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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz | Themes


Because The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children's book, even the youngest readers can find meaning in it. The themes are universal and accessible.

Dorothy's main goal never wavers: she wants to get home to the farm in Kansas. But before she can do so she will face a series of challenges: conflicting loyalties, physical and psychological dangers, and threats to her own principles. These are classic challenges for every hero of myth and folktale, and Dorothy must meet them in her own way while remaining true to herself.


In spite of Oz's treasures home is the prize Dorothy seeks in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The desire for home is a theme that runs strongly throughout the novel. Oz is a colorful wonderland, but Dorothy misses her uncle and aunt's farm in Kansas—this despite the fact that Baum makes it very clear how drab and unexciting the place is. Baum does not make Uncle Henry and Aunt Em seem lovable at the book's beginning. They are plain, undemonstrative people who show little empathy with the child under their care. Only Toto brings any laughter into Dorothy's life.

Yet from the instant Dorothy arrives in the Land of the Munchkins, she states that her goal is to get back home. When informed the way to Emerald City is so dangerous that she should stay with the Munchkins, Dorothy bursts into tears.

As the Scarecrow says, it's hard to understand why Dorothy should want to leave Oz for "the dry, gray place you call Kansas." "That is because you have no brains," Dorothy shoots back—rather pertly, for her. "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful." This statement is also uncharacteristic; it sounds much more adult than most of Dorothy's dialogue. But for Baum the point is so important it requires stately language.

Dorothy doesn't merely miss the familiarity of home; she clearly feels for the distress her absence must be causing her aunt and uncle. She says more than once she is sure her aunt must feel "dreadfully worried." Home, Baum makes amply clear, is where Dorothy's heart is.

Leaving home, finding adventure, and returning to home wiser and with a renewed appreciation isn't a theme unique to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As critics Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer point out, "the home/away/home pattern" is "the most common story line in children's literature." Building on the archetypal hero's journey, they suggest the "away" portions of any story offer the child the opportunity to mature and develop a sense of herself and her place in the world. The significance of home is, of course, the safety and love of family, and the security of knowing one's place.

Hidden Strengths

Each of Dorothy's traveling companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz believes he is missing something only Oz can provide. The Scarecrow wants a brain; the Woodman, a heart; and the Lion, courage. Even when Oz makes it clear he can't literally grant their wishes, the three friends refuse to listen. Finally Oz provides them with symbolic representations of a brain, a heart, and courage. Only then are they satisfied.

In the course of their journey to Oz, however, it becomes clear the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion already possess the qualities they seek from Oz.

The Scarecrow quickly learns from his mistakes, or, more accurately, from his one mistake (falling into potholes). Although he constantly reminds Dorothy he has no brains, the Scarecrow consistently comes up with smart suggestions—arrived at through impeccable reasoning—whenever the group faces a challenge. He is so clearly intelligent that when Oz decides to leave the Emerald City, he leaves it under the Scarecrow's rule.

Although the Woodman laments his lack of a heart, he possesses emotion and empathy to an almost dangerous degree. He even starts to cry at the sight of a dead beetle. Invariably his tears rust him into paralysis, but the Woodman can't keep himself from being overwhelmed. He might even be better off with less heart! As one critic has pointed out, his real challenge is learning not be disabled by his emotions.

While the Scarecrow and the Woodman yearn for brains and a heart, the Lion actually despises himself for being a coward: "It is my great sorrow, and makes my life very unhappy." Like the others he has the quality he believes he lacks. The first time he's presented with a challenge—jumping over a vast, deep ditch—he jumps without hesitation. As the Scarecrow notices, he doesn't even build up to a run first: "That is not the way we Lions do these things," he explains. Unconsciously he identifies with the bravery his species is known for. It's only in his conscious mind he finds himself lacking.

Dorothy's case is different from that of her companions. This is partly because her goal is more complex—she wants literally to be sent out of one world and back to another—and partly because neither she nor the reader realize Dorothy has had the power to get home from the minute she donned the silver shoes. The Wizard gives Dorothy's friends tangible representations of symbolic items that cause them to believe they have changed. The silver shoes, however, have genuine magical powers to which Dorothy has had access all along.

It's important that Dorothy consciously chooses to bring the shoes along because they won't wear out. The shoes fit her "as well as if they have been made for her"—and, in a sense, they have. Baum seems to be saying that when people behave resourcefully, they bolster their own powers.

The Journey

Myth and folklore abound with examples of quest stories, in which heroes undertake perilous journeys of discovery. The journey to the Emerald City allows the characters to develop their inner strengths—even if these characters can't see these developments for themselves. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz it's not quite true that "the journey, not the arrival, matters"—for Dorothy and her friends, the arrival is crucial. Although the resourceful Dorothy has ensured her return home by taking the silver shoes, she needs someone else to explain their power.

The journey reveals and shapes their characters, but it must culminate in an encounter with an authority who bestows formal recognition. This final recognition seems fitting for a children's book: What child doesn't love getting a trophy? Dorothy alone receives a true revelation—the knowledge of how to use the slippers to get home—and she receives the knowledge from a truly powerful figure, Glinda the Good Witch, not a charlatan. This honor underscores that Dorothy is essentially different from the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion.

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