“It started in low. Then it started to grow.”: On the Failed Anti-Capitalism of How the Grinch Stole Christmas

“It started in low. Then it started to grow.”: On the Failed Anti-Capitalism of How the Grinch Stole Christmas
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Published in 1957, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (HGSC) remains one of the most popular Christmas stories for children. The book has sold millions of copies and inspired both an animated television retelling (1966) and a live-action film starring Jim Carrey as the titular Grinch (2000). What is odd about this popularity is that the book purports to speak about the meaning of Christmas, yet there is a noticeable absence of the birth of Jesus, a baby in a manger, Christianity, or even God. While the book teaches its readers that Christmas is “more” than presents, the absence of Christianity from the book’s Christmas opens up a different set of thematics that the book dramatizes below the surface, notably resentment, desire, violence, consumerism, and faith itself. In this post, I want to dwell particularly on Dr. Seuss’s original work and show that popular readings of HGSC as a critique of the commercialization of Christmas overlook a deep set of contradictions in the story. While HGSC argues against the capitalist consumerism of Christmas (and by extension American postwar society), it simultaneously is invested in violence and desire as a mechanism for resisting a thorough critique of capitalism and its culture of consumption.

How the Grinch Stole Consumerism

The standard reading of HGSC is that Christmas is more than just about getting presents, that there is something more to the holiday than mere consumption. The narrative begins with the Grinch staring down at a cozy little village covered in snow called Whoville, wherein live the Whos. We learn that the Whos love Christmas, but the Grinch hates it: “The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.” Despite this claim to ignorance, the narrator offers three options, of which he prefers the third: “It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all, may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.” The Grinch, however, offers his own (semi-) justifications for hating Christmas: the noise from children playing with their toys on Christmas morning (“That's one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”), the taste of Who-roast beast (“which was something the Grinch couldn't stand in the least!”); and, the act which “he liked least of all,” a song sung by the community of Whos (“And the more the Grinch thought of this Who Christmas sing, the more the Grinch thought, "I must stop this whole thing!”).

Desperate, after fifty-three years of enduring the Whos’ Christmas celebrations, the Grinch conceives of a plan to stop Christmas from coming. He dresses up like Santa Claus, turns his dog Max into an ersatz reindeer, and heads off in a sleigh to Whoville. Acting as a sort of anti-Santa, the Grinch climbs down the chimney of each house in the village and takes all the presents, trees, decorations, wall-hangings, food, and fuel from each house. The result leaves each house completely empty: “On their walls he left nothing but hooks and some wire. And the one speck of food that he left in the house, was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse.”

As the sun begins to rise on Christmas morning, Max pulls the comically overloaded sleigh up to the top of Mt Crumpit, where the Grinch plans to send his spoils crashing down into a ravine, destroying them. It is this act of destruction that the Grinch believes will thwart the coming of Christmas and the singing of the Whos. But instead of hearing a lament, the Grinch hears the same song that has tormented him for fifty-three years: “It started in low. Then it started to grow. But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY! He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise! Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” The Grinch here operates from a kind of vulgar Marxist perspective: Christmas is just an ideological platform that justifies the consumption of toys and food. Take away the materialist base of Christmas and the whole holiday and its noisome traditions will come crashing down. Christmas is just, like religion more broadly, the opiate of the masses.

But this is not what happens. Confronted by the sound of the Whos singing their traditional Christmas song, the Grinch’s presuppositions about the nature of Christmas are what fall apart: “And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!’ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!’” This realization, that Christmas is more than presents, prompts a (literal) change of heart on the part of the Grinch (“in Whoville they say, that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!”), who races back down Mt. Crumpit with his sleigh and returns all the stolen goods to the Whos.

What happens next is unclear in the narrative, since there is no description of what would have been the rather awkward moment where the Grinch arrives in Whoville with the pilfered belongings of the Whos. The narrative skips this encounter and concludes abruptly with the Grinch now an honored guest among the Whos at their Christmas feast: “He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light, and he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the roast beast!” The story thus concludes with the Grinch participating in Christmas in the very manner that he polemicized against at the beginning of the narrative. Nothing has changed, the presents, the feasting, or the singing, except that the Grinch has now been included in the festivities.

The Grinch, Violence, and Resentment

The traditional reading of the Grinch is that he is motivated by a hatred of Christmas and seeks to unmask its consumerist core, thereby destroying the holiday that he so hates. But there is a greater depth to the question of why the Grinch is so fixated on Christmas, and the Whos in particular. The complexity of the Grinch’s psyche is indicated by the narrator’s refusal to pronounce definitively on the Grinch’s reasons for hating Christmas. This ambiguity is reiterated at the denouement, where it is merely an urban legend in Whoville that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. If we follow the ambiguity introduced by the narrator and look again at how the Grinch polemicizes against Christmas, we can see that he seems driven by both desire and resentment for the Whos.

The narrative opens with a clear set of contrasts. It is winter and the Grinch peers down from the cave where he lives onto the quaint and comfortable houses (possessed of “warm lighted windows”) that make up the village of Whoville. The contrast is immediately visible: the Grinch is both excluded from the community of Whos and is from a different socioeconomic stratum. He lives in a sparse cave. They live in pleasant houses. He makes his own clothes. They buy elaborate toys and eat lavish meals. It is no wonder the Whos are able to sing joyfully each Christmas! In addition, it is clear that the Grinch is a different species from the Whos. He is taller, with different body hair, and almond shaped pink eyes that differ from the round, white eyes of the Whos. This contrast is only heightened in the cartoon and live-action versions of the story, where the Grinch is made to be green, in contrast to the whiteness of the Whos, suggesting that we ought not ignore the category of race when reading the story. One can read the Grinch as an example of Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, wherein the Grinch projects his own sense of inferiority and exclusion (rightly or wrongly, we don’t know) onto the Whos.

That the Grinch’s actions are rooted in ressentiment toward the Whos can be seen in the fact that he seems to know quite a lot about how and why the Whos celebrate Christmas. He knows the order of events that occur on Christmas morning, the foods traditionally consumed, and the fact that Santa Claus is part of the Whos’ Christmas traditions. He also has theories as to why the Whos celebrate Christmas. While the Grinch’s alpine abode allows him to “look down” figuratively and literally on the Whos, it also has allowed him to gaze at their society for half a century and that gaze has included both fascination and disgust, desire and resentment.

It is in this respect that we might read the Grinch in ways analogous to how Slavoj Žižek has characterized religious fundamentalism (without endorsing the accuracy of Žižek’s description of modern religious communities and their adherents). In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Žižek argues that we have wrongly used the intensity of religious belief to explain terrorist violence, but that we are better able to explain this phenomenon by attending to the cyclical nature of desire and resentment:

“However, are the terrorist fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim, really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the U.S.: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today's so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? . . . In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the Other, they are fighting their own temptation” (85).

While this may or may not help to explain terrorism, it does map well onto the Grinch, for whom the Whos are a source of desire and resentment. Were the Grinch a true hater of Christmas and the Whos, he would not care about their celebrations. He would feel nothing for their materialist celebrations. It is precisely the fact that the Grinch is bothered, intrigued, and fascinated by the Whos that he lashes out at them with an act of violence.

The violence of the Grinch’s actions might not be so immediately apparent, but a closer reading bears this out. He claims to be trying to stop Christmas for ideological purposes. Therefore, he seeks to deprive the Whos of their material goods to short circuit the Christmas industrial complex, dressing up as Santa Claus both as a cover in case he is caught (as he is by Cindy-Lou Who) and as a parodic inversion of the Santa myth. But why then does the Grinch steal everything, beyond just the basic Christmas paraphernalia? Notice that he doesn’t just steal presents and Christmas trees and the hated roast beast, but all the food, all the wall-hangings, and even the log in the fireplace. The Grinch doesn’t just attack the trappings of Christmas, but also robs the Whos of basic sustenance and warmth. He isn’t just protesting Christmas, but lashing out at the Whos.

We can also see this desire for the Whos to suffer as the Grinch pauses to listen for their anguish when they discover his theft: “’Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry Boo Hoo! That's a noise,’ grinned the Grinch, ‘that I simply MUST hear!’” He revels in the possibility that he will hear the sound of their sadness and despair, instead of the traditional Who Christmas song. He hates them so much that he wants to hear them suffer. As Žižek argues, envy follows a zero-sum logic, in which one’s victory requires a loss from the Other (88-89).

The other side of the Grinch’s resentment and envy toward the Whos is his very desire for them. That the Grinch isn’t just on an ideological crusade against Christmas is revealed in the final scene. The Grinch doesn’t learn to respect Christmas as a holiday or have empathy for the Whos; rather, he joins in their festival and is placed at the head of their high table, carving the very roast beast that he claimed to despise. The denouement of the Grinch’s protest is his incorporation into the community of Whos. In some ways we might argue, again following Žižek, that the Grinch’s act was not really an attempt to take on Christmas, but an attempt to gain visibility (77).

The Grinch’s actions are not easily reduced to simple explanations, but coil around the complexities of desire: “The problem with human desire is that, as Lacan put it, it is always “desire of the Other” in all the senses of that term: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and especially desire for what the Other desires. This last makes envy, which includes resentment, constitutive components of human desire” (87). The Grinch desires inclusion among the Whos. He desires their recognition of him. This desire further breeds resentment that is displaced onto Christmas, which is that which the Whos themselves enjoy. Thus, the Grinch lashes out, but his violence extends beyond merely an attack on Christmas to the true object of his desires. He strikes at the Whos so viciously because he wants to be part of their society.

Ultimately, the narrative constructs a perverse fantasy, wherein the perpetrator of violence against the community is welcomed as an honored member. The Grinch gets what he wants, but at the expense of narrative coherence. No explanation is given for why the Whos welcome him nor how the Grinch explained himself and asked for forgiveness. In fact, remember that the narrator cannot say for certain what changed in the Grinch to bring about this conclusion. This transformation from violent, resentful outsider to honored insider hinges on the Grinch’s recognition that “Maybe Christmas . . . doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

The More-ness of Christmas and the Return of Capitalism

But what exactly does Christmas “mean” in HGSC? How does the very question of Christmas’s meaning become a site for the Grinch’s transformation? The Grinch’s redemption is produced through a secularized form of Protestant conversion, but a conversion that allows him to join the community of Whos, no longer as a Marxist ascetic but as a capitalist consumer. In this sense, the Whos are not just objects of desire for the Grinch, but stand in for the machinery of desire that animates capitalist modes of consumption.

We learn in the first lines of the story that the Whos love Christmas and this love is characterized by their joy at opening presents, their feasts, and their singing. Excluding the latter for the time being, the Whos are defined by their consumption, a feature that is expanded upon by the voyeuristic cataloguing of the strange and elaborate toys the Whos acquire in the cartoon version of HGSC. The Whos are, then, prototypical consumers and as such they become ideological targets of the Grinch. At the surface of the text the Grinch is an anti-capitalist. He steals to stop the cycle of consumption upon which he thinks Christmas is based. Žižek has noted that such anti-capitalism is a feature that lives within capitalist logic itself and paradoxically serves to reinforce the system. For Žižek, this occurs because anti-capitalist characters or stories allow us to take an ironic distance to the functioning of capitalism itself. This is true of Dr. Seuss’s classic take on environmentalism in The Lorax.

After striking against the materialism of Christmas, the Grinch hears the Whos singing. He realizes that his theft did not short circuit Christmas, which suggests to him that Christmas might mean something “more.” What that “more” is remains unarticulated, but the narrator suggests that it is the realization that there is “more” to Christmas that leads to a change of heart in the Grinch. Because Christmas is revealed to be “more” than the acquisition of material goods, it is surprising that the Grinch turns his sleigh around, returns the items he stole, and then joins in with the usual Who Christmas celebrations. I thought Christmas wasn’t about presents!

This is where the insidious logic of capitalism is most visible, at the very point where the more-ness of Christmas is left empty. When he hears the Whos singing, the Grinch’s beliefs about Christmas change. He now knows that Christmas is not about presents and feasts and it is precisely this knowing that allows him to enter Whoville as a fellow consumer. His knowledge has allowed him to distance himself from consumption, just as the Whos seemingly have always done. As long as you know that Christmas is more than presents, then you can buy all the presents you want. This is the commodification of the Protestant turn towards inner religious experience as the authenticator of spiritual authenticity: believe and you will be saved. Here the Grinch believes in the more-ness of Christmas and can now celebrate it like everyone else. The problem is that the narrative does not say what the more-ness of Christmas is.

The Grinch and the (Im)possibility of an Anti-Capitalist Christmas

While the Grinch is folded into the capitalist society of the Whos, I would argue that there is a radical kernel to HGSC that opens up the possibility of thinking about a more transgressive take on Christmas, capitalism, and community. This radical kernel is the (im)possibility of an atheistic, anti-capitalist Christian community.

One of the things that is interesting about HGSC is that it is a book about Christmas that makes no mention of the Christian God, Jesus Christ, or anything bordering on the supernatural. The only seemingly Christian element of the narrative is the inclusion of Santa Claus. The Santa myth is something that is familiar to the Grinch and to the Whos, though the presents that the Grinch steals are already under the tree on Christmas Eve, meaning that there is, as in our world, no actual Santa. Apart from Santa Claus, there is no Christianity to speak of that can be associated with Christmas. In fact, I would suggest that in the universe of HGSC there is no God.

The absence of Christianity from the narrative is not totally surprising, given the ways in which HGSC ultimately dramatizes the Grinch’s conversion from a poor ascetic to a capitalist consumer. Though tchotchkes related to the Nativity are commonly bought and sold during the Christmas season, the story of an unwed mother and the birth of her son, who also happens to be the son of god, in a small rural village two thousand years ago is not exactly the best mechanism for dramatizing the Grinch’s capitalist transformation. My claim that there is no God in this universe is perhaps more surprising.

One way to think about the absence of God in HGSC is to explore the role that God typically plays in stories about (unjust) suffering and conversion. In the book of Job, God is invoked as a way to explain the unjust suffering of the titular character. When the Whos suffer the loss of their material possessions, they do not invoke God, nor even a sense of (in)justice; rather, they sing. They sing because there is no recourse to a Big Other, who can guarantee justice or meaning. Similarly, there is no God who is involved in the conversion of the Grinch. His conversion happens immanently within the world. The Whos singing, itself a statement of the absence of meaning in the cosmos, causes the Grinch to recognize Christmas’s more-ness, which is itself an empty signifier. The Grinch “converts” therefore by a recognition of the absence of God and meaning.

I would like to suggest that there is a way of reading the absence of Christianity and God in HGSC as a kind of radical, if unrealized, potentiality in the text. Žižek has provocatively argued that the only way to become a true atheist is to go through the Christian experience. What he means by this is that orthodox Christian theology hides under its complex descriptions of the Trinity a deeper set of tensions in which the subjectivity of God is paralleled by the formation of human subjectivity. Rooting his reflections in the book of Job, Žižek sees the Father as a menacing presence. In the book of Job, when God finally confronts Job about his suffering, God’s response is that Job did suffer unjustly. As Žižek points out, God doesn’t explain why Job suffered. He just demonstrates how great and powerful he is in a series of angry responses. On Žižek’s reading, which is really a reading of Hegel, the Father stands for what Lacanians call the Big Other, the transcendental Father who undergirds all meaning, except the problem is that God himself cannot seem to provide meaning to suffering: he is just as puzzled as Job, except he refuses to admit it. This is part of the psychic tension in the very mind of God.

When the Father chooses to incarnate himself as the Son in the person of Jesus, according to Žižek, who is here now following G.K. Chesterton, God the Father empties himself, meaning that there no longer is a Big Other in the universe who can be the guarantor of morality or ethics. The tension is heightened with the death of Jesus (demonstrated by Jesus’ desperate cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), meaning that God has literally died and left the universe with nothing but contingency and chance. There is no longer a God that can provide meaning or assurance. Humans find themselves utterly alone. Here Žižek introduces the third member of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit emerges after the death of Jesus as the emergent principle of the community that has come together in the wake of the death of God. The Spirit is here not the presence of God that comes from a transcendent realm; rather, “Spirit is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or the Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, . . . yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity” (171). The Spirit is the collective human response that says that there remain yet things to fight for, even if we have lost the assurance that there is a God on our side who will guarantee that good wins over evil.

This effervescent core that emerges when humans are confronted with a godless universe utterly indifferent to us could have been a way to describe the transformative potential of the Whos’ singing. Originally singing was merely one of the things done to celebrate the Whos’ consumerist Christmas. But when they awoke on Christmas, with all of their presents, food, and possessions stolen, the only thing that was left to them was singing. As a collective act, singing dramatizes the unity of the community itself, a point made long ago by Durkheim’s sociological approach to religion. This is one way of reading the “more” that so moved the Grinch. In a universe in which there is no God to explain their suffering and deprivation, the Whos choose to celebrate the effervescent life of their community and, in so doing, suggest the possibility that a community can exist without capitalism itself.

And this, ultimately, is how the story should have ended: As the Grinch comes to his realization of Christmas’ more-ness, the singing Whos arrive at the top of Mt. Crumpit. As the Grinch now fears what his victims will do to him, the Whos put their hands to the Grinch’s sleigh, push it over the edge, and embrace the Grinch as not only one of their own but their hero. What was an act of striking against the object of his unfulfilled desire, whould be a willful acceptance by the victims in a move paralleling Christ’s sacrifice. With this ending, the Grinch is welcomed into the community because through his actions, all have learned that Christmas truly means more than capitalist consumption: it means that human community remains both an alternative to consumerism and a site for meaning in a godless universe. But to truly make this point requires that the presents be destroyed, that the cycle of desire and consumption be broken through an act of anti-capitalist, self-inflicted violence. In this sense, there is not only a deep connection between desire, resentment, and violence, but also love and violence.

HGSC tells a complex story of desire, violence, consumption, and community. It is more than a simple morality tale about the commercialization of Christmas. It is a complex portrait of the braided nature of desire, envy, resentment, and violence. It is also ambivalent about the role of capitalism itself, critiquing the consumerism of Christmas, while simultaneously letting it in the back door. HGSC fails then along the lines that Jack Halberstam has argued about Pixar’s best movies: it offers an alternative vision for society, while also failing to realize that vision. But at its core there is something worth fighting for: Can we envision a Christmas that truly is more than just consumption? The failure to break the connection between Christmas and consumption lies at the core of HGSC, and shows that only a radical act of violence can sever the two from each other. The hope for such an act lies in a community choosing to face its world with no illusions.

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