IMAGE:  December 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 2
The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio  
  Written by
Rebecca West
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Dan Dry
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The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio


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GRAPHIC:  Three Months among the PyramidsA contemporary archetype, the long-nosed Pinocchio is the stuff of high literary culture—and global popularity. What gives the puppet such staying power? Some very human tensions.

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.” Thus begins The Adventures of Pinocchio, starring a long-nosed puppet who has been one of the world’s most immediately recognizable characters since his creation more than a century ago by a Tuscan writer, Carlo Lorenzini, known as Collodi.

Want to learn more about Pinocchio and popular culture?

IMAGE:  Want to learn more about Pinocchio and popular culture?Rebecca West has developed an online seminar—complete with a copy of Collodi’s text, video clips, and more—available free at The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio’s Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film.

The latest references to Pinocchio are to be found in what seems at first a rather unlikely place, a film by Steven Spielberg. The film is A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), based on Stanley Kubrick’s project, cut short by Kubrick’s death, in which a robot with emotions longs to become a real boy. In an essentially negative review, New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote about A.I.: “The story is based explicitly in Pinocchio, but it gives us a queasy feeling from the beginning. Have the filmmakers forgotten that Pinocchio is a scamp? He’s disobedient and lazy, he lies, he has a nose that rather famously gets longer. Pinocchio wants to be a real person because he’s tired of being knocked around as a puppet. He is redeemed by love for his wood-carver ‘father’ just at the very end of the tale.”

I would wager that this fairly simplistic reading of Pinocchio is based more on memories of Walt Disney’s 1940 film version than on the original tale, published first in serial form and then as a book in 1883. In Collodi’s complex story, there are many stimuli for “queasy feelings,” as well as for other diverse emotional and intellectual responses, which careful readers, including prominent Italian and American authors, have experienced and used in order to shape Pinocchios of their own. Was the original Pinocchio merely a “scamp” who was simply “redeemed” by his putative father? Did he wish to be a real boy only because “he was tired of being knocked around as a puppet”? I don’t think so, nor do the many writers and filmmakers who have been inspired by the world’s most persistent puppet.

The story of Pinocchio has not only entertained generations of children around the world—according to several sources, it is outsold worldwide only by the Bible—it has also provided fuel for many Italian and other writers of adult fiction and has been the inspiration for cinematic references that are instantly recognizable more than 100 years since Collodi first created the puppet. A contemporary archetype, the long-nosed, not quite human boy figure has entered into global popular culture (how many countless Pinocchio puppets, toys, statues, cartoons, references in ads, and so on must there now exist?), as well as into high literary culture, most visibly in his homeland but also in the United States and all over the world.

IMAGE:  The Real Life Adventures of PinocchioAlthough he created one of the most famous sets of fathers and children, Carlo Lorenzini was a lifelong bachelor. Born in Florence in 1826, he chose to take the pen name Collodi, which is the name of his mother’s native town near Pescia in Tuscany. Collodi came of age as a writer in the so-called decennio di preparazione, the “Decade of Preparation” from 1850 to 1860 when Italy was moving toward unification. Like many of his generation, he was a participant in the 1848–49 battles for Italian national independence and unity, and throughout the 1850s he was active as a journalist, writing under a variety of names and on many topics, including politics and music. One of his first books, published in 1856 when he was 30 years old, is a kind of curious tourist guide, one of the first examples of a literary work dedicated to train travel—Italy’s first train, a short trip from Naples to Portici, opened in 1839—called Un romanzo in vapore: da Firenze e Livorno (A novel in steam: from Florence to Leghorn). In 1857 he began a vast work about Florentine social life that he called I misteri di Firenze (The mysteries of Florence) in homage to a popular book by the French writer Eugène Sue called Les Mystères de Paris (a work that fascinated Umberto Eco, who wrote an important semiotic analysis of it). When Italy became a unified nation in 1861 Collodi began work as an administrative officer in the new government, but he continued to write fiction, publishing a translation of Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales and several successful pedagogical books that recount the adventures of little boys named Giannettino and Minuzzolo.

Pinocchio was written in the final phase of Collodi’s career, the decade before he died in 1890. Although he was well respected during his lifetime as an Italian writer and social commentator, his fame didn’t really begin to grow until Pinocchio was first translated into English in 1892 and then in a widely read Everyman’s edition of 1911. In Italy his fortunes were bolstered by the powerful philosopher-critic Benedetto Croce, who discovered Pinocchio and praised it. There is now a “Collodi industry” in academic culture that mirrors the popular-culture production of toys, movies, and such, and each year scholars worldwide produce hundreds of books and articles devoted to Collodi, most of which have to do with Pinocchio.

Collodi lived in a complex period of Italian history, when there was both a great push for unification and much ambivalence about what unity would bring to a country deeply tied to local tradition, style, life, and customs. The writer lived in a reality of a unified nation, a unification that he, who was a republican against the monarchs, had supported with true ambivalence. Collodi’s beloved hometown, Florence, was the first capital of the newly formed nation, and Collodi disliked intensely the effect it had on the place that for him had been “a great big house in which all of the inhabitants knew one another very well.” He liked the closed, comfortable, domestic quality of the pre-capital Florence. Attracted to order, discipline, structured educational practices, he also dabbled in the occult and in mesmerism, and he was attracted to the inherent disorder of life and things. After Italian unification, there were many programs initiated with the goal of making the Italian people; in the famous phrase of Massimo d’Azeglio: “We have made Italy, now we need to make the Italian.” But in spite of his interest in pedagogical writing, Collodi was suspicious of these efforts to create the ideal Italian citizen, seeing many of them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom, in which he very much believed. The clashes within Collodi between freedom and disorder and, on the other side, structure and unity, find expression in his story of Pinocchio, which is possible to read both as a tale of transgression and of the necessity for conformity.

Children’s literature was a relatively new genre in Collodi’s time. The idea of such a genre was really unknown until the mid-1800s, when children became identified as a particular class of being. Pinocchio is, however, a book for both children and adults. Pinocchio can be read as a kind of fairy tale, but it can also be read as belonging to a very Tuscan tradition. The Tuscan tradition of the novella, or short story, goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron and also to classical sources such as Homer and Dante—not to speak of the Bible. The critic Glauco Cambon has written, “Storytelling is a folk art in the Tuscan countryside, and has been for centuries. Pinocchio’s relentless variety of narrative incident, its alertness to social types, its tongue-in-cheek wisdom are of a piece with that illustrious tradition.” Cambon also highlights the importance of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy to Pinocchio’s structure and style, and he concludes, “In a place like Italy, the cultural background would insure a deep response to this aspect of Collodi’s myth and guarantee its authenticity.” Indeed, from its very first publication, the tale has been read and enjoyed by children and adults, both of whom find different pleasures in it.

Written and published serially, much as Charles Dickens’s fiction was published, the book we now think of as a unified tale was published in two distinct parts over a three-year period. The first part, “La storia di un burattino” (The story of a puppet), was published over several months in 1881 in the Giornale per i bambini, a popular children’s magazine. The first 15 chapters of the unified book are made up of these pieces, and in the last of them Pinocchio is hanged. Collodi killed off his character, evidently with no plans of resurrecting him. But the editor of the Giornale pleaded with him to continue the popular story, and so in 1882 and 1883 Collodi published piecemeal the second part, “Le avventure di Pinocchio,” which became chapters 16 to 36 of the book. There was a further continuation of Pinocchio—hardly known to anyone outside Italy—another serialized story called “Pipì o lo scimmottino color di rosa” (Pipì the little pink monkey), published in the same children’s magazine from 1883 to 1885. In this Collodi story the protagonist is a wealthy, obedient, very good little boy named Alfredo who seems to be Pinocchio transformed into a boy. But Alfredo is boring as can be; it’s not a good book; and it’s not the good little Alfredo that we remember, but rather the naughty, willful Pinocchio.

Indeed Collodi’s original contains few positive, educational, pedagogical, or moral elements—especially in the first part, which is made up mostly of negative adventures, Pinocchio getting himself into trouble. There are no lessons drawn from these experiences. Only in the second part is the idea that Pinocchio wants to be a boy introduced, and this introduction occurs just ten chapters before the book ends; it doesn’t dominate the story. Instead we have the sense that Pinocchio for the most part is perfectly happy to be a puppet. There’s a narrative reason for this: negative adventures—danger and so on—are much more fun to write and to read than are a series of moral lessons.

IMAGE:  The Real Life Adventures of PinocchioPinocchio’s long nose and his predilection for lying are not at all highlighted in Collodi’s original episodic tale. Pinocchio does have a long nose, but he is made with a long nose, born with a long nose. The emphasis that we remember so well from Disney’s version of the drastically growing nose is not there, nor is there much emphasis on the fact that Pinocchio lies. He does all sorts of things, but they are seen as typical children’s pecadillos: he loafs, he’s disobedient, he skips school.

A significant addition to the book’s second half is the figure of the Blue Fairy, a civilizing female influence on the unruly puppet who had, until her appearance, lived in an entirely masculine world. The puppet’s “birth” is accomplished without any maternal involvement, but his “rebirth” as a real boy takes place under the sign of the mother, as if Collodi somehow realized that a motherless creation is inevitably monstrous (à la Frankenstein) and doomed to exclusion from the human family. The Blue Fairy is an extremely interesting character, moving from a little girl who is dying to a grown-up who appears at times to be a sister, a love interest, and a mother. She is a complicated figure: she’s mean to Pinocchio, she punishes Pinocchio, and of course she disappears at story’s end. She has a role, a function, but she doesn’t stay. There is no push for a happy family ending. Some Italian critics, however, have found a family of sorts in Pinocchio, reading the book as a Christological allegory: the Blue Fairy is a Virgin Mary, since blue is the Virgin’s iconographic color; Geppetto is the nickname for Giuseppe, or Joseph; and the little puppet, the son of a carpenter, must die in order to be reborn as a transfigured being.

The Blue Fairy is not the only disquieting figure. Pinocchio himself (itself?) is mysterious from the word go. He is in a piece of wood. He is not carved into a puppet who then begins to talk. The piece of wood talks, before it has taken on form, an event that links the tale with various traditions of myth, especially Celtic myth—of talking trees, of creatures that hide in material, waiting to emerge magically. In fact Pinocchio has a failed father, the man who first decides to carve the mysterious piece of wood. However, he wanted to carve it into a table leg. This pragmatic carver is nicknamed Ciliegia, or Cherry, because he has a very big red nose—he’s a drinker. (Collodi’s interest in the nose as a sign of character is apparent: in A Novel in Steam, he was already meditating on the nose: “I would rather like it if physiologists could tell me which sympathetic nerves exist between the heart and the nose and how it comes to pass that the seat of affections and passions finds itself in direct correspondence with that fleshy protuberance, of infinitely variable form and size, which divides the surface of the human face into two more or less equal sections!” Clearly, Collodi had a fascination with the nose—a fascination that has given Freudian critics great delight.)

Cherry, however, is unsuccessful in his carving because the little piece of wood begins to cry out, “Don’t hit me so hard! Stop! You’re tickling my belly!” Frightened, Cherry decides to give it to his friend Geppetto, who decides that he will make a puppet. However, his reason for making a puppet is not Disney’s reason. He doesn’t want a little son figure. He wants the puppet to earn his living. Geppetto’s primary problem is poverty, dire poverty. He says, “I will make a puppet who can dance, and fence, and make daredevil leaps, and then we shall travel the world, seeking our wine and bread.” He names his little puppet “Pinocchio”—a Tuscan variant on pignolo, or pinenut. Within the name itself is the message that food is extremely important in this peasant world. In fact the theme of hunger and of looking for something to eat dominates Pinocchio. It’s a book about a poverty-stricken, peasant rural class, looking for food, looking for sustenance.

There are many eerie elements in Collodi’s book: Gothic night scenes, Pinocchio’s hanging; funereal images surrounding the dying little girl with blue hair. However, Pinocchio never becomes a truly scary Gothic tale simply because of its lively narrative tone, a grandfatherly, vernacular Tuscan that carries Pinocchio ever onward through his varied adventures. Combined with the ancient, recognizable themes of Pinocchio’s journeys—initiation into maturity, the overcoming of hardships, and the search for a mother’s love—the result is a book with mainstream appeal.

Over the past half century Pinocchio’s narrative verve and its darker, more transgressive qualities have appealed to numerous contemporary writers. Unfortunately most of the works by Italian authors have not been translated in this country. But readers may be familiar with Italo Calvino’s first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The path to the nest of spiders, 1947), the story of a little boy’s view of the Italian resistance. The protagonist’s name is Pin—obviously, a shortened form of Pinocchio, and the novel is structured very much like The Adventures of Pinocchio. In fact Calvino has said that Pinocchio is one of his all-time favorite books; by that, he doesn’t mean children’s books, he means all books.

A wonderful little volume called Povero Pinocchio! (Poor Pinocchio!) is made up of linguistic games that Umberto Eco created for his students at the University of Bologna. One game, “Poor Pinocchio!” was to rewrite an episode from the tale using only words that began with the letter P. Eco’s goal was to improve his students’ vocabulary: to do the assignment obviously requires using a dictionary. But he loved the results so much that he took all of the student pieces and put them together into a complete Pinocchio. Here are the story’s final lines in English: “Paradoxical! Possible? Puppet, primate? Proteoform pest, perennial Peter Pan, proverbial parable practically psychoanalytical!”

Another variation on the Pinocchio theme comes from the American writer Robert Coover, AM’65. In 1991 Coover—a postmodern, experimental prose writer who teaches at Brown University—published a novel called Pinocchio in Venice. In it Pinocchio is a very old emeritus professor at an American university, going back to Venice to complete his magnum opus, a tribute to the Blue Fairy entitled Mamma. There he gets into every single fix that he got into as a puppet, as a boy, as he slowly disintegrates into sawdust. Coover’s Blue Fairy is as protean as Collodi’s original. She appears as a gum-chewing, big-breasted, bubble-headed college student named Bluebell who wears blue angora sweaters, as the classic Blue Fairy, and as a true, physical monster. It’s only at the very end of the book that she, in all of her guises, and Pinocchio are reunited, as he finally understands their bond as monsters, excluded from full human existence—he as a piece of wood at heart, she as the lack that women have represented through the ages.

IMAGE:  The Real Life Adventures of PinocchioMany filmmakers have wanted to bring Collodi’s tale to the screen, including Federico Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola. Neither ever did, although Fellini’s final film, La voce della luna (The voice of the moon), starring Roberto Benigni, has overt allusions to the puppet’s story. However, hundreds of film and television versions have been made in every culture imaginable: Italian, French, Russian, German, Japanese, African, and so on. Even Japanese anime cartoons owe a partial debt to Pinocchio: the popular character  AstroBoy is based on the puppet. The latest cinematic reincarnation has already occurred in Italy and will occur in the U.S. on Christmas Day: the premiere of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Benigni, the comic actor who wrote and directed Life is Beautiful (1997), is a native Tuscan who has been working on his film version for years; in fact, he says he has been preparing to do such a film all his life.

Although it opened in Italy to mixed reviews, one effect of its opening has been a frenzy of Pinocchio presence. A recent article in the New York Times reported that Rome has been overrun by Pinocchio—everywhere you look, every toy store, every department store, has Pinocchio statues, posters, and books. A young woman has written her feminine version, Pinocchia; there’s also been a theatrical presentation called Pinocchia. Political parties are even using the omnipresent puppet. The National Alliance, Italy’s rightist party, has plastered posters all over Rome with a picture of Pinocchio and accusing the left party of lying. So, great film or not, Benigni’s offering has stimulated once more the great interest in Pinocchio.

Like Roberto Benigni’s film, Walt Disney’s animated version of Collodi’s tale received mixed reviews. But it was universally hailed as being amazing in its technical innovation. Film critic Roger Ebert, X’70, has described several groundbreaking techniques in Pinocchio, including breaking the frame, by means of which it is implied that there is a world outside the screen. This common technique of live-action film had never been done in animation until Disney. One scene in which you see this very clearly is when the whale is sneezing out Pinocchio and Geppetto. All we see are Pinocchio and Geppetto being sneezed out and then sucked back, sneezed out and sucked back. But there is the palpable sense that the monstrous creature is right at the edge of the frame, just beyond our sight. Another innovation that Ebert notes is the use of the “multiplane camera,” a Disney invention that allowed drawings in three dimensions. The camera seems to pass through foreground drawings on its way into the frame, creating a sense of depth. This technique is seen in the opening aerial shot of Pinocchio’s village, passing through several levels of drawings, taking us deeper into the village, until we arrive at the closeup of the interior of Geppetto’s cottage.

Disney’s work is an odd and sometimes disturbing combination of American and European elements. The character of Jiminy Cricket, a kind of insect Will Rogers, is perhaps the most important American note. But the settings are very European, although they look more like a Bavarian village than an Italian village, and many of the characters are Old World, Commedia dell’Arte types. One of the most disturbing Old World characterizations is that of the greedy puppetmaster Stromboli. In the book he is simply a gruff Italian man. But in the Disney film, he is clearly a Jewish gypsy. His accent is Italian, but from an anti-Semitic perspective, Stromboli’s gross facial features and his long black beard are recognizably Jewish, as is his tremendous love for money. It has been suggested that Stromboli is “a burlesque of a Hollywood boss,” that Disney hated a lot of the Hollywood establishment. Although some of Disney’s closest colleagues were Jewish and insisted that they were unaware of any prejudice on his part, Stromboli does disturb a viewer today, for it is impossible to ignore the anti-Semitic implications of his characterization. And it is all the more disturbing when one thinks of the period in which the film was made.

The Blue Fairy is also disturbing or “queasy making,” though much less deeply so. The complexity of the book’s character is gone. Disney’s Blue Fairy is a bimbo, something like a 1930s starlet. There’s nothing mysterious—or maternal—about her. She flits in and out of the film and mouths a lot of simplistic, moralistic stuff, but she has no real function. Her single goal is to get Pinocchio to be a good, obedient boy, back in the warm protection of Geppetto’s fatherly space where mothers are simply not needed.

It is nonetheless a great movie, wonderful to watch, and it is a film with an allegory of itself imbedded in it: it is an animated film in which the main character is precisely a nonhuman who is animated, thus becoming a simulated “human.” There are several scenes in Geppetto’s workshop in which the little wooden toys that he has made—the clock, the toys, the moveable puppets—are all turned on. In this pre-film world, little carved mechanical figures are made to move just as drawn figures will be made to move on the screen. To me this is a symbol of the tremendous love for animation that went into the film, a collective effort when the world of animation was just opening up. In these scenes without any narrative function, Disney and his team of artists were revealing something of the fascination that animation exercises perhaps as much on its creators as on those who enjoy the fruits of their labors.

However, there is a dark side to this urge to create life (even if only simulated life). While Geppetto is the version in bono of the artist as benevolent God, delighting in his “son,” Stromboli is the version in malo, the evil puppetmaster God who creates the illusion of life for personal gain and glory. The ancient theme of the dangers of hubristic creativity hovers around this film, but there is also the sheer joy of creation that seeks to animate lifeless things and to endow all objects and animals with such “human” qualities as the capacity to love and to live with conscious pleasure and direction.

IMAGE:  The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio

The fascinating question of what constitutes the boundary between humans and non- or post-humans informs Spielberg’s recent film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. In addition to the film’s explicit references to the tale of Pinocchio—the human mother reads the puppet’s story to her robot or “mecha” son, who then decides he wants to be human and, upon his expulsion from the home, he has a series of Pinocchio-like negative adventures as he searches for the Blue Fairy—it is possible to see the film, like Disney’s Pinocchio, as a self-allegorical work. In Collodi’s tale, in Disney’s film, and in A.I. the puppet (or robot) is created by Godlike fathers as a child figure to serve the needs, material or emotional, of the parent. Collodi’s Geppetto wants his puppet to help him make a living, Disney’s Geppetto wants his puppet to give him companionship and love, and Spielberg’s mecha, David, is created specifically and uniquely in order to love his human parents unconditionally. Geppetto is a craftsman, while the mecha’s creator, Dr. Hobby, is a scientist. Nonetheless, they are, artists or scientists, all figures of the male creator who appropriates the procreativity of the maternal realm, as they singlehandedly “give birth to” their “sons,” effectively excluding women from their worlds except in highly idealized and symbolic roles. In A.I. when an associate of the apparently benign designer of mechas makes what critic J. Hoberman calls “an obscure moral objection” to Hobby’s creation of “a robot child with a love that will never end,” Hobby’s reply is, “Didn’t God create Adam to love him?” Hoberman comments, “Yes, of course, and look what happened to him.” In fact, the mecha David is also expelled from Eden and futilely looks for the fictional Blue Fairy to make him a “real boy” so that his mother will want him back.

Such elements make the story of Pinocchio much more than a simplistic lesson in the importance of obedience and conformity. Human creativity, whether an art, a craft, or a technology, can yield astounding results, but the power to bring into being real or simulated versions of ourselves is fraught with dangers, not the least of which is the illusion of total control over the creatures we make. The anomalous, the abject, or the sheer excess of individual desire—all historically associated with the feminine sphere—cannot be tamed or repressed merely by admonishments to conform to the Law of the Father, to be “good little boys.” So, happily, Pinocchio goes on fleeing his destiny as a “good boy like all the others,” until, sadly, that destiny catches up with him. Collodi enlisted the aid of the feminine in the taming of the puppet, but it is worth remembering that, at the end of the tale, the Blue Fairy only appears in a dream to Pinocchio, as the perfect mother he would wish her to be. What or who in fact she may truly be or truly desire is known only to her. Similarly, the mecha David is “reunited” briefly with the mother of his dreams at the end of A.I., but neither she nor he is real, and their “perfect day” of mother-son bonding is disturbingly hollow. Pinocchio’s and David’s “dreams come true,” as Disney’s Jiminy Cricket so movingly sings, but at what price?  Who put these dreams of perfect goodness and filial bonding into their heads? In reality, boys’ dreams of idealized mother-figures might be comforting to them, but the dreams of their fathers or father-figures who are avid for total control of their sons can be, if realized, our worst nightmares come to life.

Rebecca West, professor in Romance languages & literatures and cinema/media studies, is also director of the University’s Center for Gender Studies and the author of Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge (Harvard University Press, 1981) and Gianni Celati: The Craft of Everyday Storytelling (University of Toronto Press, 2000). This article is adapted from her 2002 Humanities Open House talk, “The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio’s Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film.” The items used as illustrations are from her collection.



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