Most of us are familiar with the classic children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it seems very few are aware that the book may have a deeper meaning.
Written by L. Frank Baum and originally published in May 1900 the book, which was later made into a musical starring Judy Garland, tells the story of an orphan girl named Dorothy. Dorothy lives on a farm in the bleak landscape of the Kansas prairies with her aunt, uncle and her little black dog Toto. One day the farmhouse, with Dorothy and Toto inside, is caught up in a tornado which picks up the house and drops it in a far off region of Oz. The rest of the story follows Dorothy & Toto on their journey to the four corners of Oz in search of a way home.
What appears nothing more than a fanciful children’s story may in fact be a semi-allegorical account of life in late 19th Century America – a period characterized by deflation and economic depression.
Characters and their possible symbolic meaning
Dorothy is representative of every American. The Scarecrow is the typical American farmer, the Tin Woodman, the industrial worker, and the Lion represents William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic presidential candidate who supported the adoption of silver alongside gold as the monetary exchange standard. Bryan failed to win the support of workers in the east and therefore lost the 1896 election.
The Wizard of Oz represents the US presidents of the late 19th Century. The Wicked Witch, the ailing American Midwest, the Winged Monkeys, the Native Americans and the Emerald City, the Greenback, or paper money.
The most powerful symbolic references are those of the yellow brick road, which symbolises the gold standard, and the silver slippers (changed to ruby slippers in the film) which symbolise the silver standard. It’s even been posited that Oz is simply the abbreviation of ‘ounce’, as in the Troy ounce, in which gold and silver are measured.
Once the identity of the story’s characters is revealed, so too is the meaning behind the story. The tornado becomes the economic depression that began in the United States with the Panic of 1873 and gripped the country until the turn of the century. The Emerald City becomes Washington DC, home of US Presidents.
The implication was that no president was capable of helping Dorothy return home, i.e. of restoring economic prosperity. Eventually Dorothy discovers that her silver slippers had the power to take her back to Kansas all along; the suggestion being that the addition of a silver standard along side the gold standard could have provided the solution for the problems faced by the average US citizen.
There are many that believe that it was the gold standard that caused the depression, the truth however, is that the dollar was pegged to gold at the wrong price (widely perceived to be too low), and it was this that led to the deflationary depression.
There’s no solid evidence that Frank Baum wrote his story as a form of monetary allegory, however, if he did, many of the lessons depicted in his text could reasonably apply today.