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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In what ways does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose setting is described in Chapter 2 as "a country of marvelous beauty," parallel John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress?

Baum's Oz is reminiscent of the country of Beulah in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. This was a well-known 17th-century Puritan allegory about an archetypal man named Christian, who must travel from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City on the peak of Mount Zion. As always happens in stories of this type, Christian—like Dorothy—faces many dangers and obstacles on his journey. (One obstacle Baum closely parallels is an enchanted field that makes travelers fall asleep.) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inverts Bunyan's parable. Christian begins his journey weighed down by sins from which he must be delivered. Dorothy, an innocent child, can't reach her journey's end unless she violates one of the most important Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill." Of course Dorothy doesn't mean to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, but nevertheless she does.

In Chapter 2 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz how does Baum upset stereotyped images of witches?

In writing a modern fairy tale, Baum is eager to upend some classic folk stereotypes. The witches of Grimms' and Andersen's fairy tales are always wicked, in keeping with the prevailing Christian belief that witches gain their powers from the Devil. In showing Dorothy's initial uneasiness with the (good) Witch of the North, he implicitly acknowledges readers' preconceived notions about witches. But Baum's witches, as evidenced in Chapter 2, can be wicked or kind. The Wicked Witch of the East was indeed very bad. In addition to enslaving the Munchkins, she caused the Woodman to chop himself to bits. But the Witch of the North appears to be a kindly old woman. Of course she admits that she is not as powerful as the Wicked Witch of the East was, "or I should have set the people free myself," but she does offer good counsel. She seems to be more of a wise woman than a witch, which is more in line with a pagan idea of witches. Interestingly the Munchkins first greet Dorothy by calling her a "most noble Sorceress." Apparently in Oz there are no preconceptions about the physical form a witch or sorceress should take. Dorothy is a child of no more than 10. Later Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, will be described as "beautiful and young," with red hair and blue eyes.

In what ways is Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "the American Alice in Wonderland"?

Calling Dorothy "the American Alice in Wonderland" serves two purposes: it suggests strong similarities while also pointing out Dorothy's distinctly "American" character. The similarities are mainly situational: both Dorothy and Alice are transported to fantasy realms; both encounter strange beings on their journey; and both are strong-minded, unsentimental girls. But two aspects of Dorothy's character distinguish her from Alice and make her seem more "American." Alice, an upper-middle-class British girl, lives with her family in what is portrayed as a large, elegant house staffed with servants, including a nanny. She's clearly receiving the beginnings of a classical education. Because of her upbringing Alice is worried about proper behavior and etiquette. Dorothy, an orphan, lives in a drab, one-room house in Kansas, with "nothing but the great gray prairie on every side." Her aunt and uncle are as dull and gray as her surroundings. Perhaps due to her isolate and hard-scrabble background, it never occurs to Dorothy to worry about the social niceties that trouble Alice. She treats every character she meets as an equal and is unfazed by the splendors of the Emerald City. Dorothy also takes a more active role in her story than Alice does in hers. She invites the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion to come along with her so that they, too, can be helped by Oz. She slaps the Lion on the nose and throws a bucket of water at the Wicked Witch of the West. Then she cleans up the mess left by the melted witch and sweeps it out the door. In her own way Dorothy embodies the traditional American values of independence, equality, and "can-do" practicality.

In Chapter 12 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what is the significance of the wolves, crows, and bees sent by the Wicked Witch to attack Dorothy and her friends?

The Wicked Witch of the West dominates Winkie Country, which somewhat resembles the vast, unsettled American West. ("There were no farms nor houses in this country of the West, and the ground was untilled.") The natural forces that plagued American farmers during the westward expansion may be embodied, in the book, by the Wicked Witch's armies. The pack of wolves represents the physical dangers faced by settlers traveling to the west, while the crows and black bees resemble the birds and insects that devastated the settlers' crops. (In reality black bees are more beneficial than harmful!) These minions of the Wicked Witch of the West are also reminiscent of biblical plagues. Baum may have chosen these familiar villains to ensure that his young readers would understand the clear threat and therefore the need to kill them. This book was written well before Julie of the Wolves; probably few tears were shed over the 40 wolves' grisly death. Note that the Wicked Witch of the East does not rely on nature to wreak her brand of evil. She turns a living being—the helpless woodcutter—into a heartless tin man. Some critics have suggested the eastern witch represents the menace presented by the growth of industry in the eastern United States.

In what ways do the Winkies, sent by the Wicked Witch of the West to destroy Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, parallel Baum's childhood military academy experience?

When the Wicked Witch of the West sends the Winkies, armed with spears, to destroy Dorothy and company, the Lion's roar sends them running. After the Wicked Witch's death liberates them, they show their true colors: they feast and dance, use their skills to repair the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, and honor their rescuers with beautiful gifts (which presumably they made). Released from bondage their hidden strengths are allowed to flourish, echoing a recurring theme in the novel. This turnabout mirrors Baum's own short-lived experience in military academy, where after about a year he suffered a breakdown and had to be sent home. Just as the Winkies' military humiliation gave way to a joyous burst of productivity, Baum's trauma gave him free rein to pursue his creative interests: Given a printing press when he turned 15, Baum began putting out newspapers and magazines on his own. He also founded a Shakespeare troupe, which his father paid for. When Baum was 24, his father set him up as the manager of a chain of opera houses. These and many other experiences stimulated Baum's imagination and helped him develop his own hidden strengths, setting him on a course that would lead to one of the most popular children's series ever written.

In what ways does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz support a feminist interpretation?

Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has strongly feminist elements: Baum's young heroine Dorothy is endowed with a sense of agency and self-empowerment. She is not afraid to act on her own or on others' behalf. Oz is governed by four witches—two of whom are not the stereotypical evil crones of traditional folklore but strong, wise, benevolent figures. Rather than a traditional male hero whose role in the story is to rescue the heroine, Baum offers a heroine who rescues others and takes steps to help herself, and whose primary help comes from two other female characters. The two good witches, however, are instrumental in Dorothy's return to Kansas. Housework is presented as a burden and a punishment. In Chapter 5 the Tin Woodman's sweetheart is prevented from marrying him by an old woman who wants the girl "to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework." In Chapter 12 the Wicked Witch of the West makes Dorothy "clean the pots and kettles and sweep the floor and keep the fire fed with wood." The women in Baum's life undoubtedly influenced the creation of the strong female figures in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum's wife, Maud, was the daughter of Matilda Gage, a prominent radical feminist who worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony on a three-volume history of women's suffrage. Maud, also a feminist, inherited her mother's independence and intelligence and, like her mother, believed that most ancient communities had been ruled by women.

What role do costumes and other theatrical effects play in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

Costumes and other theatrical effects represent the Wizard's fakery in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Wizard appears as a disembodied voice, a giant head, a lovely lady, and a ball of fire. All of these appearances are revealed as illusions when Toto identifies the man behind the curtain. But Baum clearly has a fondness for costume, disguise, and special effects, and the power these can hold over a credulous audience. In fact even after the Wizard reveals how he pulled off each of his illusions—with what one imagines is a certain amount of professional pride—his visitors insist on being tricked again! The Scarecrow, the Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion each happily accept as real the fake brains, heart, and courage presented by the Wizard. Their willing suspension of disbelief suggests that Baum is well aware of the role an audience plays in its own enchantment—an effect Baum probably witnessed time and again during his days in the theater.

In Chapter 2 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what important distinction does Baum make between Kansas and Oz?

Kansas is civilized and, according to the Witch of the North, Oz is not. This distinction between civilized and uncivilized reflects Baum's ambivalence about wild, untamed places and those "mastered" by humans. Baum depicts the Kansas farmland as a flat, dry, gray landscape; Oz is "a country of marvelous beauty," filled with color. When Dorothy meets the Witch of the North, she comments that in Kansas, all the witches died long ago. The witch replies, "In the civilized countries I believe there are no witches left, nor wizards, nor sorceresses, nor magicians. But, you see, the Land of Oz has never been civilized." Not only is Oz beautiful; it's magical. A country without witches is also a country without enchantment. In fact Kansas seems to be the worst of both worlds. Sitting on the edge of the frontier, it is civilized enough not to have witches, but it does have natural dangers like tornadoes. Some of the threats of uncivilized Oz—wolves, crows, and insects—would also be familiar in Kansas. Baum's depiction of Kansas as a dreary place may have been inspired by the South Dakota landscape where he lived and generally failed to thrive. And Oz, after all, does still have slavery and tyrannical rulers, further creating ambivalence in Baum's portrayal of civilized versus uncivilized places. It's worth noting that Baum personally experienced his greatest satisfaction and success in the most civilized settings—his New York childhood home of Rose Hill and, later, Chicago.

In Chapter 2 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what is the symbolic importance of the "round, shining mark" on Dorothy's forehead?

The mark is left when the Witch of the North kisses Dorothy to protect her. "She is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the Power of Evil," observes the Monkey King. The mark is a visible symbol of good versus evil, and it reveals another parallel with religious texts. Evidence suggests that Baum modeled Dorothy's journey, at least in part, on Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. In that 17th-century Puritan parable, Christian meets a character called a Shining One who "sets a mark on his forehead." In Ezekiel 9:4 of the Old Testament (with which Bunyan and perhaps Baum would certainly have been familiar), God commands that a "mark on the forehead" be placed on each of his followers in Jerusalem. The mark will protect them from the slaughter that's about to be visited on the idolators in the city. Baum was probably aware of the Christian overtones of the "mark," but Dorothy is far from a typical pilgrim, and her power derives not from God but from inner strength and the blessing of a good witch—hardly a staple of the Christian tradition. Once again Baum shows his willingness to both employ and overturn the stereotypes of traditional lore.

In Chapter 3 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz why does Baum mention Dorothy is wearing a gingham dress?

Gingham is a thin, inexpensive cotton fabric used to make the dresses of many rural women and girls in the 19th century. By putting her into gingham, Baum is reminding the reader that Dorothy is a regular girl from a humble background—a typical American. Since Dorothy comes from an impoverished corner of Kansas and her guardians have little money to spend on her clothes, L. Frank Baum devotes very little time to describing what Dorothy wears. But Baum loved the theater, and one aspect he especially loved was theatrical costumes. Throughout The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Baum takes every opportunity to lavish descriptive details on the clothes worn by both good witches, the Munchkins, residents of the Emerald City, and many other colorful characters.

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