Italian author Carlo Collodi had gained a minor name for himself as a satirist and translator of fairy tales when he was asked to write a serial novel for children. It was a rather odd choice: Collodi, bitter and angry over Italian politics—he fought in two different independence wars, but was unhappy with the resulting unified government, a feeling many of his fellow citizens shared—was perhaps not the first person most would have chosen to write an adorable, child-friendly book, especially since many of the fairy tales he had translated were those aimed at an adult audience. But he needed either the money, or the distraction, or both, and sat down to write a quick story about a puppet.
Somewhere along the way—that is, by page two—it turned into a the sort of story that demonstrated just why Collodi was not the sort of person anyone would hire to write an adorable, child-friendly book, but would hire to write the sort of tale where everyone hits each other a lot, suffers a lot, and dies horribly. With the occasional “Oh, right, I need a moral message for the kiddies.”
Disney, always ones to look on the bright side, eventually adapted it into a movie, a restaurant in their Magic Kingdom theme park, and assorted toys.
But I anticipate.
The book starts out on a violent note, as Mastro Cherry, encountering a piece of talking wood, responds by trying to beat the crap out of said piece of wood. In the very next chapter, Mastro Cherry gets into a physical fight with Geppetto; they then swear to eternal friendship. On the very next page they are fighting again, almost as a foreshadowing of the complete lack of buildup to later plot developments in the book. Once the initial fighting is done, Geppetto takes the talking wood home and proceeds to carve it into a little puppet, naming it Pinocchio. By the next page, Geppetto is in jail for puppet assault.
In the next chapter—chapter 4—Pinocchio kills a talking cricket.
So, just to sum up the type of book we’re talking about here, in four chapters we’ve had had an incident of Brutality to Wood, at least two fights, one arrest of an elderly man for puppet brutality, one dead cricket, and one Tor.com blogger astonished that she’s still reading this.
For the record? These chapters? About two pages each.
All of this brutality is regularly interrupted with important life lessons, such as, if you beg for bread in the streets, people may douse you with water; if you put your feet too close to the fire, they might burn up and go away; and always eat every part of a pear, including the seeds. These lessons, I must say, are somewhat confusing, given that (a) I find it difficult to believe that the fire would have stopped at Pinocchio’s feet and (b) I have no idea why a wooden puppet needs to eat anything in the first place. He’s made of wood! But I guess it’s a nice lesson in waste not, want not, even if it leaves quite a lot unexplained.
Moving on: Geppetto sells his only coat to buy Pinocchio a textbook for school. Pinocchio sells the book to go to a puppet show. Pinocchio is a jerk, is what I’m saying. Pinocchio almost gets burned up, but doesn’t, because this book hates me. A Fox and a Cat suggest that Pinocchio try a little gambling. At that point, the book decides it has not had enough plot yet, let alone characters, let alone violence (we’re still on chapter 12) and throws in:
- Random assassins with a puppet fetish.
- A small ghost with blue hair who refuses to help Pinocchio
- A puppet hanging, in all senses of that word
- A puppet death.
This is where the original book ended, and I think it’s safe to say that many people would have been just as happy to leave it there.
Collodi’s editor, however, wasn’t: either from deep distress at the thought of the tears of small children, or hoping to earn more money—versions differ—he asked Collodi to continue the story. Which Collodi did, announcing that the small ghost with blue hair was, in fact, a small fairy with blue hair (that’s the entire transition) with the ability to summon animal doctors who can both discourse on life and restore a puppet to life so he can enjoy 21 more chapters of:
- A long scene of a puppet refusing medical care despite a fairly obvious need for it (Pinocchio, you were just dead)
- Funereal rabbits
- Issues with rapid nasal growth
- A government imprisoning robbery victims, including Pinocchio, instead of the actual robbers (as I may have mentioned, Collodi had a few issues with the Italian government)
- A government deliberately freeing all thieves, including Pinocchio, (did I mention the issues with the Italian government?), with the happy effect of allowing the plot to move along and not linger in jail
- Lots of mud
- One serpent dead from laughter (not metaphorically dead, dead dead)
- Weasel traps (they break Pinocchio’s legs)
- A puppet slave scene (it is perhaps best not to dwell on this)
- Weasel tricks (from weasels)
- One dead fairy, cause of death unknown
- One suddenly alive fairy, cause of resurrection unknown
- Assorted boy versus puppet and puppet versus boy violence, requiring medical attention
- The improper use of books as missile weapons
- One boy killed severely wounded by a flying book
- One dog chase
- One attempt to fry up a puppet and eat it for dinner
- One unsanctioned visit to the Land of Toys, involving broken promises and book abandonment
- One man biting off half the ear of a donkey
- One puppet severely kicked by that donkey (the man gets away unharmed, if presumably in desperate need of some strong mouthwash or, failing that, alcohol)
- Excessive, detailed accounts of donkey abuse
- A general sense that the author does not like donkeys
- A rather terrifying prophecy that all boys who skip school will turn into donkeys
- A complaint about the low quality food fed to donkeys (hay, instead of bread and butter)
- Dancing donkeys
- One attempt to drown a donkey
- A continued sense that really, this author does not like donkeys
- One shark suffering from asthma
- One man so maltreated by Italy’s terrible unemployment and housing conditions that he’s been forced to take up residence in the belly of a giant shark for two years, a situation only ameliorated by what I must describe as a suspiciously convenient supply of candles and crackers
- One dead donkey
- One puppet celebrating what I must say feels like a rather unearned happy ending.
So a touch less brutal than the first half of the book. But only a touch.
The biggest problem with all this, however, isn’t the brutality or the rapid, incident-driven plot, but Pinocchio himself who—I have to say this—is awful. It’s not so much that he’s constantly getting into trouble, or breaking promises, or hurting people. Or that he can be one mean puppet. Especially when donkeys are involved. Or even that, for a puppet who is getting constantly beaten up and tricked, he remains incredibly naïve right up until the last couple of chapters. Pinocchio does need to be naïve in order for most of the plot to happen, after all, and by the end of the book, Pinocchio has only been in existence for about three years.
No, it’s that Pinocchio spends almost the entire book blaming bad luck everyone but himself for all of the terrible things that happen to him. Now, to a certain extent, that’s true—Pinocchio does end up with people that just really, really, really like to hit him, or rob him, or eat him. (If you have issues with puppets, and have always wanted to see terrible things happen to them, or at least read about terrible things happening to them, this is your book.) And to a certain extent, some of these things happen to him because Pinocchio is extraordinarily credulous, believing pretty much anything anyone tells him. To be fair, he’s accustomed to talking crickets and foxes, ghosts turning into fairies for no particular reason except that the author needing to write more chapters, goats more or less appearing out of nowhere, and that sort of thing.
But Pinocchio, when the ghost of a murdered cricket tells you that the road is dangerous, and that just maybe you ought to go back home instead of going down a road filled with lurking assassins, and you head down the road anyway and die a horrific death, I don’t think “We boys are very unlucky,” with the implication that your constant run of terrible decisions had nothing whatsoever to do with this, is the correct response.
Granted, a lot of this advice is coming from a very dead cricket that Pinocchio finds pretty annoying—and I’m on Pinocchio’s side on this one—but a lot of it comes from a blue fairy or Geppetto. And I got tired of reading, every few pages or so, Pinocchio’s promises to be good, followed immediately by Pinocchio not being good. Eventually I found myself hoping that the donkeys would eat him. This didn’t happen, because this book hates donkeys, but it should have.
It also doesn’t help that the narration often forgets that he’s a puppet. In many ways, this works in the context of the text, where humans and animals and ghosts and not always dead fairies all communicate with each other without blinking an eye—a concept Collodi happily borrowed from the fairy tales he had translated. But in those fairy tales, the physical forms of transformed humans and non-humans create issues for their characters. This doesn’t happen with Pinocchio. Sure, the text calls him a marionette, but in all other respects he’s a real boy: he eats, sleeps, gets tired, and gets eaten and chewed on more than once (look, this is often a very disturbing book, ok?). He has to go to school and work for money. When he’s arrested, he’s treated just like every other prisoner. He is transformed into a donkey just like all of the other boys: the only difference is that he gets eaten by a fish, who nibbles him back down to puppet size, while his friend Lamp-wick dies as a donkey. Thus, his final transformation into a boy doesn’t seem to mean much: he’s already there.
But then again, that’s hardly the point of the story, which apart from that rather tacked on ending, an odd combination of the paeans of hard work, a daily fresh glass of milk, and fairy tale, focuses mostly the caprices of fortune, the danger of disobeying orders, the dangers of indulging in pleasure, and corruption—of boys, of government, of foxes and cats.
All of this, and a bitter cynicism underlying the novel, make it rather difficult to believe the various moral messages—particularly the argument that hard work leads to happiness. The problem is, Collodi genuinely doesn’t seem to believe this: his own life apparently taught him the opposite. He also clearly had considerable sympathy for the idea that instead of working, everyone should just go run off and have fun—even if the moral message he was trying to convey tacked on the idea that terrible things happen to people who do this. But terrible things happen to everyone in this book, no matter what they do—Geppetto and the Blue Fairy, as close to moral characters as this book get—often suffer terribly. It’s enough to get me to cheer on the idea of abandoning everything and running off to have fun.
And, alas, by the end of the book, Collodi was clearly running out of steam. Not that the second half of the book lacks its own imaginative moments and bizarre incidents—indeed, it can be fairly criticized as being too imaginative—but the rapid fire violence and plot of the first half is toned down somewhat, replaced by digressions, conversations, and donkey violence. The tacked on happy ending, with its insistence, at odds with the rest of the book, that happiness can be earned, smacks of weariness and editorial intervention, not conviction.
Having said all this, it’s easy to see why kids might like this. It’s plot driven, without anything boring like descriptions or character development or yucky kissy stuff or anything awful like that. (I speak here as a former seven year old.) And although Pinocchio might be awful—no, scratch might be, he really is awful—it’s pretty easy for kids to identify with, and even sympathize and agree with, Pinocchio’s frequent decisions to forgot personal responsibility and just go have fun, not to mention Pinocchio’s ongoing habit of ignoring adults. It’s the sort of thing that can leave kids cheering. And although I can see many parents objecting to the levels of violence here, it does reflect something that Looney Tunes cartoons would later cash in on: lots of kids LOVE violence like this, as long as it never gets particularly graphic or scary, or described in detail. Sure, a lot more characters here end up dead than in the typical Looney Tunes cartoon, and the violence is often a lot worse, but the audience for this is the same kid audience that’s secretly or not so secretly hoping that the Coyote will blow up that annoying Roadrunner, or cheering when the Coyote plunges to the bottom of a ravine.
Not to mention the book’s satire, which includes moments like these:
The poor Cat felt very weak, and he was able to eat only thirty-five mullets with tomato sauce and four portions of tripe with cheese. Moreover, as he was so in need of strength, he had to have four more helpings of butter and cheese.
The Fox, after a great deal of coaxing, tried his best to eat a little. The doctor had put him on a diet, and he had to be satisfied with a small hare dressed with a dozen young and tender spring chickens. After the hare, he ordered some partridges, a few pheasants, a couple of rabbits, and a dozen frogs and lizards. That was all. He felt ill, he said, and could not eat another bite.
Followed, a few paragraphs later, by this gem:
“Did they pay for the supper?”
“How could they do such a thing? Being people of great refinement, they did not want to offend you so deeply as not to allow you the honor of paying the bill.”
And this exchange between the animal doctors:
“When the dead weep, they are beginning to recover,” said the Crow solemnly.
“I am sorry to contradict my famous friend and colleague,” said the Owl, “but as far as I’m concerned, I think that when the dead weep, it means they do not want to die.”
There’s not enough of this, but just enough to distract most readers from what’s happening to the donkeys.
Pinocchio is not for all readers. But if you’re interested in a plot driven, episodic book, filled with occasional satire, sudden transformations, and donkey violence, this is definitely your thing.
Sidenote: Pinocchio’s arguably best known feature, the nose that grows when he lies, doesn’t show up until Chapter 17—about midway through the book. Collodi later completely forgets this and several other plot points—this is not a book particularly interested in consistency—and it’s rather remarkable that such a minor plot point became the defining feature of the character.
Mari Ness has nothing against donkeys. She lives in central Florida.