It’s been a week and a half since I mentioned the Wizard of Oz/Harry Potter connection: time to get back to it.
We saw and enjoyed the new Harry Potter movie over the Thanksgiving weekend, and my daughter has latched onto The Wizard of Oz as her new fave DVD after she saw part of it on TV, also over the Turkey weekend. Suffice it to say, the Wizard and I have become intimately reacquainted over the last 10 days or so.
The comparison I find striking between the Wizard and Harry is their respective treatment of alternative parenting. Both Harry and Dorothy live with their aunt and uncle, but the relationships couldn’t be much more different. Harry has no real emotional connection with his cold, venal, self-absorbed aunt and uncle, who see him as a burden.
Theirs is the vile stepparent role found in Cinderella, and at the farthest extreme Snow White: unloving, exploitative, manipulative, scheming, viewing the child as a commodity and/or a threat. This is the rejection of the nurturing aspect of the substitute parental role and reveals a smallness of spirit, selfishness, and is easily judged as inadequate at best and evil at worst.
This view assumes that the duty of providing for the basic physical needs of a child DOES NOT fulfill substitute parental duties, roles that Dorothy’s Auntie Em and Uncle Henry fulfill as naturally as breathing. Harry, his parents dead, is only at home away from his biological family – his aunt, uncle and cousin.
Dorothy, her parents never mentioned but presumably dead, enjoys great adventures away from her aunt and uncle’s prosaic family farm in Kansas, but she is never “at home” away from them. Her aunt and uncle are her parents in every sense of the word other than birth. When Dorothy wakes up from her concussion dream (or was it real??) at the end of the film, the tone of Auntie (the equivalent of “Mommy”) Em’s, “Honey, wake up” conveys the depth of their relationship: the bottomless reserve of concern and love that the aunt has for the “niece,” a word never used in the Wizard because it is an insult to the relationship of maternal figure and child that is at the core of the story’s emotional world.
Testament to Dorothy’s status as a loved and cherished member of the family is the fact that even on this Depression-era farm, bustling with activities and three hired hands, she has no apparent duties or responsibilities. She is asked nothing other than to keep out of trouble and stay out of the way. How diametrically opposed is Dorothy’s life to that of Cinderella or Snow White! Dorothy is in fact bored and looking for things to do as she tries to elicit support and sympathy from first her aunt and uncle, and then the hired hands (who become her defenders and companions in Oz) regarding her ongoing battle with Miss Gulch.
Dorothy feels so secure with her family that she sees running away as a viable option to protect her dog from the vindictive Gulch and to “punish” them for not paying enough attention to her, though she immediately returns when she thinks she has hurt her aunt’s feelings. Dorothy is so secure in her aunt’s love that it seems plausible to her that her disappearance could induce a heart attack in the aunt.
This assumes a broadly kind view of human nature: that aunts and nieces can live and love each other like mother and daughter, that all of the same assumptions can apply including taking each other for granted from time to time.
While we were watching the movie the first time, my wife, who hadn’t seen the film dozens of times like I had, suddenly exclaimed: “Dorothy is an orphan, I never realized that.” While technically we can assume that she is, since she lives with her aunt and uncle and no mention is made of her parents, the word “orphan” didn’t sit right with me. I said, “No – she has her aunt and uncle,” which actually has nothing to do with orphanhood. But what I really meant is that her aunt and uncle ARE her parents, and I think of orphans as not having parents.
The new L. Frank Baum biography by Katharine M. Rogers confirms that Baum was a very kind man and devoted father:
- He appears to have been one of the very few writers who really were exactly as one would want them to be: sweet-natured, kind, a loving husband and father. He was also reasonable and liberal, with a sardonic sense of humor that prevented his books from ever becoming cloying. [NY Times]
He was also comfortable with the matriarchy that was Dorothy’s home:
- He was, Rogers writes, ”a secure man who did not worry about asserting his masculine authority,” and he was not bothered that Maud had the upper hand in the marriage; in fact he seemed to welcome her take-charge attitude. His feminist beliefs would have a profound effect on his fiction. Nearly all of his child heroes were girls, girls who rely on their own resources and not on the aid, or validation, of men. He thought men who did not support feminist aspirations ”selfish, opinionated, conceited or unjust — and perhaps all four combined,” as he wrote in a newspaper editorial. ”The tender husband, the considerate father, the loving brother, will be found invariably championing the cause of women.”
And the naturalness of maternal love, even between aunt and niece.
For J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, losing his parents is the defining tragedy of his life; for Baum’s Dorothy, the tragedy isn’t even mentioned because Uncle Henry and Auntie Em have so completely assumed parental roles and got on with their lives. Harry’s aunt and uncle can’t imagine loving Harry like a son; Dorothy’s aunt and uncle can’t imagine not loving her like a daughter. Would that every orphan’s life was like Dorothy’s: all children deserved to be so loved that they can take it for granted.