Watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other night, my wife and I wondered why, the morning after the titular Grinch had stolen their Christmas presents, decorations, and food, the Whos all came out to sing their traditional Christmas song without seeming to acknowledge that they had been robbed.
As my wife characterized it, “All their shit got taken — ‘Let’s go sing.'”
The Who tradition, as described early in the story, is to play and make noise with their new toys, to eat a dinner, and then to sing in the central open space of Whoville. Having lost their toys and foods to the Grinch, the Whos still carry out the singing part of the tradition. Seeing this display of good cheer even in the face of loss, the Grinch returns the pilfered goods and the Whos invite the Grinch to their meal.
This story warms the heart (well, literally enlarges the heart) of the Grinch, and it warms the audience’s hearts too, because we all see that the Whos have not succumbed to ill-will at the loss of their goods. According to some commentors, that’s the main message here — this story “criticizes the commercialization of Christmas.”
This is an interesting take on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” because our main (and only dynamic) character, the Grinch, learns a lesson only out of his attempt to teach a lesson. Dude hates Christmas, and we don’t find out why — the text says “no one quite knows the reason” — the narrator speculates that his “heart was two sizes too small.” Perhaps he was feeling alienated from the society of the Whos and their “warm lighted windows,” but the only specifics he states for his scheme to punish the Whos is that they annoy him by celebrating too loudly (“Oh the noise!“). Perhaps the Grinch is not self-reflective or self-aware enough to see that he was just lonely and wanted to strike out at the Whos because he wanted them to be as miserable as he was.
Of course, some of the blame for the Grinch’s alienation must lie with him — living at the top of a mountain far above town, it’s not likely he’s gonna get a lot of visitors — and this line of thought brings up questions of economics and sociology: How does the Grinch relate to the Whos? Does he conduct commerce with them? Have they ever seen him before? Do they even know he exists? Oddly enough, this reminds me a of childhood fantasy I had of living hermit-style myself — so that the Grinch’s cave-dwelling has long seemed kinda neat to me. Sure, a real cave at mountain-top would be a pain to get to, would be drafty, etc., but the idea of a cave at the top of a mountain seemed fun. Maybe that thought was a function of my own introversion and felt-alienation?
Whether or not the Whos know of the Grinch, he is certainly aware of them, as he watches them in the valley below his hovel. The Whos draw the Grinch’s ire because they are too jovial, basically. The Grinch decides to rid himself of the annoyance of the noise — as he blames the noise problem on Christmas (rather than on the Whos themselves), he decides to “stop Christmas from coming.” But did he really think this would work? Or was this whole Grinchy scheme a cry for help, for attention, from the Whos? Is Seuss making an ostensibly anti-commercial story in which the true message is about recognizing and overcoming loneliness? If so, that’s kinda sweet.
I had intended to make another point here about how the Grinch changes his mind about what the punishment’s about — from noise-abatement to anti-materialism (“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store”) — but now that I am interpreting the whole story as the actions of a lonely hermit looking for attention, I’m starting to see how the Grinch’s punishment-motive shift could happen — the text seems to point out that the Grinch doesn’t know quite why he’s doing what he’s doing, and taking away their toys doesn’t shut the Whos up at all — they still sing, which singing should annoy the Grinch more, but it doesn’t.
However, there’s still the problem of why the Whos don’t seem to react to having their stuff stolen. If the Whos are supposed to resemble humans, their nonreactive behavior seems unlikely. I begin to speculate: Maybe the Whos are not supposed to be human — maybe they are Buddhist types who accept reality just as they find it, moment to moment. Or maybe the Whos are beings who can see the future and they know that the Grinch will bring back their stuff. My wife suggested “maybe they’re just simpletons” who aren’t aware of their loss. All are possibilities.
Except, if we take the interpretation that the Grinch is just lonely, and maybe the Whos know, or at least suspect, this loneliness about their neighbor who has “put up with” their Christmas celebrations for “fifty-three years,” maybe the Whos saw their houses emptied, and suspected the Grinch, but didn’t get mad about it, and figured that if they just seemed good spirited about it, the Grinch would return their stuff. Maybe the Whos figured out that the worst thing they could do in that situation was to get angry about it (in which case the Grinch wouldn’t feel compelled to return their things).
(And what happened “fifty-three years” ago: Was that when the Grinch moved to the area? Was that when the Whos moved to Whoville? Or maybe the Whos were always there, but began celebrating Christmas — at least, in the contemporary fashion, only 53 years ago? Or was the Grinch formerly a Who himself who left the company of the Whos and transformed physically, as Smeagol did by becoming Gollum?)
Perhaps the Whos even have regular contact with the Grinch, and know he’s just an ornery ol’ cuss who is actually a softie at heart (we know his heart is prone to significant volumetric expansions and contractions which seem to correlate to his positive and negative moods), so that they know not to get upset by his antics.
I had started this post prepared to make fun of how weirdly the Whos act in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but as I wrote, I began to see a sweet story of alienation and acceptance. In this way, the Grinch is a little like that other famous Christmas character, Scrooge, in that both live outside their societies (literally for the Grinch; figuratively for Scrooge) and both have Christmastime experiences that bring them back into the company of their fellow beings. In this way, the Grinch and Scrooge stories are picking up both on how simple emotional demands can drive more complex behavior, and both stories touch on the necessity of the social life for human consciousness.
Note: Images above were taken, via PrintScreen, from the cartoon.