Dorothy from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Thought it was positioned—and will always function—first and foremost as a fairy tale for children, L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz nevertheless contains a layered patchwork of symbolic meaning. While it’s definitely a story about a plucky young girl, her dog, and their quest to return to their home in Kansas, it’s also a cleverly-coded political satire.

Dorothy As Populist America

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written and published during the decline of the Populist political party, which sets the foundation for perhaps the most popular Dorothy interpretation. During the so-called Long Depression of the late 1800s, the farming and agricultural background of the country found itself in serious trouble. Additionally, Kansas gives Dorothy meaning by functioning as her home state.

Not only was it known as a point of origin for Populism, but it was also closely associated with the droughts and hardship faced by the nation’s agricultural workers at the time. As such, Baum used a drab and lifeless landscape to give Dorothy meaning. Even when she finds herself in the colorful land of Oz, she still wishes to return home. While multiple Dorothy meanings might be considered, it’s tough to argue against her status as a virtuous, loyal individual.

The Voice of the People

While Baum has been historically shown not to have been a supporter of Populism, necessarily, a very popular Dorothy interpretation indicates that she was intended as a stand-in for the Populist perception of the American people, which was a high point of political interest at the time.

Of the potential Dorothy meanings at which one might arrive, the most positive is the most fitting: Dorothy is America at its best. She is resilient, plucky, and almost endlessly optimistic. Her “everywoman” character is lost, and wants to go home. This Dorothy interpretation represents not only the way Populists saw the American public, but also the agricultural workers who had endured such a rough existence during the depression of the late 1800s.

Positive Thinking and Currency Reform

Another bankable Dorothy interpretation is that she embodies the concept of positive thinking, which was wildly popular at the time the Oz was written. At the end of the novel, she discovers that she had the ability to get herself home the entire time. It’s the silver shoes, however, that help to give Dorothy meaning in a political sense, as they represent the “free silver” movement that had gripped the Populist agenda.

There are several Dorothy interpretations that have been offered over the years, but the most applicable is that which puts her on the road home, using the silver shoes and the golden road together to get there. This was a clear stand-in for the Populist role in the currency debate that raged at the end of the 19th Century.

While the Populists ultimately wanted an unsecured note-based currency (the Greenback, represented by the Emerald City), they knew they couldn’t achieve this right away. As such, the bimetallism campaign became their way to work up to the Greenback. A currency system using both silver and gold came to be represented by Dorothy’s use of the Silver Shoes on the Road of Yellow Bricks. These tools enabled her to make her way to the Wizard and eventually be heard, making the Emerald City a stand-in for Washington, DC.

While she was definitely written as a simple character, her proximity to so many other rich symbols ultimately winds up lending Dorothy meaning and complex symbolic significance. As a representation of the American people and Populist interests, Dorothy must navigate a complicated world of financial policy and politics to eventually find her way back home.