Rewriting the American Dream in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
L. Frank Baum’s introduction to the fantastic realm of Oz first appeared in 1900. In his words, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (later shortened to The Wizard of Oz) is “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” While Baum states he avoided the moralistic intentions of his predecessors’ “historical” fairy tales, whether he accomplished that is arguable. Nonetheless, his text presents distinctive marks regarding the socio-political context of America at the turn of the century, a dismal time of uncertainty and fraudulence with its trademark illusion of the capitalist American Dream.
As a framed story, The Wizard of Oz emphasizes the relationship between the fictional, reinterpreted land of Kansas and the land of Oz. Both places appear in opposition initially, but they become mirror images of each other as the story progresses; they will revert to their true beauty through Dorothy’s adventure. By default, the frame narrative assures readers that they have a safe place to return to after the adventure, only the image of Kansas in the opening lines is anything but welcoming: “The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it” (5). Kansas is a sterile world, scarce in resources, “dull and gray” (5), a place where the vast wasteland drains out all the life, and the endless droughts strangle the possibility of hope for something better. Even the people in the gray prairie are contaminated: “When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. … Uncle Henry never laughed.” (6). Dorothy and Toto are the only inhabitants that have yet to be influenced by the gray world, but the young heroine is affected by the lack of familial love. Deborah Thacker and Jeann Webb argue that while Dorothy is a strong female figure in a man’s world, she yearns “for home, the rural and the domestic world of the feminine” (87). The possibility of family with her aunt and uncle pushes Dorothy to adventure further into Oz; she wants to get back home, even though Kansas chokes on its sterility. The implications of the American Dream are evident through this bleak image of Kansas: during Baum’s time and around the turn of the century, more people were fooled into farming land that was already over-farmed and incapable of sustaining crops with the harsh, dry winds. Thus, the ‘dream’ turned out to be a complete fraud, and the ‘homes’ of the Americans turned sparser and more devoid of color, replicating Dorothy’s Kansas.
Although more opulent and colorful than Kansas, Oz is also an illusion of freedom and happiness. First, the demonic Wicked Witch of the West rules over Oz, and Dorothy and her friends have to defeat her to free everyone else under her influence. Second, the Great and Powerful Oz Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion meet to get their wishes granted is a complete fake, a “humbug.” The message is clear: people tend to look to someone else to fix their lives, and those in power only use and trick them (akin to how the Great Oz put green-tinted glasses on the people of the Emerald City so “the name [would] fit better” (116) ). Like real-life Kansas, the citizens of the Emerald City believe a lie, a dream that lacks substance. They live in a Utopia that is a perfect projection of the American Dream, in which something appears perfect but is ultimately an illusion. The yellow brick road is another example of sociopolitical criticism in Oz: Americans labored to find the streets paved with gold, but they proved to be a sham, a false prophet (McCulloch 76). In the end, Dorothy returns home to an altered Kansas, where love is finally blooming in the hearts of her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. This change results from Dorothy bringing color from Oz into Kansas; it reshaped the place to its best potential, similarly to how the journey altered her.
While L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz depicts an exciting adventure through a fantastic realm, it is also a product of its tumultuous and anxiety-ridden time, where Americans were fooled into believing in a capitalist Utopia. Baum fully accomplishes his mission of not moralizing the children, but the adults witness the truth in his text. Through the color gray in the depiction of Kansas, the symbolic yellow road, the showman Oz, and the theme of home, Baum criticizes the false American Dream, rewriting it to stress the need for people’s self-reliance. The moral is that nobody should look outward to false prophets and material abundance for their dreams to become a reality. Instead, they should journey inwards to find what is essential, something which Dorothy verbalized early on in the story: “There is no place like home” (25).
Baum, Frank L. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. George M. Hill, 1900. Project Gutenberg, gutenberg.org/files/55/55-h/55-h.htm.
McCulloch, Fiona. Children’s Literature in Context. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
Thacker, Deborah Cogan and Jeann Webb. Introducing Children’s Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism. Routledge, 2002.