gold standard was the most significant political issue in the election of 1896.
Republican William McKinley ran on a platform promoting protectionist tariffs and the adoption of the gold standard – appealing to the interests of Northeastern businessmen and bankers.
While Silverite Democrat William Jennings Bryan effectively won the Democratic nomination with his floor speech at the convention – his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. In it, he states that the interests of the American people should not be sacrificed on the metaphorical cross of the gold standard.
Farmers flocked to the Bryan ticket – but his populist appeal was lost on Northeastern factory workers who ultimately voted en masse for McKinley.
McKinley’s claim that a Bryan victory would lead to unemployment and lower wages successfully turned the election his way – and as President, he signed the Gold Standard Act in 1900.
Strict adherence to the gold standard in the U.S. began to erode in the 1930s. The United States officially ended the gold standard as a monetary policy in 1976.
What does Oz symbolize in The Wizard of Oz?
Here is a fun little chart outlining what experts theorize each Wizard of Oz character symbolizes in the novel.
|The abbreviation for “ounce” – a measurement for weighing gold
Common folk – plain people
|Silver Slippers - the movie made them ruby to look better in Technicolor
Silver coinage – free silver
Farmers – wiser than they know
|Industrial workers – dehumanized people made into machine cogs
|William McKinley – all his power is smoke and mirrors
|Yellow Brick Road
Wicked Witches of the East and West
Bankers and industrial capitalists
|“The little people” – the text states that the Witch of the East – bankers and capitalists – “kept the munchkin people in bondage”
Experts emphasize that The Wizard of Oz as a political allegory is only a theory.
L. Frank Baum left nothing behind to indicate that he intended the novel to be interpreted this way.
It could be a coincidence – like Dark Side of the Moon coinciding with the film – if you start the album when the MGM lion roars.
But it’s a fascinating theory by brilliant scholars – and an excellent political history lesson that rhymes with our own turbulent times.
Handmade Wizard of Oz Book Candle
Looking for the perfect ambient companion to your next read of the novel – or next viewing of the movie?
Check out Poppy Field and Apple Blossom – our book candle inspired by the classic imagery of The Wizard of Oz.