‘Ding, dong, the witch is dead’: the ethics of anti-elegy in The Wizard of Oz

D. Wilder

Recently, much attention has been given to a short song (really little more than a ditty) from the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. The unsuccessful campaign to get ‘Ding, dong, the witch is dead’ to the number one spot of the UK singles chart in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death sparked a large debate as to the ethics of such an act of protest, with many, including BBC Radio One controller Ben Cooper, labeling it as ‘distasteful’. This short article, submitted to an English Literature journal, will not attempt to analyse the ethics of this politically motivated campaign. Instead, it will briefly examine the song in its original context, and ask whether similar ethical difficulties can be read in the film as were raised regarding the recent campaign.

For the purpose of the article, I will treat the song as an example of an anti-elegy. Spargo explains anti-elegy as tracing ‘the horizon of dis-satisfaction’, turning from elegy as an aspect of ‘lyrical economy to a more open mode of ethical complaint’, allowing for criticism of the departed. Elegy, on the other hand, can only present ‘a song of lamentation’, and this song certainly does not lament. Rather it celebrates the death that it addresses, the crushing of the Wicked Witch of the East by Dorothy’s tornado riding house. This joyful tone is most clearly expressed in the simplistic rhyming of ‘witch’ with ‘which’ and the energetic pace at which the song is performed, combining to produce a sense of impromptu over-emotion at hearing what is apparently good news. That the celebration of the Wicked Witch of the East’s death is twinned with welcoming Dorothy to Munchkinland, serves to keep the song palatable to a family audience. The parade and colourful ceremony with which Dorothy is greeted serve to encourage us to focus on how glad the Munchkins are to see her rather than their disturbingly simple pleasure in verifying that the witch is ‘not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead’. It is this rather naively callous ‘coffin cheering’ which was deemed ethically questionable in the attempt to place the song at number one in the UK music charts following Thatcher’s passing, and yet it is unashamedly present here in the song’s original filmic presentation, aimed at families and children especially.

Upon second viewing, commentators often note that they have questioned whether ‘maybe the Witch of the East wasn’t as bad as all that’; the streets are clean and welcoming, and every Munchkin not only has a job, but appears to belong to a guild of specialist Munchkins – the ‘Lollipop Guild’ perhaps being the most memorable example. There is little sign of oppression or intolerance here; Rushdie cites the speed at which the Munchkins come out of hiding to meet Dorothy as evidencing substantial liberty. With this curious difference between what we are told of The Witch of East, and the evidence presented on screen, it is rational to question either the accuracy of the label ‘wicked’, or the amount of thought that went into making the scene, or both. An ethical dilemma is raised by either line of questioning – is the Witch of the East being slandered on her death bed, or are the directors of the film refusing to present any evidence of the wickedness the Witch of the East apparently embodies?

In either case, it is clear that the song, ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’ possesses similar ethical dilemmas in its original presentation on the film to those raised during its use as a political protest following Margaret Thatcher’s passing. The song appears in similar circumstances in the film to that in which it was placed in this year’s campaign, leading to comparable ethical questions. The label ‘wicked’ that the song employs to describe the Witch of the East is an accusation formed regardless of evidence, something that was again brought up in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death, and is debated more fully in a contemporary rewriting of The Wizard of Oz, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.

Ben Cooper, ‘Radio 1’s Chart Show on Sunday 14 April 2013’ on BBC Blogs, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/posts/Statement-regarding-Radio-1s-Chart-Show-14-April-2013&gt; [accessed 27th May 2013]

 The Wizard of Oz, dir. by Victor Fleming (MGM, 1939), referenced extract: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHQLQ1Rc_Js&gt; [accessed 27th May 2013]

R. Clifton Spargo, The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature, (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004) p.128-9

<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/60350?redirectedFrom=elegy#eid&gt; [accessed 28th May 2013]

Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz, (London: British Film Institute, 1992) p.42

Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, (New York: HarperCollins, 1995)


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