Released neither the author of the children’s book nor

Released at the height of the Golden Age
of Hollywood, The Wizard of Oz undeniably
proved that a musical fantasy movie can be a classical success despite the
genre’s stagnation prior to its showing (Dirks). Remarkably so, the movie
effectively conveys, and is unusually illuminated by, many of the major themes
of existentialist philosophy. While it is unlikely that either the author of
the original text or the writers of the movie had any knowledge of
existentialist philosophy, the subject still manages to emphasize key features
at the core of the main characters in its own distinct style.  

Existentialist philosophers are considered
rebels against the academic philosophy practiced by their predecessors. Whereas
philosophers of the nineteenth century considered existence in the sense of
individuals holding the position of either “substances with fixed properties”
or “as subjects interacting with a world of objects”, existentialist philosophers
held that there must be an additional division, guided by the barometer of
authenticity, fundamental to understanding human existence (Crowell). Most
notably, Jean-Paul Sartre—the creator of the descriptive word used to identify
the branch—digressed from his philosophical ancestors by denying the notion
that human nature is fixed and, instead, focused on the ubiquitous elements of
existence.

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Although existentialism was established during
the 1940s, crucial aspects of the movie carry a meaningful existential outlook
that is inaccessible to other perspectives. That this movie brings to the
forefront certain overlooked, existentialist themes upholds the assertion that
the branch is not defined by the exclusive views of scholars. Nevertheless, the
reality of the situation suggests that neither the author of the children’s
book nor the producers of the screenplay could have been influenced by
existentialism since their works were released in 1900 and 1939, respectively. That
being said, to claim that The Wizard of Oz is an existentialist work is not to
imply that there was ever any intent to present existentialist themes by either
source. Existentialism simply brings to light aspects of the human condition
uncharacterized by other viewpoints.

Central to existential thought is the
concept that each person is “condemned to be free,” as Sartre puts it (Sartre
439). Essentially, this means nobody has a choice in existing in the first
place; so, once person X is born, X’s freedom is a responsibility—X must take
the responsibility imposed on them and assign meaning to being born. The only
thing X isn’t responsible for is creating their responsibility in the first
place. Thus, person X is “thrown into a world and abandoned in a situation”
they are now accountable for (Sartre 79). Once person X realizes that they
alone make their choices and are accountable for the consequences of those
choices, then X will grasp that they are entirely responsible for their own
existence.

This existentialist theme arises when
Dorothy is thrown into an alternate
world against her will— broadening the scope of understanding concerning
Dorothy’s peril. Upon being dropped while still inside her house into the
fantastical Munchkinland of Oz, a dazed Dorothy exclaims to her dog, “we’re not
in Kansas anymore” (6). Eventually, as Dorothy is gaining awareness of her new
surroundings, she is informed by the good witch of the north that her house has
crushed and killed the wicked witch of the east. In order to return home to
Kansas, the good witch instructs Dorothy, she must follow the yellow brick road
to ask the Wizard of Oz for his assistance (10).

In a scene that effectively imitates the
existential theme of being thrust into a world without a choice in the matter,
the insight into Dorothy’s anguish becomes clear. She is adrift in an
unfamiliar land and abandoned with the responsibility imposed on her of
returning home. Of course, she very easily could have been saved by the good
witch. It is within the realm of possibility that Dorothy might have been able
to be transported to Oz under the care of Glinda and simply experience the
world of Oz in a bubble— assured of her safety and unexposed to the world. But
that was not the case. Dorothy is forced to decide on a meaning for her new
life in Oz (returning home) and act with the burdening knowledge that she is
wholly responsible for her existence.

On her path, she is immediately met with
choices that will inevitably define her new existence, however trivial they may
initially seem. Relatively early in her decision-making, Dorothy reaches a cornfield
where she observes a fork in the yellow brick road (11). Despite her immediate
inclination to alone decide which route to select, by the end of the scene,
Dorothy leaves Scarecrow, her new friend, with the responsibility of making the
decision (15). What Dorothy has done, in effect, is deny herself the necessary
obligation of bearing the repercussions of her own choices. Instead, she favored
a potential future scenario in which she blames Scarecrow for a choice that may
turn out to be a serious misstep in her journey. Under those circumstances,
Dorothy is unequivocally transparent in her existential inauthenticity by not
taking entire responsibility for her existence in Oz. 

In time, Dorothy ultimately travels
alongside a total of three existential companions—all of whom join her after
singing different grievances regarding their characters. While the scarecrow
exclaims “if I only had a brain”, the tinman grieves “if I only had a heart”,
and the lion bemoans “if I only had the nerve” (14; 17; 22). Upon meeting each
character and through their individual songs, it becomes obvious that they all
believe some other physical object is required to obtain the traits they
desire. Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion all seem to agree that it is not through
choices, consequences, and learning that individuals develop some of their
traits. Rather, a quality is only acquired if a person possesses a physical
manifestation of it.

Sadly, the three of Dorothy’s companions
continue to display this sort of understanding regarding their characteristics.
In hopes of achieving what they each desire, Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion decide
to embark on the journey to see the Wizard down the yellow brick road with
Dorothy. When they finally do meet the Wizard, he presents each with some
object meant to embody the virtues they seek. To physically represent the
intelligence granted by the brain, the Wizard gives Scarecrow a diploma; to
represent the feelings granted by a heart, Tinman receives a heart-shaped
clock; and, to represent the courage granted by nerve, Lion receives a medal
for bravery (43; 44; 43). Never do the three acknowledge that they had the
traits all along through the choices that they decided upon. Rather, they overlook
that their identities are not constructed in a way where they must rely on the
Wizard’s gifts to behave in the manners they do.

The denial Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion
continuously exhibit showcase what existentialist refer to as bad faith: a dismissal
of the tension between facticity and transcendence in the human condition
(Sartre 47-48). In other words, the trio refuses to acknowledge that they can surpass
those facts about their existence in the choices and positions they take. For
example, the facticity about Scarecrow’s existence is that he lacks a physical
brain, but that does not negate the cleverness he utilized to develop a plan
for Dorothy’s escape from the wicked witch’s castle (35). That being the case,
the same goes for Lion in his own displays of courage and Tinman in his acts of
compassion. The characteristics they already have are not related to the
physical embodiments of those traits they received; and, yet, the three
continue to identify their lack of a symbol with their own facticity.

The problem with their identifying
themselves with their facticities is they are not accepting responsibility for
their personhood. They grumble as if they are after unattainable fixed
character traits that are not influenced by the choices made through their
lifetimes. Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion solely denounce their individual
characters and agonize over their assumed fixed essence, as if they merely
facticity incapable of transcendence. Thus, in maintaining these mistaken
principles, they are surrendering their freedom, and, thereby, are acting
inauthentically.