I’m not a Dr. Seuss fan. When it comes to children’s books, I’m more a Curious George or Peter Rabbit guy. I generally don’t like the doggerel or the illustrations in Seuss, which doesn’t leave much to admire.
But “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is something different.
It deserves to be considered one of the great Christmas stories of all time, and achieves its power from the portrayal of the Grinch, the mountain-dwelling creature with the audacious scheme to ruin Christmas.
Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, published the book in 1957, spawning a famous TV version, two feature films and plenty of merchandise. He wrote it after “The Cat in the Hat,” and thought of it as one of his Big Books, aspiring more to literature rather than just madcap fun.
Its claim on that status is based on its compelling, disturbing depiction of pure malice via the Grinch. The cuddly Grinch toys available at toy stores notwithstanding, he is a nasty piece of work whose malevolence never ceases to astonish no matter how many times the book is read and reread.
The Grinch doesn’t just hate the Whos, and “the warm lighted windows below in their town,” but everything associated with their Christmas delight. He hates the cheerful noise, and hates the feast, and hates the singing. He hates joy itself.
And so he decides to “stop this whole thing.” He disguises himself as the instrument of happy surprise, Santa Claus, and sets out to do the opposite.
He descends on the unsuspecting Whos, “all dreaming sweet dreams without care.” At the house that is his first target, he steals all the stockings, decorations and toys, up to and including the tree. And he enjoys himself doing it!
When little Cindy-Lou Who wakes up and finds, on the most enchanted night of the year, a purported Santa Claus making off with everything in the house, “the old liar” deceives the little tot.
The Grinch surpasses his fellow Christmas literary villain Ebenezer Scrooge by a considerable distance. Scrooge only turned away a dinner invitation, declined to make a donation to charity and was reluctant to give his clerk, Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off. He didn’t try to ruin the holiday for the entire town.
Why is the Grinch this way? Well, he’s isolated; he lives alone 3,000 feet up with his put-upon dog Max (who is a scene-stealer in the 2018 movie). He is arrogant; he thinks he’s clever enough to succeed in his massive theft. And he’s cynical; all the Whos care about, he believes, is their presents and food.
Still, the ultimate source of the Grinch’s enmity is unknowable. In the movie, his hatred of Christmas, naturally, stems from an unhappy childhood. This makes him a more sympathetic figure, but takes the edge off his malignity. In the book, Seuss resists explanation: “Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.” All that can be said of the Grinch is that his heart is “two sizes too small.”
Of course, the Whos sing on Christmas morning even though their presents are gone. Christmas comes anyway, despite the Grinch’s exertions, and — surprised by joy — something changes in his heart.
If the Grinch’s evil defies explanation, so does his conversion. He returns all he stole and happily carves the “roast beast” at the Christmas feast of the Whos. After zipping through the writing of the rest of the book, Seuss struggled with the ending. He said that he “had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.”
It came out perfectly.
The Grinch stands for the mysteries of the human heart, and the delights available to us if it’s the right size.