Thursday, January 29, 2015

No, children, you are wrong. - Pinocchio lives

Just one more Pinocchio post, I think.  So many people have been reading the book, saying what I might want to say.  Seraillon put up most of that and more a few minutes ago.  Simpler Pastimes is collecting other readers.

Pinocchio begins:

Once upon a time, there was…

“A king!” my little readers will say right away.

No, children, you are wrong.  Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.  (Ch. 1, ellipses in original)

One rhetorical side of the novel is summarized perfectly with “No, children, you are wrong.”  This is the most directly didactic book I have read in decades.

“My boy,” said the Fairy, “people who talk that way always end up in jail or in the poorhouse…  Idleness is a horrible disease, and it has to be cured early, in childhood; otherwise, when we are grown-up, we never get over it.”  (Ch. 25)

And there is a lot more like that.  Pinocchio at this point in the book is already an ex-con, having already been in jail for a four month stretch, although not because of his idleness but rather the capriciousness and inattention of the gorilla judge.  I need someone who knows Italy better than I do to write a piece about the social satire in Pinocchio.

The Fairy, who is a mother figure for Pinocchio and an analogue for the Virgin Mary, Dante’s Beatrice, and who knows what else, enforces her moral teachings by pretending to be dead, to the extent of building a false grave for Pinocchio to weep over (Ch. 23), and threatening Pinocchio with death, going so far as this:

At that very moment the door of the room opened wide and in came four rabbits as black as ink, carrying a small coffin on their shoulders.

“What do you want form me?” cried Pinocchio, sitting up straight in terror.

“We have come to get you,” replied the biggest rabbit.  (Ch. 17)

So Pinocchio drinks his medicine.  Maybe the weirdest part of the book is the Pinocchio’s constant shifting between wood and flesh depending on Collodi’s immediate needs, a “a curious composite human-puppet, flesh that is at the same time not flesh, object that is at the same time human,” as seraillon says.

The continual shifts in state affects everything in the novel – characters who are alive then dead then alive again, landscapes that shift, transformations into animals:

So Pinocchio, losing all patience, grasped the door knocker angrily, intending to give a bang that would deafen everyone in the building; but the knocker, which was mad of iron, suddenly became a live eel that wriggled out of his hands and disappeared into the small stream of water going down the middle of the street.  (Ch. 29)

The entire chapter, which includes puppet nudity, a talking dog, and a maid who is a giant snail, is one of the purest pieces of dream writing in a novel full of dream-stuff.  Wonderful chapter.

It is just the nature of fiction, but everything that is interesting in Pinocchio’s world is brought to the front and everything uninteresting (jail, school) is skipped in a couple of words.  So all of the ethical movement in the novel supports Pinocchio’s rebellions.  Seraillon again: “little of interest may happen in life if one doesn’t transgress from time to time.”  Obey and there is no novel, no Pinocchio.

Thanks to Simpler Pastimes for taking my suggestion to feature Pinocchio in her children’s literature event.


  1. For whatever reason, I can't stop thinking of The Blue Fairy as Bjork.

    From an initial sense of revulsion, I've really come to relish this little book in the past few days of reading your and others' comments on it. It has a psychological and aesthetic richness that would have made for a nice monograph by Bruno Bettleheim.

    It's incredible - jolting again - that Pinocchio is, as you nicely put it, an "ex-con" before he's even a boy. And (I'm tempted to say: another Italian element) he goes to jail for getting robbed.

    So that was your suggestion to read this. The thanks I've given to Simpler Pastimes I'll now also pass along to you.

  2. Hey, the Blue Fairy is the Queen of Heaven from "The Golden Ass"! And it's nice to see her.

    Our fashion nowadays is to mistrust the didactic, but I'll play the contrarian. Collodi is right, idleness really is horrible. And Pinocchio does stupid, impulsive things. The little brat needs to grow up.

    I suspect the original readers were not just enjoying his rebellion, but feeling superior to him: "No, don't bury the coins! The cat and fox will steal them! Don't you know anything?" One of the motors of the story is that he takes normal kid impulses to their absurd extremes. It's a funny way of playing with readers' sympathies: you root for him, but wait, he went too far.

    At any rate, thanks for prompting the reread...

  3. She sure has a passive aggressive approach to mothering. I was thinking about looking through Lucian to see if there is a mother figure in True Story. Collodi is a good pasticheur.

    I think your contrarianism is closer to most good child readers, and closer to me in so-called real life. The wonderful thing about fiction is that he can stay a puppet, that anyone can come along and return him to his idle ways.

    Thank you, Doug, and Scott, for joining in. So helpful, all around.

  4. LOL. Yes the Blue Fairy certain does work from the-ends-justifies-the-means point-of-view, doesn't she?

    Very good point about the ethical movement. I hadn't thought of that. But perhaps Collodi felt that children could easier connect with Pinocchio's impulses and actions ........ wait ..... you know, the more I think about it, the stranger it seems. You would think Collodi would show the readers what it is to be good but you're right, he gives them numerous examples of being bad. Hmmm ..... Perhaps becoming real trumps all.

    I did like the part with the judges sending Pinocchio to jail .... or perhaps "like" is not the right word, but I thought it useful. Have you ever been blamed for something you didn't do? And sometimes it's not even possible to defend yourself and you just have to swallow the consequences. This reminded me exactly of elementary school! Of course, once again Collodi gives an example that is extreme, to say the least, but, if nothing else, it can be used as a teachable moment.

    I had no idea that you suggested this read, so a belated thanks, Tom! It was so enjoyable and the comments have been excellent and instructive, just like the book. :-)

  5. Funland is the ultimate example of this point. Several months of fun, and then maybe you become a donkey. But you get the fun first. Some kids would have to think about this deal.

    I was the only person who suggested a book to Amanda! But it was not just self-interest. I had paid attention to her Children's Classics event and knew Pinocchio would be a good fit.

  6. Yes, becoming a donkey! That bit never gets old; from Apuleius' Golden Ass until Mo Yan's Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out with stops at Ji Yun Xiaolan and his Notes From The Thatched Abode of Subtle Observations.

  7. 100% agreement with that sentiment.

    You have pointed me to the first Mo Yan novel that has really piqued my interest. Hmm hmm hmm.

  8. About idleness? "Disease" is a little strong, though. Unless you take the word etymologically. Restlessness, dis-ease. Pinocchio is actually not at any risk of genuine idleness. He's an energetic fellow.

    1. Okay, the Italian is "l'ozio è una bruttissima malattia," which could be more literally translated as "Sloth is a very ugly malady." Etymologically, "malattia" means "badness." The context, of course, is that Pinocchio has just been whining that he doesn't want to go school, doesn't want to learn an art or trade, and doesn't want to work for a living. The Blue Fairy has a point...

      I'm curious (again, heretically) as to why you're so opposed to the didactic. I'll suggest it as a literary gambit that Collodi did funny things with.

    2. Oh yes, I like what Collodi did with it. I was amazed at Collodi's bluntness, but it's a device, a gambit. He constantly undercuts (e.g., see Amanda's comment below) the didacticism, even the the didact, like the Blue Fairy, is fundamentally correct.

      It's really a rhetorical rather than moral issue.

  9. What I like about that first sentence is how self-conscious it is; kids needed to have a whole tradition of children's fiction behind them in order for it to be effective. In fact I think it's funny how techniques deemed "post-modernist" are just taken for granted in this genre: self-conscious subversion of tropes, intertextuality, author breaking fourth wall, etc. It just wouldn't work without them.

  10. I too was struck by how didactic Pinocchio seems to be on the surface. But then I read a little further and I began to think that Collodi might have been more interested in social satire. Or wanted the two to coincide. Chapter 18 with the city called Chumptrump (Brock; "Acchiappa-citrulli" in the Italian) and the jailing in chapter 19 certainly seemed to me commentary rather than lesson. I'd be interested in reading a post about Collodi's social-satire as well.

    Thanks for the encouragement to select Pinocchio! It's been fun reading through all the various posts/comments. (Now, I just need to finally get my post written.)

  11. Miguel - I thought about writing that. Now you did, but shorter, good. I will bet that most of the kiddies who called out "A king!" are happy to be wrong. Thank goodness, not another king or prince. A block of wood, that's something new.

    "wanted the two to coincide" - yes, that is just where I pull back a little, out of ignorance of the context, but that is sure how it looks to me. I guess it could still be pure an improving message - in Italy, you gotta be extra good, because if the law gets its hand on you, look out.

    Thanks again for encouraging all of the good reading.