the contextual life

thoughts without borders

An Education with Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

with 3 comments

It was by chance that I picked up a copy of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. A recent edition published by New York Review of Books was shelved in the adult section of the bookstore, a place I didn’t expect it to be. At first the haunting cover image, a close-up of a tree with wide-open, wet eyes, caught my attention, but it was the introduction from Umberto Eco and afterword by Rebecca West that made me linger. These two celebrated writers promised the mature analysis I would need after finishing a book known to me as story for children.

Luckily, I wasn’t familiar with Disney’s film adaptation, nor had I read its numerous variations. I was coming to it with the barest of information: wooden puppet wants to be a real boy; talking cricket named Jiminy; old man named Geppetto; nose grows when Pinocchio lies. As it turns out, Pinocchio’s longing to be human is not as prominent in the original, his nose is barely mentioned, and Jiminy Cricket is a near fabrication.

In fact, the truth about Jiminy Cricket is a perfect example of why reading, or revisiting, children’s books when you’re older can be so much fun.

After the cricket–known in Collodi’s version only as the Talking Cricket–reprimands Pinocchio for his obstinacy, the puppet throws a tantrum. On page 15 we read:

At these last words, Pinocchio jumped up in a rage, grabbed a wooden mallet from the workbench, and flung it at the Talking Cricket.

Perhaps he didn’t mean to hit him at all, but unfortunately he hit him square on the head. With his last breath the poor Cricket cried cree-cree-cree and then died on the spot, stuck to the wall.

At the time of Collodi’s writing–Pinocchio was serialized from 1881 to 1883–children’s books were a new genre. In her afterword, Rebecca West says, “Children’s literature was an innovation in nineteenth-century Italy (and elsewhere).” This alone would explain why Pinocchio feels more like a story with a child at its center rather than a children’s story.

While children’s authors today have a lineage to look to for guidance, Collodi was without a bookshelf to reference. Instead, as West points out, among his influences were Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. We owe the slimness of the book to the Tuscan novella and Boccaccio’s Decameron, with which Collodi would have been familiar. Also an influence, according to West, was Celtic and Nordic mythology, playing a hand in Pinocchio’s “magical vegetation,” which gave Collodi the idea for a boy carved from a tree.

“It must be said first,” says Umberto Eco in his introduction, “that, though written in the nineteenth century, the original Pinocchio remains as readable as if it had been written in the twenty-first, so limpid and simple in its prose–and so musical in its simplicity.” Although the story breezes along, thanks to quick sentences, urgent dialogue, and short chapters, the story itself gives readers much to think about, as Eco acknowledges: “though it’s written in simple language, Pinocchio is not a simple book. … [it] doesn’t limit itself to one simple, basic moral, but rather deals with many.” A bildungsroman, he calls it: a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.

Pinocchio, although wooden, is very much a boy and now that he’s been let loose in the world, he must learn to behave. But, like most 6 and 7-year olds, Pinocchio is unruly. In addition to murdering the cricket who, from thereon in, appears as a ghost, Pinocchio has no sense of right and wrong; he has a profound lack of empathy and about as much willpower as his fleshy counterpart.

One of Pinocchio’s major failings is his aversion to school. Although Geppetto demands he go, even sacrificing his last coins for a text book, Pinocchio is easily distracted and lured into harmful situations. Two characters who pull Pinocchio away time and again are a pair of greedy creatures hoping to steal what few cents the boy has. In turn, it’s Pinocchio’s own greed and ignorance that gets in the way of his making good decisions.

“Pinocchio hesitated a little before answering, as he thought of the good Fairy, of old Geppetto, and of the Talking Cricket’s warnings. But in the end he did what all children with thick skulls and hard hearts do: in the end, that is, he said to the Fox and the Cat, ‘Let’s go then–I’m coming with you.’”

When Collodi was writing, Italy was in the midst of political upheaval. He had allied himself with the Republicans–those fighting against the Monarchy for a unified country. After unification, and before Collodi wrote Pinocchio, the school system was restructured. The process was not without many heated debates. During this time Collodi made a name for himself writing pedagogical tracts.

Although “attracted by order, discipline, and structured educational practices,” as West says in her afterword, Collodi was not a great fan of the programs initiated after the unification. She continues, “in spite of his interest in pedagogical writing, Collodi was highly suspicious of them [the programs] because he saw them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom.”

This tension between obedience and freedom–structured education vs. individualism–is at the center of Pinocchio, allowing it to be read as “a tale of both transgression and the necessity for conformity.”

Ultimately, Pinocchio learns to control his impulses and, as is suiting to a bildungsroman, shows moral and intellectual growth. But while the story comes to a close, in the mind of a careful reader it doesn’t end on the last page. The great triumph of Pinocchio is that it doesn’t give you answers, only questions. In this way, Collodi is still teaching. Although touted as a children’s book, Pinocchio leaves you with big, enduring issues rumbling around in your head: freedom vs. authoritarianism, what does youth owe society’s elders, what system of education is most effective, and how should we approach adolescent development. Anyone interested in the role of education and a child’s place in society will be well-served to read or reread this timeless classic.

Buy Pinocchio at your local independent bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Reblogged this on More than four sides and commented:
    I learned about Collodi’s original version of Pinocchio about a year or more ago, when I mentioned on Facebook that we watched the Disney version with our kids, and my very well-read cousin told me of the “real” version. I love this version so much more than the Disney-fied, saccharine story. I haven’t yet read it with the kids, but should do so soon. Thanks to “the contextual life” for reminding me of it.


    October 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm

  2. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and the rest of the website is also really good.

    abrazja powietrzna

    May 7, 2013 at 10:29 am

  3. Hi
    I have translated this book into Persian. While I was translating it, sometimes I cried. It’s a wonderful book, not only for children but for adults. I love the “real” version so much more than the Disney story.


    August 15, 2014 at 3:56 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: