Bad Things Happen to Bad Children

The real Pinocchio is nothing like you remember.

We learn in the biographical note to Everyman’s new edition of Pinocchio that Carlo Collodi never had children. Any reader of this book will understand why. Collodi loathed children. Boys especially, the scummy little rodents. Every boy in Pinocchio is imbecilic, disobedient, greedy, and filthy. But none is worse than Pinocchio himself. Collodi describes him as a “rascal,” “imp,” “scapegrace,” “disgrace,” “ragamuffin,” and “confirmed rogue.” “Wretched boy!” laments Pinocchio’s loving father, the carpenter Geppetto. The very first thing the puppet does upon being born is laugh derisively in Geppetto’s face. Then Pinocchio steals the sad old man’s wig.

Pinocchio’s bad behavior is not intended to be charming or endearing. It is meant to serve as a warning. Collodi originally intended the story, which was first published in 1881, to be a tragedy. It concluded with the puppet’s execution. Pinocchio’s enemies, the Fox and the Cat, bind his arms, pass a noose around his throat, and hang him from the branch of an oak tree:

…a tempestuous northerly wind began to blow and roar angrily, and it beat the poor puppet from side to side, making him swing violently, like the clatter of a bell ringing for a wedding. And the swinging gave him atrocious spasms….

His breath failed him and he could say no more. He shut his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched his legs, gave a long shudder, and hung stiff and insensible.

The end.

Is that not how you remember Pinocchio? Me neither. I always imagined him as a cheerful little puppet who desires nothing more than to be transformed into a real live boy. That is the Pinocchio depicted in Walt Disney’s adaptation, which whitewashed Collodi’s tale when it was released in 1940. It’s hard to blame Disney—Pinocchio is a rotten kid.

Early in the project, in fact, Disney became so frustrated with Collodi’s story that he halted production. It was unsuitable for children, Disney concluded: Pinocchio was too cocky, too much of a wiseguy, and too puppetlike to be sympathetic. Finally a compromise was reached. Pinocchio’s wish would be fulfilled from the start. He would not be depicted as a puppet after all but as a real boy, and a gentle, winsome one at that. Similarly the “Talking-Cricket,” a minor nameless character, became Jiminy Cricket, a tiny bald-headed man who serves as the puppet’s voice of conscience. (In the book, when the cricket scolds Pinocchio for rebelling against his father, Pinocchio bashes the insect’s brains out with a hammer.) And Disney turned a single scene—in which Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie—into a central motif. The moral of the film is that if you are brave and truthful, and you listen to your conscience, you will find salvation. Collodi’s moral is that you if you behave badly and do not obey adults, you will be bound, tortured, and killed.

Carlo Collodi.
Carlo Collodi.

This photograph is in the public domain.

For his sins Pinocchio is not only hanged but robbed, kidnapped, stabbed, whipped, starved, jailed, punched in the head, and has his legs burned off. Worse, however, is the psychological abuse. At different points he is tricked into believing that he has killed both his “father” (Geppetto) and his “mother” (the Blue Fairy). Collodi savors Pinocchio’s comeuppances, recounting each one in loving, histrionic detail. When Pinocchio is caught in an iron trap he is “so giddy with pain that stars of every colour danced before his eyes.” During one of his several bouts of starvation, Pinocchio’s stomach is “like an apartment that had been left empty and uninhabited for five months.”

Other elaborate humiliations include being plunged in flour “five or six times” until “he was white from head to foot and looked like a puppet made of plaster” in preparation for being cooked in a frying pan. He is strapped with a “great collar covered in brass knobs” like a dog and locked in a kennel. And, after being transformed into a donkey, he is dressed up like a girl and forced to do absurd dances, then leap through hoops, on stage. Collodi’s sadistic glee in these scenes is infectious—they are by far the richest and most entertaining sections of the book. In this way Pinocchio resembles not the fairy tales of, say, Hans Christian Anderson, in which good things happen to good children, but Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwelpeter and Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses, in which bad things happen to bad children. Collodi, however, doesn’t have the light touch of Hoffmann and Belloc; he is sterner, and more malicious.

Not even Pinocchio’s dullest young reader will fail to miss Collodi’s message, since he rephrases it in one way or another in nearly every chapter. As the Blue Fairy puts it in the book’s conclusion:

Boys who minister tenderly to their parents and assist them in their misery and infirmities, are deserving of great praise and affection, even if they cannot be cited as examples of obedience and good behaviour. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy.

There is some business at the end about becoming a “real boy,” but it seems an afterthought. In fact the final two-thirds of the book were an afterthought. Pinocchio was originally published serially in the weekly Giornale dei bambini, the “newspaper for kids,” where it gained a large following. But when Pinocchio was hanged after the 15th installment, Collodi’s young readers were horrified. His publishers forced him to extend the story, bringing Pinocchio back to life through the intervention of a beautiful child with blue hair (the character that later morphs into the Blue Fairy). Collodi also altered the genre, rewriting his tragedy as black comedy. He struck a compromise: Pinocchio’s life would be spared, but in return his punishments would become ever more baroque and gruesome.

Collodi, who had written satirical works of fiction and worked as a civil servant, began writing for children because “grown-ups are too hard to satisfy.” He enticed his young readers with fanciful descriptions of carriages “lined with whipped cream, custard and vanilla wafers” and idylls in the hedonistic “Land of Boobies,” where there are no adults and summer vacation runs from the first of January to the last day of December. The appeal is obvious: When left to his own devices, Pinocchio is a hero of child loafers and rebels everywhere. But the fun never lasts long. And then the violence begins. Though Collodi may have set out to satisfy his young readers, it is ultimately their parents who have the last, maniacal laugh.