The Very Heart of “The Wizard of Oz”
Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, explains what the classic movie is all about…
Margaret Hamilton’s life was irrevocably changed when MGM released The Wizard of Oz on August 15, 1939. Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the film, mentioned in the journal Children’s Literature how ever afterwards she was accosted in the street by fans and how she was often late for dentist appointments as a result.
Finally, after one more missed appointment, she decided at last to sit down and find “the answer to that question which had plagued and fascinated me for years: What is it that makes that picture so special?” The answer, Hamilton wrote in 1982, has to do with the idea of “home”:
“What that picture tells me coincides with the wonderful lesson Dorothy says she has learned at last, about feeling she has lost her home. Her answer to the Good Fairy is ‘If I have lost something and I look all over for it and can’t find it, it means I really never lost it in the first place.’ That is subtle, but finally I understood. If you can’t find it, it is still there somewhere — you still have it. I pondered over that for years. I used to think, ‘But I never really had it!’ Then I listened and thought and remembered, and then, one time, I knew. I had been there. And I still am.”
Hamilton’s gnomic remarks suggest an alternate understanding of that classic film, beginning with its most well known line. When, near the end of the movie, Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home,” that is commonly taken as an expression of the girl’s affection for the Kansas farm where she lives with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. But there’s another way to understand that line.
Remember that in the beginning of the film, Dorothy wants to run away from home, escape to “somewhere where there isn’t any trouble,” somewhere where Miss Gulch isn’t trying to get her dog Toto, “somewhere over the rainbow.” When she is injured in the cyclone, her imagination answers her desires by remaking Kansas into Oz, the hired hands (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory) into her companions (the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion), Professor Marvel into the Wizard, and Elvira Gulch into the Wicked Witch. All these transformations make a subtle point: Dorothy cannot escape her troubles by going elsewhere. The last words of the movie, “There’s no place like home,” really amount to “There’s no place but home.”
Following Hamilton’s lead, we can say that Dorothy discovers that this here-and-now is all there is to life and more than enough. Fantasizing, resemblance-making, daydreaming are symptoms of existential dis-ease. Instead of being at-home in this life, these failures of nerve and moments of escapism amount to an automobile covered with bumper stickers that read “I’d rather be windsurfing” or “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.”
We can understand this in terms of the Zen story about a samurai who came to his teacher and asked him to explain the Christian concepts of “heaven” and “hell.” The master began to insult the samurai and his family until the warrior could stand it no longer and reached for his sword, beginning to unsheath it. “Behold hell,” the teacher said. Stunned, the samurai paused and realized the point. Then he began to sheath his sword. “Behold heaven,” the teacher said.
Likewise, at the end of The Wizard of Oz an awakened Dorothy is surrounded at bedside by those she knows and she witnesses their fantasy-world likenesses collapse and retreat to their source. As Margaret Hamilton explains, though she has hunted hither and yon for her heart’s desire, she never really lost it in the first place. She is at home and always has been.
This essay originally appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press blog (August 14, 2014). It is derived from my more extended discussion of “The Wizard of Oz” in my book “Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story.”
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