"If I Only Had an Essence!" Existentialism and the Wizard of Oz

By Meyers, C. D. | The Midwest Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

"If I Only Had an Essence!" Existentialism and the Wizard of Oz


Meyers, C. D., The Midwest Quarterly


To claim that The Wizard of Oz is an existentialist work is not to imply that there was ever any intent, on the part of the movie makers or the author of the book, to present existentialist themes. It is unlikely that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), ever had any exposure to existentialism. The same is true of the director of the 1939 movie, Victor Fleming, and the movie's screenplay writers. Existentialist writings, whether philosophical or literary, probably had no influence, direct or indirect, on any of the creative inputs in The Wizard of Oz. But that does not mean that the final product does not portray an existentialist view of the world and our place in it.

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TO PROPOSE THAT the movie The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece of existentialist film making might strike many people as a joke. After all, most literary works that are referred to as "existentialist" are dark and serious, full of dread and death. A man shoots a stranger for no reason, or kills his landlady just because he can; a random collection of strangers are to be executed at dawn, or must spend all eternity together in a small room with tacky furniture; an obsessive man goes to elaborate lengths just to elicit some deferential respect from a soldier who once bumped into him on the street, all the while complaining that there is something wrong with his liver. The Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, is a children's movie--and a musical to boot! Nevertheless, the movie illustrates several of the central themes in existentialist philosophy. Though the idea of The Wizard of Oz as an existentialist work might by amusing, it is no joke. Not only does this work help to illustrate existentialist theory, it also supports the claim that the theory is more than just the idiosyncratic view of a few intellectuals.

To claim that The Wizard of Oz is an existentialist work is not to imply that there was ever any intent, on the part of the movie makers or the author of the book, to present existentialist themes. It is unlikely that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), ever had any exposure to existentialism. The same is true of the director of the 1939 movie, Victor Fleming, and the movie's screenplay writers. Existentialist writings, whether philosophical or literary, probably had no influence, direct or indirect, on any of the creative inputs in The Wizard of Oz. But that does not mean that the final product does not portray an existentialist view of the world and our place in it.

Scholars have defended other interpretations of The Wizard of Oz even while acknowledging that the message and metaphorical devices were probably not intended by Baum or the movie makers. For example, one popular interpretation of the book (that of Littlefield) reads it as an allegory for the populist movement and the political and economic issues that dominated the end of the nineteenth century. On this reading, the Scarecrow represents the farmers, the Tin Woodsman is labor, and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan. The Emerald City is D.C., the Wizard is the president, and the yellow brick road represents the gold standard. Some have supported this interpretation as a way of illustrating the political and economic issues of the day for pedagogical purposes, even while admitting that Baum was not especially political and that political issues probably played little or no part in his children's stories. In this case, it is just a mere coincidence that the story maps so well onto the various parties of the political struggles of the time.

But it is a different matter with the existentialist reading. Although existentialism refers to a particular movement in the history of ideas, the dominant themes in existentialism are general features of human experience such as choice, responsibility, and finitude, which are accessible to any reflective person. Even assuming that Baum and the movie makers knew nothing of the philosophical and literary movement that would come to be known as "existentialism," the existentialist themes in the book and the movie are still more than just a coincidence. …

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