Let me start by saying that I used to enjoy reading and watching watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas frequently as a child, and I still like watching the original cartoon version from time to time as an adult. However, a few years ago, I decided to take another look at this story from a new angle (The Bob Angle, naturally), and now I’m not quite as enamoured with it. In fact I think that I may have ruined a co-worker’s cherished childhood Christmas traditions with my impassive analysis of this classic tale.
One December, a number of years ago, a co-worker, whom I will call Diane, and I were talking about Christmas, and she told me that one of her all-time favourite Christmas movies was the Dr. Seuss cartoon How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I asked her why she liked it, and she replied that it made her feel good, and re-affirmed her faith in humanity.
I said that How The Grinch Stole Christmas was not a feel-good story, and that there was nothing even remotely redeeming about it.
To refresh your memory, here is a brief plot summary: The Grinch, who lives in a cave just outside the town of Whoville, hates Christmas, and has hated it for the past 53 years. This year, he decides to ruin Christmas for the Whoville residents by sneaking into their homes at night and stealing all of their Christmas presents, Christmas decorations and food. He puts everything into an enormous sack and hauls his stash up to the top of Mount Crumpit. As he prepares to heave everything off the side of the mountain, he looks down at the village and sees that his thievery has neither prevented Christmas from occurring, nor diminished the joyous celebrations of the villagers. The Grinch has an epiphany, and decides to return all of the presents. He is welcomed by the townspeople and then joins them in their Christmas celebrations.
I told Diane that while I used to enjoy watching the cartoon as much as everyone else, I changed my mind about this story. It wasn’t heartwarming at all. After the Grinch’s epiphany at the end of the story, the narrator declares that the Grinch’s heart has grown three sizes larger, and that he is now a transformed and newly-benevolent creature. However, the Grinch’s adulation by the citizens of Whoville is, in my opinion, undeserved – the Grinch didn’t do anything praiseworthy or even positive.
At this point, Diane protested “But he did do something positive – he returned all of the presents!”. I replied “If you do something positive for other people, then yes, you certainly deserve praise for your actions. However, the Whovillians are merely deluding themselves because they have failed to grasp what’s really going on. In fact, this perceptual blind spot will just set themselves up for a lifetime of sadness and disappointment”.
Here is a graph that represents behaviour over time. Time is on the X axis and one’s behaviour is plotted along the Y axis. The horizontal line in the middle of the graph represents what I call baseline behaviour: it’s neither positive nor negative, and represents the way that we behave normally.
If someone does something positive for others, then a single good deed would be plotted like this:
Continuous good behaviour would look like this:
Now let’s analyze the Grinch. This is what his behavioural line looks like:
Most of the plot lies along the baseline. That’s because for the past 53 years, the Grinch has hated Christmas. This is perfectly acceptable – as long as he never acts on those thoughts, he can hate all he likes. Sitting in his cave and being miserable is his baseline behaviour. One day, he hatches his diabolical plan to ruin Christmas, and when he acts on that plan and starts robbing houses, the line moves down. The line then continues its descent as the Grinch steals from house after house. Then when he experiences his epiphany and decides to return the presents, the line shoots back up.
The line doesn’t enter positive territory because the Grinch never did anything worthy of praise; he merely did something bad – repeatedly – and then corrected his mistake by returning the gifts. This is the crucial element in this story: it’s not an inspirational or even an allegorical tale because the Grinch didn’t do anything good – he merely stopped doing something bad. Notice that the line also doesn’t go all the way back to the baseline… that’s because the Grinch didn’t atone completely for his misdeeds. Doing that would require that he return the gifts to everyone’s house and then leave everything just the way he found it… but he didn’t do that. He merely gave the sack of loot back to the villagers to sort out for themselves. Behaviourally, that’s still a net negative.
What did the villagers do? They forgave the Grinch, invited him into their homes to celebrate Christmas, and then gave him a large steak knife!
Yes, I know this is a Dr. Suess story, but let’s look at this scenario a little more realistically. Imagine that there was a rash of robberies on your street and the thieves stole everyone’s Christmas presents, decorations and food. Every house was robbed, including yours. Now imagine that the thief decided to turn himself in. He goes to the police station and declares “I’m a changed man! My heart has grown three sizes today, so I am returning the presents”. What would the police officers do? They probably wouldn’t do what those naïve and somewhat dimwitted residents of Whoville are doing right now…
If your house was robbed just before Christmas, would you invite the thief into your home to be with you and your family? I think not… I think that you would want to throw his grinchy little tush into jail until it was time for his trial. And then you’d hope that the Crown assigns their meanest and most ornery pitbull lawyer to be the prosecuting attorney for his case.
After 53 years of hating Christmas and everyone who celebrates it, this dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon now claims that he has suddenly changed his ways. You can believe that if you like – just like you can believe hardened felons who have somehow managed to “find Jesus” just before their parole board hearings. If you’re still not convinced, then consider this: the Grinch didn’t rob the Whovillians because he was in financial dire straits or because he needed the food to survive. The motive was pure, seething hate. The Grinch, in my opinion, is a sadist; he went on his crime spree in order to inflict misery and emotional damage on as many people as he could, because his happiness is contingent on the suffering of others. The Grinch is shadenfreude personified, and not someone you want in your home.
There is a world of difference between doing good deeds for others, and simply behaving poorly and ceasing your poor – or in the Grinch’s case, criminal – behaviour. Study these two graphs – understand the difference and don’t be fooled by those trying to pass themselves off as laudable. The Grinch did not do anything positive; he is not a good behavioural example to anyone, and therefore he should not be praised.
At this point, Diane just glared at me and said “Thanks a lot Bob – you’ve just ruined my Christmas tradition! Why did I even ask you for your opinion? I should have known better! Bob – you are worse than the Grinch!”
As she turned around and shuffled dejectedly back to her desk, I called out “Wait – don’t you want to hear about my all-time least favourite Christmas movie?”