How we crave our stories of magic, those heady tales of endless possibilities. Once upon a time, Carlo Collodi created a character made of wood but with the big heart and unbridled desires of a child. In The Adventures of Pinocchio, the wily Italian author turns our expectations inside out, inviting us to examine the dual nature of fantasy and of freedom — in other words, to grow up.
We Americans, so accustomed to seeing the cute popular images of Pinocchio, are unprepared for Collodi’s opening description of … “a piece of wood. It wasn’t expensive wood, just the ordinary kind that we take from a woodpile in the winter and put in the stove or the fireplace in order to get a fire going … .” Right away, the author is warning us that this will be no traditional fairy story.
Yes, magic feeds the plot. The plain wood, after all, somehow springs to life after old Geppetto carves his puppet. And interestingly enough, the first miraculous growth of that famous nose occurs as the carpenter shapes it: “Poor Geppetto kept struggling to cut it back; but the more he cut and shortened it, the longer that impudent nose became.”
You might wonder, Who is in control here? Ah, that is the question Collodi goes on to explore. Immediately, Geppetto’s creation turns on him, snatching the old man’s wig and mocking him by putting it on his own head. “Scamp of a child, you aren’t even finished and you’re already beginning to lack respect for your father!”
Pinocchio, it turns out, will not consider himself finished until he becomes a real boy, with all the advantages and disadvantages that condition entails. On the other hand, he is lured by the fantasy that he can escape the drudgery, the diligence, and discipline required to be a student and later, a working adult. The puppet will do exactly as he pleases.
Or not. A multitude of troubles await the imp, as he scorns the advice of wiser voices, those who try to steer him toward being a “good” boy, one who is industrious, honest, dutiful. When the Talking Cricket tells him he feels sorry for him because he has a wooden head, he smashes the cricket with a mallet. This, my friends, is not what you would call a gentle story. Pinocchio’s journey involves abandoning his doting father and later, the strange blue-haired fairy he loves and considers a mother. He endures hunger, humiliation, loneliness, and near-death. Each episode of suffering brings on an overwhelming sense of regret — until, of course, he strays again.
It’s not just Pinocchio’s impulsive nature that unleashes peril and persecution, but his gullibility, as well. He believes the Fox and the Cat when they describe a Field of Miracles where his gold coins will multiply if he buries them there. He is deceived by his jealous classmates when they persuade him to skip school to join them at the beach. And even when he is about to have his wish come true at last, that he become a real boy, he decides to run away with his pal Lampwick, to a place where there are no schools, no teachers, no books. “The days go by in play and good times from morning till night. Then at night you go to bed, and the next morning you begin all over again,” his friend says.
The adventures at Funland usher in some of the darkest passages of the novel. The boys who sought a world of all play and no work, in time find themselves transformed into beasts of burden, abused, underfed, and overworked until they die.
Where did all that freedom go? Collodi displays the intricate connections between freedom and responsibility, between fantasy and reality. The puppet indeed is a blockhead, as he does not really think for himself; again and again, he reacts. Others dictate the path he follows. He is left to suffer the consequences, as do those who really care for him.
The author’s ending is one that satisfies children, who typically (at least, if my daughters’ experiences hold true) have laughed at the puppet’s string of ridiculous mistakes, all the while believing he will, at last, become a good boy, a real boy. Yet, for adults, it is a somewhat sobering conclusion, as the child seems too dandified and self-satisfied. We can only trust the price of being real is worth it, for, as we have seen, the alternative is so much worse.
And when we return to the question, Who’s in control of one’s life? we come face-to-face with a simple and troubling answer: no one. To believe otherwise, Collodi implies, is to indulge in a fantasy bound to bring us sorrow.
Collodi, Carlo. Le Avventure di Pinocchio/The Adventures of Pinocchio: Story of a Puppet. Trans., Nicolas J. Perella. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.