Metaphors of monetary policy in The Wizard of Oz

June 5, 2009
By

From USA Gold:

The Land of Oz is colorful, to say the least, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is replete with references to gold, silver, and green… The references to gold and silver echo the prominence of monetary politics in the 1890s, especially the bimetallic crusade led by Bryan and the Populists. Moreover, gold and silver are often portrayed as working in combination. The Witch of the West conjures her minions with a silver whistle and a golden cap, and the Tin Man receives a new ax made of gold and silver, as well as a new oil can that contains both metals. Of course, there is Dorothy on her sojourn through Oz, “her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow, roadbed.” The word oz itself is the abbreviation for an ounce of gold or silver. There are additional references to gold and silver, but the ones given here amply illustrate Baum’s use of the monetary metaphor.

Green, often in combination with gold, is also a recurrent image. Then as now, green was the color of paper money. The Greenback Party, a precursor of the Populists, advocated the expansion of the money supply via the increased circulation of “greenbacks.” Jacob Coxey was a greenbacker, as was James B. Weaver, the Populist presidential nominee in 1892. Most of the green imagery in Oz is general in nature and does not appear to indicate specific parallels. Toto wears a green collar that fades to white (silver), and later he receives a gold collar, as does the Lion. In Emerald City, everyone is required to wear green glasses with golden bands, so that nearly everything appears in a resplendent green. The Lion’s liquid “courage” is poured from a green bottle into a gold-green dish, and the Wizard’s balloon is patched with green silk of various shades. As the spectacles create an illusion, the liquid courage is only a placebo, and the balloon is a mere patchwork, so the demand for paper money is exposed as a panacea for the farmers’ woes.

At the end of the story, the Scarecrow supplants the Wizard as the ruler of Emerald City, the Tin Woodman is made master of the West, and the Lion is placed over the animals of the forest. Dorothy transports herself back to Kansas by clicking her silver shoes together three times. All this is achieved with the help of Glinda, the good Witch of the South. The message? Populism is triumphant, the goal of gaining political power is achieved. Or is it? Neither the Scarecrow nor the Tin Man nor the Lion truly lacked what each believed he was missing; the great Wizard’s powers proved illusory; and Dorothy had the power to transform her condition all along. These features of the story point to a more ambivalent result. Indeed, Populism’s outright failure is suggested when Dorothy’s silver shoes fall off in the desert and are “lost forever.” After Bryan’s defeat in 1896, the free-silver movement went into rapid decline. McKinley’s reelection and the statutory adoption of the gold standard in 1900 spelled political oblivion for the Populists.

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