So, here’s the question: what is it with Max?
Max is, of course, the Grinch’s dog from Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s tale of Yuletide morality, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch, for the benefit of the half-dozen people on the planet unfamiliar with the story, is a nasty, cackling, ill-tempered, intolerant hermit living on a mountain summit (“the top of Mount Crumpit”) in self-imposed isolation above the small village of Whoville, populated by fanciful creatures called, unsurprisingly, the Whos. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their unrelentingly cheerful demeanour, they are, in fact, both antithetical and anathema to the Grinch, so on Christmas Eve, anticipating their imminently joyful, noisy Christmas Day celebrations, he determines to sabotage things for the Whos. Annnnd he enlists Max to assist.
(By the way, I’m confining my observations to the original text and the beloved 1966 animated cartoon, ‘cause I regard it as canonical, seeing as how Dr. Seuss was involved with it, actually writing the lyrics to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Given that the author passed away in 1991, we’ll never know if he would have approved of the 2000 and the 2018 films. Personally, I didn’t like the 2000 release at all --- sorry, Jim Carrey fans --- and I haven’t seen the 2018 one.)
Now, it’s worth noting Max has a far larger role in the cartoon than he does in the book --- mostly for comic relief, apparently, as well as to provide a roadmap of the Grinch’s awfulness, because in the cartoon, we’re frequently treated to scenes of Max breaking the fourth wall and giving us soulful gazes of baffled sorrow at his owner’s evil antics. In the book, Max is a much less important character, little more than a glorified extra, actually, and certainly not possessed of anywhere near the personality or importance to the narrative that the cartoon bestows on him.
So that’s the background… returning to my question: what is it with Max?
The question relates to both characters, really, and I think is worthy of examination from a writing viewpoint. (Although we need to tread carefully, because the question skates rather uncomfortably close to the issue of domestic violence/abuse.) First, from the Grinch’s perspective: why would a character like this --- a thoroughly unsavoury protagonist if ever there was one --- even have a pet in the first place? Since this is a Dr. Seuss story, I think we can rule out the horrid idea that it’s to abuse Max. Thankfully. So, then… could it be that even the Grinch is not quite as loftily self-sufficient as he’d like to project? That even he needs some companionship, someone to talk to?
Second --- and possibly the more important question, not only from Max’s perspective, but for our own morbid curiosity: why does he stick around someone as obnoxious as the Grinch? After all, the Whos are just a quick sleigh ride down the mountain in Whoville, and it’s a cinch they’d welcome Max with open arms. (Actually, they do, at least in the cartoon ---there’s no equivalent scene in the book --- so… QED.) He’s aware of that fact, too, in the cartoon, looking dreamily down at Whoville. So, the question remains: why does he tolerate living with the Grinch? Because the tale emanates from good old Dr. Seuss, I think we can (again, thankfully) rule out the idea that Max feels trapped in an abusive relationship and doesn’t know how to leave. What does that leave us with, then? Well, the idea that Max stays because he knows the Grinch really needs him, and Max is also aware that remaining with the Grinch presents an opportunity to do some good. (Because if ever there was a character in need of redemption, it’s the Grinch.)
Now, we have to be careful not to do too much navel-gazing on this issue in this tale. It’s a kid’s story, after all, not a major philosophical treatise on human nature written by Aristotle. If it was an adult story (i.e. a story written solely for an older audience, unlike the extant version which is applicable to both children and adults --- remember what Jack Lewis said on that topic: “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest”), then the potential is there for my original question to contain much darker and less charitable interpretations, as I’ve alluded.
But what it does tell us as writers is that even villains --- perhaps especially villains, or at least detestable protagonists needing redemption --- can have and do have a need for connection and community, regardless of how or whether they express that need. And that characters close to them can recognize that need and voluntarily choose to remain with them, working towards redemption.
So, in that context, perhaps we ought to be praising Max, not scratching our heads over his behaviour.
St. Max, patron saint of the downtrodden and the marginalized?