Toward the end of his life, just before that ugly cheek tweeking incident in New Orleans, noted literary critic, Michel Fausault* established the standard by which all “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” criticism will forever be judged. I remember the scene well, it was early October and the Christmas season had just begun. Michel cried “Ach!” his head pitched forward, his brow bunched in deep thought. “Rudolph,” he roared suddenly, as from a revelation, “Has never really been understood. It is only superficially a child’s Christmas song. It is actually a poem about . . .” and here he belched and scratched his belly, “about … scapegoating.”
Then we went back to our Parcheesi game. Fausault did not remember the remark later, but the damage was done. No one could ever sing “Rudolph” joyfully again, for he had exposed the song for what it was, the story of a reindeer misunderstood, undervalued, and manipulated by the bankrupt aesthetics of the petty bourgeois. Since the birth of Rudolph studies, scholars have been troubled by the fuzzy depiction of the mysterious central character. Rudolph’s original description in the first line as “the red-nosed reindeer” (emphasis mine) is clear enough, but it is not so much a description as a degrading label (emphasis mine). Rudolph is the only red-nosed reindeer (still mine), and while it appears later in the poem that his red-nose is his distinction (no reason for that one), it is actually his badge of shame, the attribute that marks him as different and inferior to the other reindeer.
And what about that nose? Noted Rudolphian Vlad Brown has noted that there is a noted confusion regarding that nose. It is articulated variously as “red,” “shiny,” glowing, and “bright.” Yet can any one object be red, shiny and bright and also glow? After all, anything that glows, because of the illumination inherent within the object, cannot also be shiny, which is a surface quality caused by greater illumination outside said object. Brown has suggested that this confusion is deliberate, and I agree. I would add to Brown, however, that this confusion is a shrewdly hinted attempt to universalize the reindeer, to make it into an “everydeer” of sorts, a model for all of the scapegoats victimized by society because they are different. What’s more, I believe that Fausault—had he not died in that bizarre knitting accident—would agree with me.
Now many readers are fooled by the apparent reintegration of Rudolph at the end of the poem. The poem states directly, “Then how the reindeer loved him.” But let’s examine the quality and implications of that love. It comes only after the significant psychological pain of being laughed at, called names, and not being allowed to participate in games, which, Strauss-Levi has pointed out, are the most important emblems of solidarity in modern, post-industrialized cultures. Can Rudolph be expected to recover from these slights? In such an interpretation, we would have to believe that Rudolph has the emotional depth of plum pudding, that his pain is not real pain and is instead the product of some sort of harmless snub that he can laugh-off and forget. But this point of view only cooperates with the cruelty depicted in the work itself. No one likes being laughed at—I remember softball in seventh grade gym. And who can forget Fausaut’s unfortunate encounter with Cher?
Prominent Rudolphianists have also suggested that Santa’s decision to have Rudolph lead the sleigh compensates for the alienation he faces earlier in the work. To that, I say “poppycock!” Were Fausault here, he’d say something clever in French, but that’s the best I can do. Look at the text, Reader! The word used is not “lead,” but “guide,” which clearly indicates the red-suited fat man’s reluctance to give up his position as the true driver in this sleigh. Santa only turns to Rudolph because, happily, the reindeer possesses a quality that the red-suited oppressor—and known slave-wager, labor-law violator—finds temporarily useful.
Returning to how the other reindeer “love him,” I think it’s easy to see that their “shouting out with glee” rings pretty hollow. Once Rudolph’s talent has been exploited, what’s left for him in Santa-land? He will be sent to the glue farm, to be sure. Furthermore, his new comrades, the other reindeer, are not really comrades at all. It is no accident that they say he will go “down in his-tor-y.” The adverb “down” suggests decline, decay, reduction, descent, weakening, attenuation, disappearance, and seven other nouns. Some will accuse me of over-analyzing this blatant reference to pigs like Santa who, in writing history, always denigrate or erase the accomplishments of the underclass, but they are part of the oppressor culture, and, after last Tuesday, I’ve learned to expect it of them. And I know Fausault, were he not in Davey Jones’ locker, would grunt his approval in that charming way of his.
What all this adds up to is a travesty perpetrated on an entirely different class of the tyrannized, the children of the world. It’s well known Fausault didn’t like children—though this is as good a time as any to remind you that he was never convicted. That doesn’t make the song any better, however. For years, the little shining faces of the children have sung this popular carol, unconscious of the subjugation perpetuated in those words. “Rudolph,” they sing, “With your nose so bright.” But they might just as well be singing, “Rudolph with your chains so tight, how’s it feel to be wronged tonight? Old Santa wants a headlight, now you are his easy prey, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, blighted by a cap’list sleigh.”
*Any resemblance to real or imagined noted French literary critics and philosophers is real or imagined.