Return to Oz (1985)

reviewed by Liberty Miller

Oz: The Brilliant Reflection of a Dream
Analysis of Return to Oz from a Jungian Perspective

Dorothy Gale has a problem.

In times of extreme stress or physical injury, her mind reacts by thrusting her into the land of her subconscious, the land of dreams. This land has a name, and it is called Oz.

Dorothy's condition manifested itself when she hit her head during a tornado. While in Oz, Dorothy's mind was able to heal itself. Through the logic and symbolism of dreams, Dorothy, in the end, used her will to escape from her coma, and return to the waking world.

But this journey had a strange effect on Dorothy. Dorothy has not resolved her perception of what was, to her, a real experience [5], with the rest of her reality. Further, she has not made peace with her desire to return there. This causes physical symptoms for Dorothy; primarily, she is unable to sleep well (and she is, presumedly, unable to dream). Her Aunt is, of course, troubled by this, and with good intentions, brings her to a doctor for the only known treatment for this type of problem, a treatment new to medicine: electro-shock therapy [1].

This is the worst thing that could happen to Dorothy, as it is another brain injury, and again Dorothy finds herself in the land of Oz [2]. She is in the land of her subconscious, where she must make the right decisions in order to heal her mind and return to reality.

She finds Oz destroyed because the shock has partially destroyed her ability to create it. If she makes the wrong decisions, Oz will remain destroyed; even cease to exist entirely. (Alternatively, it is destroyed because she has faced the possibility of its destruction; see Footnote 2.)

In our dreams, pieces of the real world find their way in, and appear in the context of the world of our own making. Everything from the squeak of wheels on a stretcher to the frightening nurse are reflected in Dorothy's dream, but in the context of a story in which she can both logically and emotionally deal with them. By structuring her recent memories into a symbolic sequence of events, her mind is able to more effectively process these events. In this context, she is faced with a new choice: take the easy way, and abandon her memories, or face her fears and find a way to leave Oz while retaining her slight "insanity." The risk she faces, if she does not take the easy way, is that she may sink even deeper into the coma, and lose consciousness altogether. She is aware of this risk only on the subconscious level; in the dream, this risk is represented as becoming an ornament of the Gnome king.

But her friends (representing, perhaps, her imagination, or even her soul) are too precious to her, and she takes the riskier path.

In the end, she is able to find a way to retain Oz in her mind while returning to reality...

The land of our dreams may seem to be a better, happier place, with friends that we love who love us back. This land has a justice and logic that we cannot find in the real world; the mean (or scary) are punished, while we, ourselves, are elevated. But we know we cannot stay there. If Dorothy chose to stay in Oz as its Queen [3], it would eventually become darker, and more twisted, and more empty. This is because the world of fantasy can not meet our true spiritual needs; this can only be done by living, facing our fears, our loneliness, and the seeming inequities of life, and finding a way to overcome them by connecting to the world and the people in it.

Dorothy knows this (again, only subconsciously), but finds a way to return to life while not losing her imagination. For she knows also that her greatest tool in facing the spiritual challenges of life is her imagination [4]. In fact, it is more than imagination: to her Oz is real, and she is able to manifest its reality in her waking world. She has at her disposal a richly developed set of symbolic tools (characters and stories), and is now able to enter the world of her subconscious at will.

© 2001 Liberty Miller


[1] The Oz books were originally published beginning in 1900. Electoshock therepy is historically referenced as being introduced in 1938 but "Magneto-Electric" cures were being used as early as 1831.

[2] It is not clear when she enters her fantasy (does it begin when the switch is flipped, or when she loses consciousness while in the river?); the writer leaves it somewhat open to interpretation (deliberately?).

In one interpretation of the story, when the switch is flicked, her fantasy begins. In her fantasy, she has a counter-part, who comes to help her escape. In reality, the building she is in is struck by lightning, and she somehow wanders out into the night, not seen in the confusion.

Or, the doctor carries her out and leaves her by the river as he runs back in to save his equiptment. Or someone else carries her out, but misplaces her in the confusion.

In the other interpretation, she is only dealing with the stresses of extreme fear. In this interpretation, the blonde girl is real. Dorthy loses consciousness in the river (either from exhaustion, or from partial drowning). It is quite possible the blonde girl (perhaps the daughter of the doctor) drowns.

[3] The choice presented to Dorothy to become Queen of Oz is especially pointed. Upon making her wish ("I wish there was some way I could be in both places at once."), her idealized version of herself (Dorothy's dream avatar) manifests as Ozma. Symbolically, Dorothy must actively bring Ozma into being, by helping her through the mirror. It is Ozma who allows Dorothy to be in both places at once, and who also allows Dorothy to return to Oz whenever Dorthy wishes.

[4] In Jungian theory the unconscious is far too vast to ever be made fully conscious. Poking about in it is not without danger, yet ignoring it is also a mistake. Ignoring the unconscious can lead to a brittle fixedness which, at best, impedes growth, and, at worst, can 'break' when under the pressure of the 'threat' of change.

[5] In Jungian "Active Imagination", the process is to "Let an image arise in mind, and follow it through." In this process "dialogue with imaginal figures is common."

What distinguishes active imagination from simple fantasy is the full participation of the ego, imaginatio vera (true imagination) versus imaginatio fantastica (fantasy imagination). An initial difficulty in practicing active imagination is thinking something like “Oh, I’m just making this up” (imaginatio fantastica). The ego consciousness which participates in active imagination is the full waking ego, not a fictive or dream ego. Of course, children find this easier to do than adults; as we mature, we develop the necessary skill of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

About the books:

In the books, there is no question that Oz is real. The story angle of presenting Oz as only in Dorthy's imagination was introduced in the movie "The Wizard of Oz". This angle was greatly developed for "Return to Oz" by Walter Murch and Gill Dennis. In the books, Dorthy eventually comes to live in Oz with her Aunt and Uncle. For the books, it is the reader who must learn to leave the fantasy world, while retaining its symbolic lessons for the real world. The reader, too, can return to Oz whenever he or she wishes; all that is needed is to pick up one of the books.


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