Two words: flying monkeys. On that image alone we could rest our case that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fanciful book. But there are loads of other imaginative touches, including a talking scarecrow, a man made of tin, armless men with projectile heads…the list goes on. Oz is a place that's packed with strange sights, charming touches, and little delights.
But it's also a dangerous place. In the words of the Good Witch of the North, Oz is "sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible" (2.56). Creatures like the Kalidahs and the Wicked Witch of the West do everything in their power to see that Dorothy and her friends come to harm. The thing is, they don't come to harm. Threats abound, but they're always dealt with quickly. (Even the wicked witch, the biggest baddie in the book, is dead in the space of two chapters.) Though the characters encounter some scary stuff, these quick defeats help give us the sense they're safe as houses.
We learn early on that Dorothy is pretty much always going to be okay, when one of the Winged Monkeys says, "We dare not harm this little girl…for she is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the Power of Evil" (12.55).
And in the end, each of the main characters gets his own happy ending. "I am glad I was of use to these good friends," Dorothy says in the penultimate chapter. "But now that each of them has what he most desired, and each is happy in having a kingdom to rule besides, I think I should like to get back to Kansas" (23.33). Which she does. And what could be safer than that? (Now that the Gales have a brand new farmhouse, and presumably a restored storm cellar.)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is often referred to as the first American fairy tale. The story itself starts and ends in the American heartland, on a Kansas farm. Some elements of the story are traditional (it's not like Baum invented witchcraft), but other parts feel fresh and particularly American. With the Scarecrow, for instance, Baum took a practical, everyday item—something that his readers would know from real life—and made it special.
The author was consciously working in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, but he wasn't writing a cautionary tale. In Baum's preface to the book, he described his story as a "modernized fairy tale" that was "written solely to please children." In his effort to delight his young audience, he made the conflicts in the story really brief. That's because he felt like a lot of traditional fairy tales were too frightening. And because he wasn't trying to hammer home any particular lessons. Dorothy and her friends encounter a lot of scary situations, but they're always easily (and happily) resolved, which Baum hoped would be a comfort to tiny readers.
Like many fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz involves a great quest. To get back to Kansas, Dorothy must slay a nasty enemy, the Wicked Witch of the West. (The conflict between a young girl and an evil older woman is a familiar storyline, too—from Cinderella to Alice in Wonderland, it is often used in fairy tales.) Dorothy succeeds, of course, but her reward is not a prince or great riches; it's self-knowledge. Dorothy is ultimately carried home on her own two feet.
There's not much mystery as to where The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gets its title. Oz is the greatest, most powerful wizard in all the land…or at least that's what he lets people think. Thanks to the detective work of Dorothy "Snopes.com" Gale, we happen to know he's just a regular guy pretending to be a wizard. She and her friends never tell the citizens of Oz, though, so when he leaves town, his reputation remains intact and his legacy as a "wonderful wizard" is preserved.
One more small thing, in case you care. You've probably noticed that the book is best known by its abbreviated title. The longer version is the original; it was first shortened to The Wizard of Oz when it was produced as a play a few years after it was published. Guess it stuck.
Structurally, the book ends exactly where it began: in Kansas. In the last chapter, after all her adventures in Oz, Dorothy has finally found her way home and into the open arms of dear old Aunt Em. What's interesting is how Dorothy gets there.
Though she spends the entire novel looking for someone to help her, in the end it wasn't necessary. All Dorothy had to do was tap into the power of her own silver shoes to travel back to the family farm. To think, she could have returned home from the moment she landed in Oz! Of course, that wouldn't have been much of a story.
Most of the action takes place in the Land of Oz, which is a very strange place. But the protagonist, Dorothy, hails from a land that many of us know very well, and that's the good old U.S. of A. Dorothy is from Kansas (a farm girl no less!) and her family's homestead has a real Great Depression vibe:
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side.... The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything. (1.2)
The action doesn't take place during the Great Depression, though. (In fact, it was written some 30 years before Black Tuesday.) The author's description is vague because he didn't want to situate the story in a specific time period. To make the book feel timeless, he spends most of the story in Oz—a place that doesn't actually exist. Then he starts and ends the story in the "real" world to make all the strange things that happen in Oz seem more believable. Though we spend fewer than five pages in Kansas, it's important to the setting because it grounds the rest of the story.
Where is Oz, anyway? All we really know is that it's a full day's journey as the house (or the hot-air balloon) flies. Though it's a fanciful place with talking lions and flying monkeys, it is not located in the land of imagination. (Fans of the movie might remember that Oz was just part of Dorothy's dream.) Oz exists, physically speaking, though it is "cut off from all the rest of the world" (2.31), whatever that means.
After Dorothy's house lands in Oz, it's immediately obvious that she's not in Kansas anymore. Oz is "a country of marvelous beauty" (2.3) with the "queerest people [Dorothy] had ever seen" (2.4). As soon as Dorothy steps out of her front door, she is surrounded by Munchkins who believe her to be a sorceress. She quickly learns that Oz is a place beyond rules because it "has never been civilized" (2.31). Just as there are good witches and wicked witches, the land itself seems like a place of extremes. It's "sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible" (2.56), but it's always interesting. Kansas, where Dorothy could stand "in the doorway and…see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side" (1.2), is neither interesting, nor beautiful, nor particularly pleasant.
And yet, Dorothy is awfully homesick the entire time she's a tourist in Oz. Wherever she goes, her heart is in Kansas. One of the most famous lines in the book is when she tells the Scarecrow, "There is no place like home" (4.8). In a sense, then, setting helps define not just her character, but the emotional core of the book. While Dorothy's homecoming in the final chapter is very brief—just three paragraphs—it's satisfying to see her back where she belongs.
Though his work is admired in a lot of literary circles these days, L. Frank Baum wasn't trying to be a Writer. (You know, the snooty sorts who throw around hundred-dollar words and refuse to admit that they occasionally watch TV?) Everything Baum did was for the kids.
"The story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today," Baum wrote in his preface. He kept the language simple and the plot moving, making the book a cinch to read even now, a century after he penned it.
Oz is a strange and unfamiliar place filled with flying monkeys, a woodman made out of tin, and other things that readers have never seen before. Since Baum wrote about things that don't exist in the real world, he used extra vivid descriptions to help paint pictures in our heads. Oz itself, with its yellow brick road and Emerald City, seems to be in Technicolor, doesn't it? And notice how Baum appeals to our senses of both sight and sound in passages like this one:
The sky was darkened, and a low rumbling sound was heard in the air. There was a rushing of many wings, a great chattering and laughing; and the sun came out of the dark sky to show the Wicked Witch surrounded by a crowd of monkeys, each with a pair or immense and powerful wings on his shoulders. (12.46)
Baum was a theater man—a fan, patron, actor, and playwright—and you can see his love for drama come through in the way he writes. The chapters tend to be episodic, or self-contained, in that one Big Thing happens. For example, the book begins with a cyclone; then Dorothy's new friends are introduced, one by one; and finally those friends encounter a variety of obstacles, one at a time. Many chapters involve our friends overcoming some enemy—for instance, the Wicked Witch of the West (in "The Rescue"), aggressive plant life (in "Attacked by the Fighting Trees"), or an evil spider (in "The Lion Becomes the King of the Beasts").
All that fightin' makes for a repetitive plot structure, but Baum doesn't stop there. He also uses repetition in his sentence structure and dialogue. Dorothy repeats her goal of getting home to Kansas like a mantra—and every blessed time she mentions it, you can bet your bottom dollar the rest of the gang is going to chime in with their Amazon wishlist. Check it out:
"You promised to send me back to Kansas when the Wicked Witch was destroyed," said the girl. "And you promised to give me brains," said the Scarecrow. "And you promised to give me a heart," said the Tin Woodman. "And you promised to give me courage," said the Cowardly Lion. (15.23-15.26)
Some version of that conversation happens, oh, at least a dozen times. Repetition is a common device in both fairy tales and children's literature (and TV shows like Sesame Street, for that matter). It helps kids engage in the story because they know what's coming next.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is too long to be a parable and not quite didactic enough to be an allegory. Still, the main characters (Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion) embody traditional American values. Dorothy's is the most important one, self-reliance.
Throughout her time in Oz, Dorothy is singularly focused on getting home to Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. It's not something she knows how to do herself, so she seeks help from a variety of characters, including the good witches and the Wizard of Oz. Her goal is thwarted at seemingly every turn, but she never gives up. Whatever wrench is thrown her way, she keeps calm and carries on. Failure is not an option.
In the end, she gets back to Kansas by drawing from the power of her silver shoes, which she had from the moment she landed in Oz. "Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert," the Good Witch of the South tells Dorothy. "If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country" (23.28). Turns out Dorothy doesn't need the help of that mean old Wizard (who's a fraud anyway) to get home. She can just walk there on her own two feet.
Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion embody traditional American values. The Scarecrow symbolizes intelligence and cunning; he's always coming up with good ideas that help the group out of bad situations. The Tin Woodman symbolizes compassion. He's the conscience of the group, always making sure that their actions don't hurt anyone else. The Lion symbolizes bravery. In a pinch, he's always willing to turn around and fight to the death.
What's interesting about these three characters as symbols is that they are plagued by self-doubt. They see themselves as incompetent and incomplete, which causes them a lot of personal pain. The sense of inadequacy also makes them more relatable as characters since many readers will have struggled with similar feelings. We've all had moments where we wished we were just a little bit smarter, or more compassionate, or more courageous, right? It's a normal human failing. And often others see in us those qualities we think we lack.
Blind to the traits and skills they already possess, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion expect to receive a brain, a heart, and courage as rewards for a job well done. The Wizard, hack that he is, presents them each with prizes: a brain consisting of "a measure of bran…mixed with a great many pins and needles" (16.9); a "pretty heart, made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust" (16.21); and a dose of courage that appears to be more or less a shot of whiskey. All three are empty objects symbolizing traits that the characters already have.
So what's the takeaway? First of all, the characters' focus on the Wizard's material gifts is misguided. If they would only look inward, they would recognize their strengths. Instead they seek two unnecessary things: approval from an outside source and material rewards that they don't need. The author's message is that true happiness and achievement is not about the things you acquire. It's what's on the inside that really counts.
It's really very simple. The road symbolizes life, man. And on the yellow brick road that is life, things aren't always going to be easy. As you travel, you'll make friends and you'll make enemies. The further you go, the more you come to know yourself.
As Dorothy leaves for the Emerald City, the Good Witch of the North tells her, "It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible" (2.56).
Boy, is she right!
Dorothy and her friends see some beautiful sights, like fields of flowers and magnificent cities. But they also encounter a lot of obstacles and occasionally fall off course. There are friends they can count on, like the field mice (and each other). There are enemies who become friends over time, like the Winkies and the Winged Monkeys. And then there are the people you think are your friends but who aren't exactly what they seem, like the Great Wizard himself. Sound familiar yet?
As they travel, Dorothy and her companions often feel happy and hopeful. Sometimes they feel alone and afraid, but the dark moments always pass. The message seems clear: if you stay true to yourself and stay on your path—as in, keep on moving—good things will come. Eventually.
We'll spare you the elaborate academic theories on how the story is an allegory about politics and money. (Anyway, we think they seem a little far-fetched.)
But the Wizard of Oz himself could definitely be taken to symbolize crooked politicians. "Seeing me come from the clouds, [they] thought I was a great Wizard," he tells Dorothy. "Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to do. Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; they did it willingly and well" (15.70-15.71).
Wow. Selfish, much?
Hmm. So we have an unqualified leader who lies to the public to get what he wants. Once he's "in office," the Wizard continues this strategy, unconcerned with who he might hurt in the process. "When you came to me I was willing to promise anything if you would only do away with the other Witch," he tells Dorothy. "But, now that you have melted her, I am ashamed to say that I cannot keep my promises" (15.74). Once his scam is uncovered, the Wizard "resigns" from office, fleeing town in lieu of owning up to his mistakes. He never comes clean to the huge population that he has been so dishonest with, maintaining until the end that he is not a crook.
The book's narrator is mostly invisible to us, meaning we don't notice him or her very much as we read. There's so much action and dialogue that it's very easy to get lost in the story. Still, occasionally the narrator drops a term of endearment, like "our little party of travelers" (8.1), that reminds us that he or she exists, while also demonstrating genuine affection for the characters.
Every now and again—but not too often—the narrator provides special insight into the characters. Toto is a dog, so he can't talk (even in Oz!). But the narrator gives us a window into the little animal's heart: "Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz, so long as Dorothy was with him; but he knew the little girl was unhappy, and that made him unhappy too" (12.71). The narrator also tells us when characters' internal feelings don't match up with their external behavior, like when the Scarecrow went to the Wizard's throne room. "The Scarecrow, who had expected to see the great Head Dorothy had told him of, was much astonished; but he answered her bravely" (11.69). These insights generally make us feel more sympathetic toward the characters; in other words, they make us care more.
Finally, the narrator occasionally makes a comment that hints at mysteries beyond the boundaries of the story. When the people of the Emerald City are proud for being the only city ruled by a stuffed man (the Scarecrow), the narrator tells us, "So far as they knew, they were quite right" (18.4). By even hinting that there could be another city, somewhere, ruled by a different stuffed man, the narrator subtly creates a sense of wonder and awe.
Dorothy takes an unplanned vacay when her house is swept up in a cyclone. Her destination is Oz, a beautiful land of many wonders, and from the moment Dorothy lays her eyes on it she wants to get the heck out. Since literally no one she meets has even heard of Kansas, Dorothy eases on down the road toward the Emerald City, hoping to get an audience with the all-powerful Wizard of Oz. He'll know the way, right? How come Oz doesn't have GPS, anyway?
She's off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. And Dorothy seems to have made a secret pact with herself to pick up every strange and sorry creature she meets along the way. Scarecrow with crippling insecurities? Check. Sociopathic tin man? Check. Wimpy Lion? Check. The four travelers become besties as they make their way to the Emerald City, where each has a favor to ask of Oz.
Turns out the Wizard is a quid pro quo kind of guy. He's not going to be giving anyone anything until the Wicked Witch of the West is dead and gone. No one has the heart to follow through with these orders, exactly, but our friends leave the Emerald City to go see the witch anyway. It doesn't go so well until Dorothy throws a bucket of water at her in anger…and the witch melts into a puddle. That was almost too easy.
Back in Oz, Dorothy and her friends can't seem to get a meeting with Mr. Great and Powerful. And when they finally do, they make a terrible discovery: he ain't all that. Sad to say, the Wizard of Oz is just a regular guy, and his big idea for getting Dorothy back to Kansas is a raggedy looking homemade hot-air balloon. Then he takes off in it without her, the jerk.
Having missed her ride home in Oz's miserable hooptie of a balloon, Dorothy heads south to seek guidance from Glinda the Good Witch. (The gang tags along, of course.) After a harrowing journey, they finally arrive at Glinda's palace. The witch tells Dorothy that all she has to do to get home is use the silver shoes. So she does. Problem solved.