Happiness on the Kansas Plain
While L. Frank Baum claims that The Wizard of Oz breaks with traditional fairy tales by disavowing morality and replacing moral instruction with pure entertainment, Oz's moral message is clear: that a child can escape the bleakness of adulthood by developing her brains, heart, and courage through experience and imagination, by liberating herself from dreariness through the development of the internal person. Unlike the Brothers Grimm's traditional tales in which the girl lives happily ever after with her prince, Oz promises a happy ending in everydayness. By encouraging the development of the inner person and not presupposing the rescue of Dorothy by a prince, Oz teaches that all children can accomplish greatness and avoid gray dreariness if only they retain their childlike imagination and achieve self-awareness of and experience with their innate abilities.
This lesson of Oz is not apparent in either the Grimm's 'snow White� or �Cinderella.� Snow White's prince covets the coffin-enclosed body of Snow White and declares his love for her despite having never spoken a single word to her. Snow White had �tender feelings� towards him and so they were married to presumably live happily ever after (Tatar 89). Similarly, Cinderella merely danced with her prince and did not necessarily love him; the prince treasured Cinderella for her beauty and dresses and not for any internal quality that she might possess, just as Cinderella sought only to dance with the handsome, rich prince to make him her husband. As Bettelheim noted, these two stories, �while they take the woman to the threshold of true love, do not tell what personal growth is required for union with the beloved other� (278). In both these cases, the title characters demonstrate the same selectivity in selecting mates as the women on the Fox show �Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.�
In contrast, Dorothy is a liberating force who achieves freedom in self-awareness. The story starts out in the gray dreariness of Kansas. The happy child, Dorothy, stands out in this unfriendly place, a place that sucks the life out of everything it touches. Aunt Em had once been a �young pretty wife� before �the sun and wind changed her� by taking �the red from her cheeks and lips� and making them gray. Likewise, the grass and house had once interrupted the bleakness with color until the sun �blistered the paint� and �burned the tops of the long blades� of grass (2). Only Toto saves Dorothy �from growing as gray as her other surroundings� (3). Nothing innate in Dorothy prevents the onset of dreariness, but in Oz, Dorothy would find that she herself has the power to prevent becoming like Aunt Em, a pathetic old woman devoid of happiness to whom the laughter of a child is startling.
The tornado rips through the gray landscape and carries Dorothy to the colorful world of Oz. In effect, Dorothy escapes Kansas and its all-encompassing dullness for the color, variety, and endless fascination of Oz through her unconscious, childhood dreams. Corroborating this view of Oz as colorful childhood imagination, Dorothy, in speaking to the princess of the china dolls, mentions that she would love to take the china princess home and place her on Aunt Em's mantle. The china princess objects that this imaginary world can not exist in reality saying, �in our country we live contentedly and can talk and move around as we please, but whenever any of us are taken away our joints stiffen, and we can only stand up straight and look pretty� (151). In effect, Dorothy creates an imaginary world for the china doll knick-knacks in Aunt Em's house. In the 1939 movie based on the book, the idea that Oz is a figment of Dorothy's imagination compels the director to have the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Witch and Wizard be characters from Dorothy's life in Kansas.
In Oz, she meets with adventure after adventure and yet these adventures are clearly not written merely for entertainment as Baum would indicate, but to suggest a lesson that Dorothy need not end up as unhappy as Aunt Em if she can exercise her brains, heart, and courage. Through her exercise of these attributes she will be liberated, and indeed Dorothy is portrayed as a liberating force throughout the book. She frees the munchkins from bondage by killing the Wicked Witch of the East, frees the scarecrow by removing him from his pole, frees the tin man by oiling his joints, and frees the Winkies by melting the Wicked Witch of the West. Baum suggests that to liberate oneself from the oppression of outside circumstance one must take action and not sit idly by. One must seize on the innate power of all people to refuse to live a humdrum life acquiescing to the demands of society and authority.
The scarecrow's belief that if only he had brains in his head he would be as good a man as any, the tin man's lament that only his lack of a heart makes him incapable of love and thus happiness, and the cowardly lion's insecurity over courage demonstrate obviously Baum's message that we must not let other people dictate the way we view ourselves. Like the child who is insecure about his intelligence, his emotions, and his courage, especially in a potentially menacing adult world, these three characters all possess ample amounts of the traits they feel they lack. It is not that they lack the traits but that they have been convinced that they lack the traits. To discover life and achieve their full potential, they must take off the green lenses, pull back the curtain and see themselves as they truly are. I argue that these characters are manifestations of Dorothy's own fears as a child in an adult world which views children as stupid, emotionally senseless cowards who are incapable of great things. By reaching Oz on the basis of her strong courageous will, her quick thinking, and her care to help her friends along the way, Dorothy demonstrates that while she may be a child, she is as capable as an adult if only she would realize that she has the latent power in her, awaiting development through experience. As the Wicked Witch of the West notes: �I can still make [Dorothy] my slave for she does not know how to use her power.� In realizing that one has powers of intellect, emotion, and courage through experiences, one can avoid the tyranny of life's everydayness.
Nowhere is this fact of the innate power of the characters more apparent than when the Kalidahs attacked. Facing large, clawed beasts, the cowardly lion says: �We are lost for they will surely tear us to pieces with their sharp claws. But stand close behind me and I will fight them as long as I am alive.� Immediately after this comment by Lion, Scarecrow who �had been thinking� decides how to use Tin Man's cutting skill to send the Kalidahs to their death (49). Obviously, the characters already have the attributes they seek from the Wizard and only lack experience with the attributes, much as a child lacks experience in developing his intellect, emotions, and talents.
Oz himself makes explicit the �learning through experience� theme saying to Scarecrow: �A baby has brains, but it doesn�t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge and the longer you are on the earth the more experience you are sure get.� Oz here suggests that everyone has the power to be smart, emotional, and courageous, and that people only discover this power through being smart, emotional, and courageous in the face of difficulty or opposition.
In the end, Dorothy discovers that she had the power to go home all along, that she could leave her imagination and enter reality at will. With three clicks of her silver shoes, she finds herself back on the dreary Kansas plain, but now she seems happy claiming, �I�m so glad to be at home again� (168). She has finally realized that she possesses the abilities of an adult, that the power resides in her to avoid the unhappy fate of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. While her guardians allowed the circumstances of their life to destroy their happiness, we know that Dorothy will use her powers to liberate herself from drudgery should she ever momentarily fall into it. Kansas may not always be her home, but with her newfound powers, we cannot doubt that Dorothy will never allow herself to be oppressed by job, family, or place.
This reading of Oz is of course not the only possible one. Salman Rushdie believes that the �Wizard of Oz is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies and so, ironically, grow up themselves� (10). While, to be fair, Rushdie's thesis is based on the film and not the book, I dispute such a reading of the book. The Wizard of Oz is not about the inadequacy of adults who occupy a small role in the book but about the inner power of children. Dorothy does more than grow up, she surpasses the abilities of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry by refusing to be made miserable by circumstance. She liberates herself and everyone she touches with her will to happiness. Dorothy does indeed grow up, but only in the sense that never can she again consider herself inferior to adults; she does not lose the ability to dream of emerald cities and great and powerful wizards. Dorothy, without a male hero to save her, liberates the child from feelings of inferiority and fear and liberates the adult from blindly living a gray, plain life.
Baum, Frank L. The Wizard of Oz.
Bettelheim, Bruno. LAA-18 Sourcebook.
Rushdie, Salman. The Wizard of Oz.
Tatar, Maria. Classic Fairy Tales.