There’s No Place Like Home: Exile in The Wizard of Oz

by John B. Rosenman

The 1939 cinematic masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz, has achieved many distinctions. It has become probably the most watched and beloved film of all time, and it is often ranked as one of the ten best movies ever made. Its story has also shaped America’s cultural consciousness to an extent that may transcend any other movie. This year, the seventy-first anniversary of The Wizard of Oz’s debut, we find its story alive both in the memorable quotations it has passed on, the spinoffs such as The Wiz and Wicked it has inspired, and even in the number of irreverent, audacious spoofs it has engendered on YouTube and elsewhere. “Over the Rainbow,” its signature song, was voted the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute, and every day Judy Garland aka Dorothy Gale sings it on a million TV screens and computer monitors throughout the world. Forever young, this classic musical-fantasy continues to delight with an archetypal depth and richness that is inexhaustible and endlessly adaptable to new storylines of childhood innocence imperiled by evil and the failure of adults.

One of the themes that has been insufficiently recognized in the film is that of exile. It is, indeed, a dominant motif in The Wizard of Oz, as pervasive, perhaps, as that of any other movie or literary work. The movie demonstrates that a painful sense of exile and loss can occur even in a child’s dream. During her psychic adventures, Dorothy repeatedly says, “There’s no place like home.” While a dry Kansas dust bowl may seem to be drab and unexciting compared to the vivid Technicolor wonders of Oz, Dorothy makes her homesickness clear by imaginatively populating Oz with three friendly workers from her farm in an effort to soften her sense of estrangement. She also sees Aunt Em in the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball. Even the Great and Terrible Wizard is an import from Kansas named Professor Marvel. Like the others, he is intended to alleviate her loneliness.

In the movie, Dorothy’s exile and estrangement begin early, when she is at home in Kansas. Almira Gulch, a heartless townswoman, has a court order for Dorothy’s beloved dog who has bitten her, and she plans to take little Toto away and have him destroyed. Twelve-year-old Dorothy looks to her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry for help, but as is often the case in a child’s world, adults seem distant and uncaring, concerned with grown-up matters and daily business. Significantly, Dorothy’s homegrown loneliness and terror are absent from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which partly inspired the movie. There, Dorothy’s house is simply carried away by a cyclone to a very real (not imaginary) Oz, and her real ordeal begins only after she has landed. In the film events are quite different. Dorothy picks Toto up and runs away from home through a sepia-colored landscape, feeling alone and unloved by caregivers who barely listened to her. Clearly, no adults will help her.

Or will they? Soon she encounters a fascinating man with silver hair. Professor Marvel, played by Frank Morgan, is the kindly prototype for the Wizard that Dorothy’s subconscious mind will later conjure up in Oz. As with her aunt and uncle, Dorothy seeks adult help and comfort once again. She asks the good Professor to take her away with him so she can “see all the crown heads of Europe.” Unfortunately, as Marvel gazes into his crystal ball, he does not see Dorothy as a traveling companion. While she will eventually go into exile, it won’t be in this world but in a land far over the rainbow. Told by Professor Marvel that her aunt is deeply worried about her, Dorothy is forced to return home. 

Unfortunately, home brings no comfort, no relief from her sense of being alone. Enter the tornado, which despite the ‘primitive’ special effects of the time, is scary and effective. The terrible loneliness that children sometimes feel in an adult world is dramatized with unforgettable power. Those who have seen the movie will never forget the dark twister as it weaves and snakes across the gloomy, howling Kansas prairie, drawing ever closer to Dorothy, who becomes separated from her aunt and uncle. Suddenly she finds herself helpless and adrift in a world that is totally hostile and indifferent to her survival. She tries desperately to enter the cellar and find shelter with her aunt and uncle, but the door refuses to open. It is a terrifying archetypal experience that children everywhere can empathize with, imbued with a feeling of being abandoned and left behind by the very adults who should give their life security and meaning.  

After dashing into the house for refuge, Dorothy is knocked unconscious by a flying window. She has a dream in which she wakes up and sees the house swept high into the sky by the tornado. Then the house falls and lands with a thump. Dorothy cautiously opens the door to behold a wondrous sight. It is a beautiful world of gorgeous flowers and glorious trees, and she soon meets adorably cute people named the Munchkins and a lovely Good Witch named Glinda. Three loyal friends come next: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the humorous Cowardly Lion, all of whom would give their lives for her. Seemingly, it is a child’s wish come true, a magical, joyful realm blessed with loving friends, a strange land where Munchkins sing strange, unforgettable songs like “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” Surely here, in the Merry Old Land of Oz, Dorothy’s exile will be over, and she will find the sense of home and belonging that eluded her back in Kansas. 

But even in the milder, less angst-filled book by L. Frank Baum, Oz is not Eden. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum describes Oz as a “strange land,” and despite the close friends Dorothy finds, she remains in many ways a stranger in a strange land who yearns repeatedly to return home. From the beginning, Dorothy feels “lonely among all these strange people” (26), and the Witch of the North informs her that to reach the Emerald City, she will have to make “a long journey, through a country that is sometimes . . . dark and terrible” (27).

Still, when it comes to exile, there are major differences between the movie and Baum’s beloved story. As mentioned before, whereas the movie presents Oz as a dream or fantasy, in Baum’s book it is a very real place that Dorothy travels to. An even more important difference is implied by the author, who preferred to delight and entertain children rather than to terrify them and who wrote a series of fourteen books about Oz to do just that. In his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum states that he wrote it “solely to please children of today. It aspires to be a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Unlike the movie Dorothy, the literary Dorothy is therefore never a desperate damsel in distress but a tough and tenacious American girl who views her separation from home primarily in practical terms. To her, being stranded in Oz is more of an existential problem to be solved than a painful experience to be endured. Justin G. Schiller writes in his afterword to the 1985 Pennyroyal edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that “like the real children of her day, Dorothy accepts the empirical reality of what she experiences, knows what she wants, and sets about doing what needs to be done to achieve it” (262). The hand-wringing movie Dorothy depends on her friends to rescue her; in contrast, the literary Dorothy is herself the savior.

Though Oz is beautiful in the movie, the psychic torment of exile begins almost at once. Dorothy is welcomed by the Munchkins as a “national heroine” for killing the Wicked Witch of the East after her house landed on her, but the Witch’s far more evil sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, is both a constant, ominous threat and a subconscious recreation of the loathsome Almira Gulch back in Kansas. “I’ll get you, my pretty,” the Wicked Witch later threatens. “And your little dog, too!” Even in the safe haven of the Emerald City, Dorothy sees the Wicked Witch riding across the sky on her broomstick, writing SURRENDER DOROTHY in dark letters. For Dorothy, the distance back to Kansas and home is infinite and unknowable, not to be measured in tiny, finite units such as miles. She even recognizes that “I can’t go the way I came.” In addition, she knows that if she ever removes her ruby slippers, she’ll be at the complete mercy of the Wicked Witch.

Anyone, young or old, who has seen The Wizard of Oz, will remember the scene in which Dorothy, captured by the Flying Monkeys, is left alone by the Wicked Witch in her castle. An hourglass rapidly measures out the last minutes of Dorothy’s life. As she waits to die, she sees Aunt Em, the greatest symbol of the home she has lost, crying out for her in the Witch’s crystal ball. But of course, Aunt Em can’t see or hear her. Dorothy’s terror may exist only in a dream, but it represents an extension of her Aunt and Uncle’s failure back on Earth to notice her misery when she feared for her dog’s life.

A moment later, the image of Aunt Em disappears and is replaced by the hideous green face of the Wicked Witch, laughing and shrieking in mockery at her. Oz, it seems, is not only hostile to Dorothy, but ultimately, it will prove fatal to her, a lethal nightmare.

Fortunately, Dorothy’s three friends rescue her, and she throws water on the Wicked Witch, melting her into nothing. The Winkie guards are glad to let her go, and she returns to the Emerald City where the greatest disaster of all occurs. Toto jumps out of the hot air balloon’s basket to chase a cat and Dorothy leaps after him, thereby stranding herself in Oz forever – or so it seems. As she watches the Wizard float back to Kansas, she cries, “Oh no, I’ll never get home!” Her last chance at escape is gone, and Dorothy will remain in exile.

But of course it is only a dream, and the Good Witch reveals to Dorothy that she has possessed the ability to return home all along. All she has to do is tap her ruby slippers together three times and keep saying, “There’s no place like home.”

Dorothy follows the Good Witch’s directions and wakes up in her bed back in Kansas, still repeating the magic words. The conventional interpretation of the movie’s conclusion is that Dorothy’s exile is over and she has ultimately learned that happiness is not to be found in other countries with Professor Marvel or in an imaginary realm beyond the clouds. She herself says, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!” In the end, despite the beautiful, poignant melody, “Over the Rainbow,” The Merry Old land of Oz simply cannot compete with earthbound Kansas, where Dorothy truly belongs and where alone her destiny lies.

Or is this interpretation of the movie’s ending too pat? Is it really how we should view Dorothy’s homecoming? If we look again at the movie’s conclusion, we see that while the adults are loving, they are still not listening to Dorothy or taking her seriously. “Doesn’t anybody believe me?” she asks, after telling them of her adventures and seeing their disbelieving smiles.

Salman Rushdie, one of the most famous exiles of all, wrote that “When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, it made a writer of me” (The Wizard of Oz: An Appreciation, 2). To him, the movie is about “the inadequacy of adults,” even “good” ones, and how their “weaknesses force” children “to take control of their own destiny” (4). Rushdie’s interpretation of the movie’s ending differs from that of most viewers because he feels it is both false and cloying. He believes the movie emphasizes leaving rather than coming home, joyful migration and escape rather than assimilation. In “Out of Kansas,” he writes:

Anybody who has swallowed the scriptwriters’ notion that this is a film about the superiority of “home” over “away,” that the “moral” of The Wizard of Oz is as sickly-sweet as an embroidered sampler—“East, West, home’s best”—would do well to listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice as her face tilts up toward the skies. What she expresses here, what she embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots. At the heart of The Wizard of Oz is the tension between these two dreams; but as the music swells and that big, clean voice flies into the anguished longings of the song, can anyone doubt which message is the stronger? In its most potent emotional moment, this is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the grayness and entering the color, of making a new life in the “place where there isn’t any trouble.” “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn—the hymn—to elsewhere” (25).

How, then, should we view the message or moral of The Wizard of Oz? Is it ultimately more about going away to a wonderland or coming home to a family, about being a stranger in a magical strange world or being a child who joyfully returns home? Or is the confusion caused by the fact that the movie not only had multiple directors with Victor Fleming doing most of the work, but several revisions and screenwriters, including Jack Haley and Bert Lahr who wrote some of their own dialogue? The answer perhaps, best lies with the beholder, but there can be no doubt that Salman Rushdie is right when he says that the movie is also about the tension between both dreams, for exile seldom exists without the yearning, ambivalent or otherwise, to return home.

Works Cited
Baum, Frank L. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. China: HarperCollins Publishers. 1987.
Rushdie, Salman. “Out of Kansas.” Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002. New York: Modern Library. 3- 31.
---. The Wizard of Oz: An Appreciation. Ed. Melvyn Bragg and Richard Maltby. New York: BFI Film Classics. 1997.
Schiller, Justin G. “Appreciation.” The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. West Hatfield, MA: Pennyroyal Press. 1985. Quoted in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Centennial Edition, by L. Frank Baum, illustrations by William Wallace Denslow, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Sept. 2000.
The Wizard of Oz. Warner Home Video. Two disc 70th Anniversary Edition. 2009.