What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘The Polar Express’
Are all train stories capitalist fantasies?
So I wasn’t super-familiar with The Polar Express—it was never in our stacks of holiday books as a child—and I really only re-read it because Amazon said I could have it for free through its Prime Reading program, and… wow, this book.
It’s like Snowpiercer but from the front of the train’s perspective.
So here’s how it works, for those of you who don’t know this story: our young white male hero goes to sleep on Christmas Eve and wakes up to find an enormous train outside, which he immediately boards, whatevs, it’s probably a dream anyway. Doesn’t leave a note for his family or anything, just hops on the train and off we go.
Inside the train we are treated to the first of three very unnerving illustrations: a room full of white children (and one black child whose face is half-obscured, hiding on the left side of the page like Waldo) being served candy and hot chocolate. The men serving the food—and they’re all men, there is not a single adult woman in this story—are dark-haired and facial-haired, with large noses; it’s a little hard to tell what the book’s trying to say with these two characters, but it is deliberately visually separating them from our young, fair-headed protagonist.
So this train is like Snowpiercer, or like Elon Musk’s vision of a Mars transport ship: you hop on and all of your needs are anticipated and provided for. Which, fine, this story is literally a child’s dream, but also: this story is literally this child’s dream. He can imagine nothing more spectacular than being a special boy on a train where he is fed and fêted by everyone around him.
And the train continues to pierce the snow, and we get a few illustrations of wolves—and, come on, trains, wolves, do I even want to comment on the symbolism of all of this—and then we arrive at the North Pole.
The second unnerving illustration is that of Santa and his elves, arrived to meet the train. Every elf is male and white, and they are lined up like soldiers. (SERIOUSLY GO TAKE A LOOK AT THIS BOOK, IF YOU HAVE AMAZON PRIME YOU CAN READ IT ONLINE FOR FREE.)
So okay, trains, wolves, military elements, the whole thing is hitting every capitalist fantasy trope, and then our hero is singled out as the Most Special of Boys and invited to choose the “first gift of Christmas.” Anything he wants in the entire world, and Santa will present it to him.
He chooses a bell from Santa’s sleigh. I will go ahead and accept that this means he prefers small, symbolic gifts (which also require Santa to dismantle a piece of his working vehicle to appease this child) to whatever large, expensive thing he could have chosen, and understand that this book is hinting that real-life children should behave the same way, but also: this kid already has everything. He is The Chosen One, Child King of the Train. Every wish has already been fulfilled, and he can deign to have a bell.
He loses the bell almost immediately. His robe has a hole in one of the pockets, and the child does not figure out that maybe this means he should put the bell in a different pocket, but it’s too late, the First Gift of Christmas is lost, and I’m just now realizing that this silver bell is also a Christ Symbol.
And yeah, if we’re talking symbols, let’s think about who allowed a hole to remain in this pocket without immediately mending it, whose fault is this really, guess what IT’S MOM, one of the many women completely absent from this child’s holiday fantasy even though in real life the majority of the emotional and physical labor involved in Creating A Magical Holiday comes from women and mothers.
So the child loses his bell because someone didn’t meet his every stinkin’ need, he had the whole world and lost it through a hole in his pocket, and then we get the third of this book’s unnerving illustrations: a two-page spread of the child, drooping on a train seat, being comforted by a crowd of young girls.
This is the only time we see female characters play any role in the story, and they are silent handmaidens.
The train returns the boy to his real-life home, and he wakes up on Christmas morning to find that—surprise! It wasn’t a dream at all! Santa found the silver bell (or “found” an identical bell), wrapped it up, and left it under the tree. The Christ story is complete, and we’re reminded that even when Chosen Children make mistakes or show immense lack of responsibility, someone will cover for them.
So that’s our book. Is every train story a capitalist fantasy? Are our secret Christmas dreams not that we will find peace on Earth and good will towards all, but that we will be a gold-class passenger on an immense train where everyone around us is there only to meet our whims and desires?
To be fair, a lot of holiday dream stories—The Nutcracker, even The Little Match Girl—are about children fantasizing themselves at the centers of large rooms piled with gifts and sweets. (In The Nutcracker, the sweets dance.) Which means that the problem might be less with dreams than with Christmas itself, if this is what we subconsciously think of it.
Maybe Christmas is the real capitalist fantasy, and I say that with my tongue in my cheek but also… there’s a ring of truth to it, and it’s as loud as Santa’s silver bell.
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