04 January 2007

What Makes the Gopher So Discontented?

Baum's story for The Discontented Gopher is a tale with a clear, even obvious moral. It starts with three gopher brothers choosing nuts to find which one gets a special gift from the gopher fairies. The youngest brother, Zikky, lucks out, and the other two scamper away, never to appear in the tale again.

Zikky receives a choice between contentment and wealth. He chooses wealth, figuring he can therefore buy contentment. His mother sees trouble ahead but seems rather sanguine about it all; perhaps she knows him too well.

The year before Baum published "The Discontented Gopher", he finished his Marvelous Land of Oz with Princess Ozma telling the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman:

"You are both rich, my friends,...and your riches are the only riches worth having--the riches of content!"
So it's pretty clear that Zikky has chosen, as the old man at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade intones, "poooorly."

The events that follow don't make up a smooth plot, but rather a psychological portrait in discontent. They show how Zikky is never satisfied, even after the fairies have brought him great gopher wealth in the form of a lifetime supply of corn.

Zikky finds a home near one of those new places called "farms," where people with horses and machines literally spew corn onto the ground for him to pick up and store away. But of course he can't be content to remain in his safe, well-stocked burrow. He must explore the home of men, and that produces nothing but trouble. A series of painful encounters with men, dogs, and gophers' natural predators render Zikky wounded and bedraggled.

Finally, two boys find Zikky close to death and cut off his tail to earn two cents from the authorities, as this edition's introduction explains. That prompts an odd authorial intrusion:
(Two cents apiece for Gopher tails! That means a Gopher's life. Is it really worth while, I wonder, to write so much about one of God's creatures whose life is worth only two cents?)
It was much more common in magazine stories of this time, including Baum's own "Juggerjook" for St. Nicholas, to go on about the sacred value of all creatures. But here he's being bitterly ironic, and ends up reflecting Zikky's own concern with wealth.

As it happens, Zikky doesn't lose his life along with his tail. Badly wounded, he struggles back to his burrow and gradually recovers. But of course he can't recover from his original choice of wealth. He can't be content with having escaped. Ashamed of his tailless state, he never ventures outside his burrow again, and other gophers decide he's "stuck-up, and conceited!" There's no redemption in this tale, no second act for Zikky. He is, and will always be, the discontented gopher.

"The Discontented Gopher," "Juggerjook," and all of Baum's published short stories are available in a single volume from the International Wizard of Oz Club.

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