I've been haunted since childhood by a face I never saw.
Specifically, the face belonging to this pair of disembodied arms:
I imagine the Lorax movie that came out last year brought relief to a lot of people who read the book as children and uneasily wondered why the Once-ler never showed himself. It brought none to me. The backstory I'd already imagined for this enigmatic character is cemented too firmly in my mind to be replaced by simple Hollywood fluff, however well-animated that fluff may be.
A teacher read this story to my second grade class. Like my classmates, I looked at those arms-those scrawny, gnarled, sickly-looking arms-and wondered what sort of person or thing could possibly be attached to them. But while my classmates probably latched onto the green fur and imagined a creature that resembled the Grinch, my mind went to a much darker place.
I decided that the Once-ler must be afflicted by some sort of horrific disfiguring disease.
The more I thought about it the more sense it made. The story begins with a flashback of the Once-ler roaming the world, hiding his face in shame beneath the protective canopy of a covered wagon. When he first encounters the lovely Truffula trees, he is entranced. Those soft colorful tufts draw him like a moth to the flame; he must have these beautiful trees for his own, every single one of them, for to possess them is to regain the beauty that nature stole from him.
Yet the disease that afflicts him has twisted his mind as well as his body. His intense love of the trees is inextricably entwined with a fierce hateful envy of their physical perfection. This darker side of him festers and grows as the Lorax shows up again and again to remind him that the trees do not truly belong to him. In his rage he defiles as many trees as he can, hacking through their trunks with axes and twisting their tufts into hideous shapes.* All the while he continues to lurk in the shadows of doorways and desks like a robber-baron version of the Phantom of the Opera, still too ashamed to show his face to his customers despite the growing success of his business.
Then, suddenly, it's all over. The last Truffula tree is cut down and the Lorax disappears into the sky. The Once-ler is left alone in the pollution-choked valley, having finally succeeded in re-shaping the landscape into a wasteland as desolate and blighted as his own body and soul. And as he looks over his work, he mourns. Something in him has been lost, some pure and perfect and genuine facet of himself he didn't know he possessed until it died in the muck of rotted wood and industrial waste that surrounds his factory...
Then, as the sun sets on the barren valley, something tiny and round rolls from the tuft of the fallen tree. A single seed. Hope courses through him as he snatches it up. The last traces of his shame and self-hatred melt away as he carries the little living seed to his house like a holy relic; the rest of his life will be spent in nurturing and guarding it, awaiting the day when new life will rise from the ashes of his greed and misplaced anger.
And that was the backstory I came up with for the Once-ler. Looking back, I think it was one of my earliest exercises in trusting my imagination and looking beyond the obvious while building a character.
Or maybe it was just my brain being weird and twisted enough to see a Greek-tragedy-worthy tale of obsession, ruin, redemption and late-stage syphilis in a preachy 1970's environmentalism fable written for children.
It depends on who you ask.
*I've studied that flaccid, creepy, unidentified-decomposing-medical-specimen-looking thing in the Once-ler's hands a dozen times now, and I still can't figure out how "everyone" could actually need a Thneed, let alone keep one in their houses without having nightmares about it.