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Comparing the Narrative and Themes of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz Using Ideas of David Foster Wallace

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‘In Heaven, everything is fine.’

– Eraserhead

‘Someday, I wish upon a star

Wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where trouble melts like lemon drops

High above the chimney top

That’s where you’ll find me’

– ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz

Whilst the two films I shall be comparing (Eraserhead directed by David Lynch and The Wizard of Oz directed by Victor Fleming) certainly have more differences than similarities, the similarities that they do share are very thought-provoking.

Lynch’s depiction of the world of Eraserhead is one that is best described as kafkaesque, whereas The Wizard of Oz, whilst still absurdist to some degree, shows a much more conventional one. The book that it was based upon, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published in 1900, a time where the idea of magical lands and fantasy was quite prominent as was shown with the popularity of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol and its various sequels. Especially with the popularisation of technicolour, The Wizard of Oz, allowed it to portray its world as one of eye-popping colour. Whilst technicolour had been around for about thirty years prior to the release of the film, this was the first film to be screened in colour, in regular cinemas globally. It was met with both critical and audience acclaim, with critic John C. Flinn saying ‘Some of the scenic passages are so beautiful in design and composition as to stir audiences by their sheer unfoldment.’ It managed to enchant audiences with its simple narrative, beautiful music numbers and strong cast, helping it make the equivalent of $415,000,000 (including re-releases). Compared to the $7,000,000 Eraserhead made, it shows the stark difference in both films. Critically and commercially, the reviews for Eraserhead were originally quite negative with Vanity magazine describing it as ‘a sickening bad-taste exercise’ It is easy to see why one film was met with overwhelming praise and the other not. Whilst Eraserhead is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made now, with Stanley Kubrick telling David Lynch that it was his favourite film, it is definitely not as accessible as The Wizard of Oz. I believe this is mainly due to the narrative. The narrative for Eraserhead is best described as ‘lynchian’ – a term created by David Foster Wallace ‘referring to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” This is best shown through the main character, Henry, and his struggles with relationships. There are three key relationships in Eraserhead: Henry and Mary, Henry and the baby, Henry and the Woman in the Radiator. Mary, who starts the film as Henry’s pregnant girlfriend but soon becomes his wife, is a delicate woman, as is shown in the dinner scene where she breaks down cry and later in the film when she leaves Henry and the baby. The aforementioned dinner scene fits David Foster Wallace’s term ‘lynchian’ perfectly. The ‘mundane’ is the setting – dinner round a girlfriend’s parents – a situation that most people at some point in their lives will find themselves. The ‘macabre’ is the atmosphere of the entire scene. With help from the sound and set design, by Alan Splet and Jack Fisk respectively, as well as the choice to film the picture in black and white, the whole scene is unnerving to say the least. The low rumble that is heard throughout most of the film is prevalent here to the degree that it is clearly noticeable due to the long awkward silences between Henry and Mary’s parents perfectly conveys that something is wrong. The mystery is what. This mystery is added to by absurdity, as is shown with the chickens. When sitting round the table, Mr. X, Mary’s father, asks Henry to carve the chickens. The chickens are tiny and bleed when cut. It is very disturbing imagery and the only person to react to it is Henry. This encapsulates what David Foster Wallace was saying about the ironic unholy union between the mundane and the macabre to make Henry seem isolated. The narrative choice from Lynch helps the audience to empathise with Henry. It is a familiar setting – meeting the parents of a partner for the first time – but is made absurd and disturbing. Showing Henry reacting the same way the audience would – with disgust – helps to cement the empathy that is needed to keep the audience engaged through such an experimental and, at least from the outside, an inaccessible film.

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The Wizard of Oz on the other hand seems much more accessible. There is a clear protagonist from the start, Dorothy, who is taken from a familiar setting and dropped into a new one, as summed up in the immortal line ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’. She is quickly thrust into a quest to defeat an antagonist to return home. Her goals are clear and there is never an element of confusion to what is happening or where Dorothy will have to go next. The story follows the ‘Syd Field paradigm’ perfectly. It’s simple, non-complex narrative is probably why it was and has stayed so popular. It was accessible to anyone – something which Eraserhead never had the luxury of. Of course, part of the drive for a simple narrative was due to the target audience – children. Eraserhead doesn’t have a clear target audience which is why it can be so free in its narrative. However there is one key similarity between the two films in both their first acts. Both characters are horribly out of place. Henry finds himself on vacation, a time for rest, but instead is thrust into a mission to marry Mary and raise a child – a very unfamiliar world for him, as is shown with his constant struggles and desires to escape. Dorothy is in the same situation – finding herself in Munchkin Land with a quest forced upon her – to find the Wizard of Oz. Whilst Dorothy’s goal is presented much clearer and is much more understandable, certainly to the audience it was aimed at, both tasks at first seem impossible. Another similarity is the characters’ desire to escape. Henry constantly dreams of the Woman in the Radiator, a woman who can take him away from his problems, whereas Dorothy’s motivation for the quest is that she will granted a safe return home. Both achieve their goals at the end of the film.

David Lynch’s choice of the howling, low-bass, background noise might have been inspired by the opening to the Wizard of Oz. As Greg Olsen says in his book ‘David Lynch – Beautiful Dark’: ‘With its opening-credit cloudy sky and evocative wind sounds, the film vividly conveys the enthralling, transportive power of cinema, a force that director Lynch, with the help of some of that same whooshing wind, communicates so well’. Lynch was captured by the powerful escapism of that sound design – a noise that instantly communicates wilderness and isolation, and incorporated it into Eraserhead. Near the start of Eraserhead, Henry is shown walking over piles of dirt and mud, which is visually very similar to the start of The Wizard of Oz which shows a barren farm, complete with piles of mud. Whilst this was probably not directly inspired, it shows that both filmmakers, Lynch and, at the time King Vidor (who replaced Victor Flemming as director to film the sepia scenes) could portray desolation through the same imagery – piles of mud. It has a timeless quality that shows waste, disrepair and poignancy. In The Wizard of Oz this is used a sharp contrast against the smooth, colourful scenery of Oz and Munchkin Land – however in Eraserhead, it reinforces the audiences perception of the world the film is set.

The two films also share certain themes, mainly that of escape and self-acceptance. I already mentioned the former but the latter is one that is very prevalent in both films. In her quest to Oz, Dorothy encounters three characters who join her on her quest. They is the Scarecrow, who joins the journey hoping the Wizard of Oz will grant him a brain, the Tin Man, who hopes the Wizard will give him a heart, and the Cowardly Lion, who hopes the Wizard will give him courage. They are each given the gifts by the Wizard but it is revealed the Wizard had no magic at all so all the characters needed, except Dorothy, was self-belief. Henry shares this theme of self-acceptance with these characters – the main arc is whether or not he will care for the child and this is directly tied with self-acceptance. In the end of the film, escaping into a blazing white light with the Woman in the Radiator is him finally giving in to himself and his wishes to be free of all his responsibilities – perfectly showing him accepting what he needs to do and then doing it.

The character to which Henry is most similar to, except maybe Dorothy, is the Scarecrow, as is demonstrated. When first introduced to Dorothy, the Scarecrow says ‘That’s the trouble. I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t got a brain — only straw’. This is remarkably similar to the line that Henry says to Mr. X, Mary’s father:

‘Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?

Henry: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.’

Both characters’ arcs involve them attaining knowledge and eventually achieving a catharsis. The Scarecrow gains the ability to think through self-belief and Henry achieves freedom by letting go and accepting life with the Woman in the Radiator.

‘The Man behind the Curtain’ is a trope that originated from The Wizard of Oz – an all powerful being that is revealed to be controlling the characters. In The Wizard of Oz it is the titular character, however Lynch also incorporated this idea for Eraserhead. One of the opening shots is a very scared man pulling a leaver. This has been interpreted in a multitude of ways but the most common theory is that this man is some sort of god and by pulling the leaver he is setting the story in motion. When Henry diverts from the preplanned narrative at the end and decides to rebel, being absorbed into the blinding white light with the Woman in the Radiator, the man with the leaver desperately tries to pull the leaver back, causing it to spark. Henry, rebelling against what could be seen as his destiny, causes ‘the man behind the curtain’ to try and rectify the situation but to no avail. Whilst this is not presented as drastically as in Eraserhead with the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy still manages to defy her ‘man behind the curtain’. The Wizard of Oz set her an impossible task – to steal the broomstick of the Wicked Witch – a task that he thought would ultimately end in her death, yet she still manages to achieve it. This task ultimately leads to her escape from the land of Oz. By defying their own ‘man behind the curtain’, both Dorothy and Henry manage to escape the unfamiliar worlds they have found themselves in.

The negatives of capitalism is explored in both films as well. In his 1964 essay ‘The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism’, Henry M. Littlefield describes the city of Oz being a clear sign of capitalism in America’s ‘Guilded Age’ – a time where corporations exploited the lower classes for profit. This is demonstrated by the Munchkins, worshipping the Wizard of Oz and his grandeur, even though it is all an allusion and a lie. This theme is also explored in Eraserhead. The world that Eraserhead is set is clearly one of capitalism and greed. This idea is first presented with the first shot of Henry. He exits from what appears to be a factory and walks through the city. Every wall is tall and brick, and what I interpreted to be workhouses. Even Henry’s apartment shows signs of the effects of capitalism. Outside his window is a view of a brick wall to not only convey his isolation and a claustrophobic atmosphere but to show just how poor the quality of life is for the working man in the world of Eraserhead. The most condemning critique of capitalism comes later in the film. After a disturbing sequence which shows Henry being decapitated, his head falls through a hole in the floor and ends up on the muddied streets much like those where he started the film. The head is then picked up by a working-class child who gives it to a factory. It is then used to create erasers for the top of pencils. This could be Lynch’s way of criticising America’s capitalist culture of greed and literally using the working man for their own ends, no matter the cost.

In conclusion, the similarities between the two films are very thought-provoking and surprisingly prevalent. The most common come from shared themes, rather than production themselves. Both are stories of the main character trying to escape from the strange, new world they have found themselves in, and both ultimately have their protagonist achieve their goal.

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Comparing the Narrative and Themes of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz Using Ideas of David Foster Wallace. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
“Comparing the Narrative and Themes of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz Using Ideas of David Foster Wallace.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
Comparing the Narrative and Themes of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz Using Ideas of David Foster Wallace. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Mar. 2023].
Comparing the Narrative and Themes of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz Using Ideas of David Foster Wallace [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2023 Mar 27]. Available from:
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