19 September 2008

Why The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Is Not a Good Literary Novel

Back in June, Newsweek interviewed Jane Yolen about her five most important books. The interchange ended with a request for "A classic you revisited with disappointment," and Jane answered:

L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. All I could see were the repetitions, the unvarying sentences and the paper-thin characters.
And indeed, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not a good literary novel.

Nor do I think that it belongs in that category. We've come to see all book-length fiction through the model of the character-driven novel, but I think Wizard's novelistic qualities are mixed equally with Augustan satire and oral poetry.

Most of the book's characters aren't individuals. Many appear in groups: Winkies, Fighting Trees, Hammerheads, wolves. In the whole story, there are only ten characters with proper names. Of those, five are the book's Americans--Dorothy, Toto, Uncle Henry, Aunt Em, and Oz--and none of those has a surname. Only later, as the Oz books became more novelistic, did Baum disclose that Dorothy's family is named Gale and the Wizard's original last name was Diggs.

Of the other five named characters, only one--Glinda--plays a role in the plot. The other four are incidental, in three cases appearing in episodes that seem to have been late additions to the story. There's a Munchkin landowner named Boq; Gayelette and Quelala, a couple mentioned in the story of the Magic Cap; and a china figurine named Mr. Joker.

All the other individual characters are identified not by name but by a descriptive label: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the soldier with the green whiskers, the queen of the field mice, the king of the winged monkeys, and so on. Sometimes those identifiers tell us the characters' most important traits straight away: the Good Witch of the North, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West. Again, in later writing Baum went back and named some of these characters: the Tin Woodman became Nick Chopper, the soldier Omby Amby.

In sum, the characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz aren't rounded characters but types, often representing concepts: "I wish I had a heart (though I am actually already kind)"; "I represent the power of the state in the Emerald City"; "I am a wicked witch." In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (another Augustan satire which people try to read as a novel), the king of Lilliput shows little depth or growth as a character. In the same way, Wizard's characters are two-dimensional and unchanging.

As for oral poetry, we know that Baum created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first as a series of bedtime tales for his sons. Only later did he put the saga on paper. In contrast, he composed the rest of his Oz stories on paper first, usually as novels and occasionally as scripts for stage or screen.

I posit that the "repetitions" and "unvarying sentences" that Jane noted are the remnant of the story's roots in being told aloud. Those repetitions are formulas, like the "wine-dark sea" in The Odyssey. At many moments each of Dorothy's three companions comments on events in turn, each speaking from the perspective he represents. The prose is very spare. Depending on one's literary states and bedtime, those repeated patterns could be soothing or grating.

Baum was never a terrific literary stylist, and his plots were haphazard. His genius lay in characterization. Only when he started to write Oz novels did he color in the characters from Wizard. Those later books show us the Scarecrow's playful side, the Tin Woodman's dignified ego, Dorothy's risk-taking confidence, and so on. And those are the characters that fans of the Oz books remember.


Anonymous said...

Has working for Newsweek possibly zapped Jane's imagination and spelling?

It appears so.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure what you mean. Jane Yolen isn't working for Newsweek; that magazine interviewed her. And I don't see any lack of imagination or spelling in the brief article.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Hmm, I think you're being gracious to call Baum's style
"not terrific," but after having plowed through those books for my daughter, I'd give him more points for plot. Everything doesn't cohere, but I think my daughter was enchanted by how something happened on almost every page. Having just reread The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I'd agree the prose is ho-hum at best, but I appreciate your reading and also loved the satire.

J. L. Bell said...

Wizard's prose stands out starkly even from Baum's usual style, I think. But either way, his workaday writing shows a lot of the defects of his era without many of the magnificent effects Victorian prose could attain.

By "plot," I mean how all the events fit together in a logical and satisfying way. Some of his Oz books just peter out (Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz) or hop from one disconnected episode to another (The Scarecrow of Oz). One (Road to Oz) barely musters up any plot at all—yet it's one of my favorites, and a favorite of a lot of other fans, because of the characters.

I rank The Magic of Oz as having a fine plot, with three interlocking lines, but that's a rarity for Baum.

I haven't thought about it before, but I see having "something happen on almost every page" as different from plot. Maybe I'd call that "action." And indeed Baum, like Rowling and some other fantasists, always has something going on.