In the children’s story, “The Magic Art of the Great Humbug”, all of the characters run into problems with their identities. The old man has the most difficulty with his own identity. He wishes to be a great wizard with superhuman capabilities. The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion have trouble with desiring qualities that are only common to humans. Finally, Dorothy runs into trouble with the symbols around her that establish her identity.
The common problem that consumes each character in this story is commonly known as an identity crisis, meaning they ask the question, “Who am I? Although these problems with identity seem difficult to solve for, the essays of Lacan, Payne, and McGillis can help to find the answers.
Every identity question that each character has in the story can be defined from Lacan’s mirror stage and symbolic order. From the examples of the characters’ identity problems, it will be seen that they are merely a mirror (example) of some of the challenges we may face in defining and developing our own identities. The old man from the story first questioned his identity when he was back home in Omaha.Order now
He lived his life as a ventriloquist and a balloonist (Baum 453). He was bored with his life because he was an ordinary man. At the time, the old man felt that he was insufficient, and did not know who he was. He faced an identity crisis because he was an ordinary man, yet he wanted to be so much more. When he came to the Land of Oz, he got his chance. In his old world, he had a reputation for being ordinary. Because everybody in his old world already knew him, they knew he was ordinary. However, he was able to create a new identity for himself in the new world because nobody there knew him.
As a result, he had a clean slate that would allow him to establish a new identity. After all, how could he already have an identity in Oz if nobody knew him? The old man succeeded in creating a new identity for himself for a couple of reasons. First, he placed green spectacles upon the people of the city in order to convince them that everything was green (hence the name, Emerald City). The old man exclaimed, “But my people have worn green glasses on their eyes so long that most of them think it really is an Emerald City” (Baum 454).
Also, he created a new identity for himself by creating several disguises. The old man took on different forms of a wizard for each of the four main characters (Baum 451). In this part of the text, the old man uses “mirror” images of himself toward each individual by portraying various characteristics that he desired in order to be a wizard. The old man displayed those different images because he believed in the phrase, “We are as others see us” (McGillis 43). The “mirror” images of himself were only images because they were not the real old man; they were just reflections of his desires.
In real life, almost everybody portrays “mirror” images of himself or herself because they have a desire to be something greater than what they really are. Pieces of the mirror stage can be seen when the old man was suffering from a sense of lack with his self-image (imago). The imago can be defined as “the counterpart and the drama of primordial jealousy” (Lacan 181). It is because of his desire (jealousy of real “wizards”) to be something greater that the old man created different images, or imagos, of himself as a wizard. He would certainly feel content if he could fool everyone into believing he was a real wizard.
Furthermore, the old man’s vision of being a wizard was his Ideal-I, which is “the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality” (Lacan 181). The old man was a fragmented person because he felt incomplete due to his desire to be something more than he was. As a result, he needed his Ideal-I (the missing piece) to complete himself. Many people face the same desires in real life. They too, feel incomplete because they desire characteristics (such as beauty or talent from a movie star or singer) that would make up their Ideal-I.
The old man’s connection between the mirror stage and the symbolic order is that he created his own symbolic order by fooling everyone into thinking he was a wizard, in order to fulfill his desires. Ultimately, he wanted to reach his Ideal- I. First, he placed green spectacles on the people of Oz in order to convince them that the city was made of emerald. The spectacles gave the people the image that he made the city out of emerald, backing up his story of being a wizard. An ordinary man could not create a city out of emerald. Only a wizard would have the power to create a city out of emerald.
Also, he created his own symbolic order by portraying himself as several different images in order to convince people that he was a real wizard. Once the people were convinced, they helped to develop his identity by confirming to him that he was indeed a wizard. Perhaps he felt like he was a wizard, but he really was not because he lacked magical powers. However, what is important here is that the old man believed he was a wizard, and therefore felt complete. As a result of feeling completed, the old man was happy, and that was all that really mattered to him.
Dorothy was forced to question her own identity when she was thrown into a world that she was unfamiliar with. When she was home, she knew the world around her and was quite familiar with it. However, once she came to the world of Oz, she went from a world that she knew to a world that she knew nothing about. She probably felt like she knew who she was in Kansas, because all of the symbols around her helped to confirm her identity. However, the new symbols in Oz did not confirm her identity, but questioned it instead.
Because she did not know the world around her, she would have to overcome a few tasks in order to be able to familiarize herself with it. Similarly, people are sometimes faced with new situations in real life. They must also overcome certain tasks in order to work within their changed environment. Dorothy is thrown into a world that is of different symbolic order (Lacan 182), occurring once a child matures, because none of the experiences that were symbols in her old symbolic order (Kansas) were present in her new symbolic order (Oz).
When she enters the world of Oz, she becomes dismembered. Dismemberment is seen as a “fragmented body usually manifests itself in dreams when the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual” (Lacan 181). Because Dorothy lost familiarity with her surroundings, she was no longer able to identify with the symbols (things with specific meaning to her) that she usually identified with. In the new world, her experiences meant nothing because they were based on symbols from Kansas that did not exist in Oz.
As a result of the lack of similar symbols in Oz, her identity decayed. The concept of dismemberment, coming from the mirror stage, finds itself in the next stage of the symbolic order because Dorothy became dismembered when she went into the new symbolic order of Oz. Kansas was filled with symbols, something that has a different meaning to each person because it is based on his or her individual experience, that all had meaning to her at home. Because the symbols were defined from her experiences in Kansas, they had no meaning in Oz.
How could the symbols have a meaning if she had no experiences in Oz to build them from? As a result, her identity was stuck in Kansas (and not Oz) because it gave her every experience that she ever had. She may have known herself in Kansas, but once she ended up in a different world, her identity became fuzzy because her symbols had no meaning there. The experiences she had at home were mostly made from overcoming difficult tasks. Each experience helped her to define herself because they were all she had to identify with (Lacan 181).
In order to find her identity in the world of Oz, she would need to conquer the witches of the East and West (Baum 452). If she could kill the witches, she would gain new experiences based in Oz. Because experiences are critical in developing one’s identity, she would now have a way to gain familiarity with the new world. By succeeding in killing the two wicked witches, she gained crucial experience, and thus found her identity in Oz. Finally, the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow questioned their identities because they all suffered from a lack of a specific quality. They each had their own distinct desires.
They each felt they were lacking qualities: The Cowardly Lion lacked courage, the Tin Man lacked a heart, and the Scarecrow lacked a brain. They felt they could complete their individual Ideal-Is if they could fulfill their desires because their Ideal-Is were simply reflections of their own desires. Like the characters, many people feel they can achieve their Ideal-Is, even though Lacan implies that they cannot (McGillis 42). The story shows us that the characters could only receive symbols of their Ideal-Is, and not the real Ideal-Is that a reader would think they desired.
The same concept applies to real life because, for example, a person cannot be a specific movie star if they want to; they can only look like the star. The three characters wanted to obtain their Ideal-Is by fulfilling their desires. The Ideal-I is an image that “remains something both devoutly to be desired and irritatingly out of reach” (McGillis 42). Furthermore, because they were not human, they obviously could not get an intellectual brain, an emotional heart, or courage. They only knew about such qualities because people acted as mirrors of their own desires.
The mirror stage shows that “The failure to satisfy a demand, whether it be for food or clothing or love or whatever, results in an experience of an immitigable lack” (McGillis 43). The characters would probably not be able to obtain their Ideal-Is. In the story, the old man exclaimed, “How could I help being a humbug, when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodman happy, because they imagined I could do anything” (Baum 457).
Because the old man knew he could not give them their Ideal-Is, he made them think they had fulfilled their desires by giving them symbols of their respective desires, which ties into the symbolic order. With these three characters, the mirror stage relates to the symbolic order because they could not physically obtain their Ideal-Is, so they received symbols of their desires instead. Symbols are important because “the ‘desire of the other’ all of human knowledge and culture takes on the role of mediation in that it offers an ‘abstract equivalence’ of what the subject desires” (Payne 33).
Although they actually did not receive a real brain, a real heart, or courage (which does not physically exist), they received symbols that were equivalent to their desires. The symbols were just as important as the real qualities that the characters desired because they represented their Ideal-Is. Their identities strengthened as result because they were now complete. The task of defining one’s self is not an easy one. The difficulty of defining one’s self increases exponentially as he or she gets older and encounters more obstacles to cloud his or her vision.
Because of this exponential growth in difficulty, there is proof that there will never be an end to the task of defining one’s self (finally, math is useful for something). However, children’s stories can help to ease the task of self-identification by reminding us of simple rules. They remind us of fundamental rules, such as knowing that we must be willing to overcome certain obstacles in order to define ourselves, and showing us that the more jealous we are of others, the more we are torturing ourselves by longing for the unattainable.
Children’s stories are useful in helping to answer such difficult questions of identity because they take place before the full complexity of the world (starting at adolescence) takes over of the minds of the children. Before the adolescent stage, the child has been subjected to a lot less experiences, which act as barriers that create a “box” around him or her. Without a large “box” isolating him or her from the freedom of thought, there is more room to absorb a lot more in terms of proper morals.
In addition, the stories are the foundation of life for children. In a way, children’s stories are the Cliff’s Notes to life. They contain the framework for children to develop their own morals that they will hold dear to them for the rest of their lives. In conclusion, these stories act as mirrors that show what difficulties we may encounter in our own lives, and provide hints for us as to what to do and what not to do when we are forced to delve into the eternal quest of defining ourselves.