The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written by L. Frank Baum. There have been over forty Oz novels published since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Baum wrote fifteen of them. Baum (1856-1919) was a failed businessman but hugely successful writer of children’s novels. By the time Baum died he was the most famous children’s author in the world.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz begins in Kansas, where young Dorothy Gale lives with her Uncle Henry, Aunt Em and dog Toto. They live in the middle of the grey, dull prairies, and Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have become as stern and joyless as the plains themselves. But one day a cyclone sweeps Dorothy, the house, and Toto into the beautiful, vibrant land of Oz. Oz is inhabited by a group of strange beings who call themselves “Munchkins.” They dress colorfully and are only as tall as Dorothy, despite some of the Munchkins being older even than Uncle Henry. The Munchkins thank Dorothy for having freed them from the Wicked Witch of the East, who was killed when Dorothy’s house fell on her. One of the Munchkins, the Witch of the North, tells Dorothy about the Munchkins and the Land of Oz, about the Witch’s silver shoes, which are now Dorothy’s, and about the powerful and mysterious Wizard in the City of Emeralds. Dorothy is interested in everything she is told, but she is most concerned with getting home. The Munchkin Witch uses magic to find the answer: Dorothy must go to the City of Emeralds and speak with the Wizard Oz.
Dorothy sets off, following the yellow brick road which leads to the City of Emeralds. Dorothy meets a Scarecrow, who wants a brain. Dorothy meets a Tin Woodsman, who was cursed by the Wicked Witch of the East to cut himself to pieces with his axe; his body parts were gradually replaced by tin, but he has no heart now and misses it. Dorothy meets a Lion who is a coward and needs courage. All three accompany Dorothy to City of Emeralds in the hopes that Oz can give them what they need. They survive a trip through a sleep-inducing field of poppies and arrive in the City. Oz meets with each of the four separately, appearing as a different creature each time. He promises to give them what they want if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy does not want to kill anyone, but eventually agrees to do what Oz wants. Through her magic eye the Witch sees them coming and sends wolves, crows, bees, and her slaves, the Winkies, to stop Dorothy and her friends, but they fight their way through all of the obstacles. The Witch then uses her Golden Cap to send the Winged Monkeys against the group. Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion are captured, the Scarecrow is torn to shreds, and the Tin Woodsman is dropped on rocks from a great height.
The Witch makes Dorothy work for her, but when the Witch steals one of Dorothy’s Silver Shoes, Dorothy is so angry that she throws a bucket of water on the Witch, who is so old that the water dissolves her. Dorothy frees the Winkies, who repair the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman. Dorothy and her friends return to the City of Emeralds, where they discover that Oz is only a “humbug,” a balloonist from Omaha who landed in Oz by accident and pretended to be a wizard. Oz eventually gives the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Woodsman symbols of what each one wants. This satisfies them, but Oz’s attempt to take Dorothy back to Kansas in his balloon fails when the balloon accidentally takes off early. Dorothy decides to go see Glinda, the Witch of the South, to find a way home. Her three friends go with her. They pass through a tiny country of living porcelain dolls and a forest of angry trees. The Lion kills a giant spider which is terrorizing the other animals. They ask the Lion to be their king, which he is happy to do. They pass through the country of the Quadlings and eventually reach Glinda, who tells Dorothy that her Silver Shoes could have taken her home any time. Dorothy says goodbye to her friends and returns home.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the best-selling children’s book of 1900. Purely as a physical object, the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was impressive: it has twenty-four color plates and numerous black-and-white textual decorations. But what most appealed to its readers was its content, which is substantially different from its predecessors and has allowed the novel to retain its popularity more than a century after its debut. Baum intentionally omitted the didacticism of most contemporary American books for children. Although Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had introduced the concept of children’s literature written to entertain rather than enlighten, American authors of children’s fiction continued to emulate Carroll’s predecessors, or like Thomas Mayne Reid (see: War Life) attempted to teach through adventurous fiction. Baum’s stated intention for Oz was that it was written “solely to pleasure the children of today,” and that
the time has come for a series of new ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and bloodcurdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.1
Oz has morals, of course, about the virtues of courage, modesty, friendship, wisdom, love, and especially one’s home, but they are not over-emphasized in the way that children’s fiction of the time did.
Most modern readers are much more familiar with the story of Oz from the 1939 movie than from the book, which they may not have read in years, if at all. The book is significantly different from the movie, and first-time readers will be surprised at how much they will enjoy the book. Baum tells Oz briskly and economically. He leaves out extraneous descriptions and pace-killing character moments. What remains is a long, extremely entertaining sequence of images and ideas. Baum has memorable moments, such as the Witch’s death scene. Baum has imaginative ideas, like the Winged Monkeys. Baum has punchy lines, as in the ending to Chapter Three:
"Don't mind Toto," said Dorothy to her new friend. "He never bites."
"Oh, I'm not afraid," replied the Scarecrow. "He can't hurt the straw. Do let me carry that basket for you. I shall not mind it, for I can't get tired. I'll tell you a secret," he continued, as he walked along. "There is only one thing in the world I am afraid of."
"What is that?" asked Dorothy; "the Munchkin farmer who made you?"
"No," answered the Scarecrow; "it's a lighted match."2
The opening sequence, with its vivid description of the dreariness of Kansas and Dorothy’s grim, cheerless uncle and aunt, is particularly effective.
Despite Baum’s stated intention to create a story lacking in “horrible and bloodcurdling incident”3 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a level of textual viciousness which will surprise adult readers unfamiliar with the novel; Oz can easily be interpreted as a horror novel. The concept of a woodsman whose axe keeps chopping his body parts off is peculiarly unpleasant and is told in a chilling deadpan fashion. Oz sends the quartet to the Witch knowing how deadly she is and expecting her to kill them. Dorothy and her friends only briefly agonize over the idea of killing the Witch to get what they want. The Scarecrow’s destruction at the claws of the Winged Monkeys is told in a brief and brutal fashion. And Dorothy’s dismemberment of the cow in the Dainty China Country is horrifying. To children of the right age Oz will provide not just entertainment but delicious shivers of fright.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a Lost World story (see: The Lost Race Story), but Oz is not what J.R.R. Tolkien called a “secondary world,” a place completely divorced from Earth and following its own internally consistent rules. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fairy tale. Dorothy’s trip to Oz is a variation on the theme of travel to the Land of Faerie, but Oz is an American fairy tale–the Land of Oz itself is implicitly somewhere in North America, a night’s ride by cyclone away from Kansas–and is free of European influences. The beings of Oz are unique to Baum and not influenced by Greek legends or English or French fairy tales. Dorothy discovers a hidden realm, but rather than venturing into Faery and either staying there or emerging permanently altered, as in so many European fairy tales, she fulfills her oft-expressed desire to return home. (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also a reversal of the Edisonade dynamic which Baum would use in The Master Key. Dorothy explores her newly discovered kingdom but does not enrich herself at the cost of the natives and leaves the land improved rather than damaged). Oz is a democratic fairy tale. Dorothy is not the young person of noble birth who appears in traditional fairy tales and so many nineteenth century children’s novels. Dorothy is an ordinary girl, and her companions earn their roles as leaders rather than being given them by virtue of their births.
Like many another popular children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been subjected to a certain amount of critical analysis. Since the 1960s the great debate about Oz has been whether or not Baum was promulgating a Populist viewpoint, in sympathy with the poor and mistreated of the Midwest, and whether or not Baum in Oz was “a proclaimer of the glories of consumption and industrial capitalism.”4 Too, there is an economic allegory in Oz, about monetary metaphors and the demonetization of silver. In truth, though, the more persuasive and interesting arguments seem to be regarding what Gretchen Ritter describes as the “political universe revealed by the original Oz tale:”5 the geography of Oz mapping on to the geography of the United States, the flying monkeys representing Native Americans (of whom Baum had mixed views, tending toward the negative, seeing settled natives as despicable beings and those natives who resisted white rule as Noble Savages), the Winkies representing Chinese immigrants, and that the monetary allegories and motifs were a part of Baum’s satire of the politics, politicians, and issues of the era.6
Although at first glance a timeless tale of fantasy, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) expresses more about the age, as a period of disruption and uncertainly, than its author, who claimed himself to be nonpolitical, probably intended. Whether or not Baum planted a complex political parable of the failure of populism in the Gilded Age within his tale, it is the book’s relationship to those American values of ‘home and self-determination’ (Lurie 1990) which make it interesting within the context of the fin de siècle. What is more, the surface simplicity of the book and its history reveal the changing status of children’s literature during that period and places it firmly within the boundaries of the popular, in opposition to the high culture of such literary fairy tales as those of Oscar Wilde, for instance.7
Print: L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful World of Oz. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.
1 L. Frank Baum, “Introduction,” The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago: G.M. Hill, 1900), 5.
2 Baum, Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 40.
3 Baum, Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 5.
4 Gretchen Ritter, “Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap: L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ and Historical Memory in American Fiction,” Journal of American Studies 31, no. 2 (Aug. 1997): 173.
5 Ritter, “Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap,” 174.
6 Ritter, “Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap,” makes the argument well.
7 Deborah Cogan Thacker and Jean Webb, Introducing Children’s Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2002), 85.