The Transformations of Pinocchio (2023)

That, the earliest fans of the stories must have thought, was the end of Pinocchio.

It wasn’t. A great deal of nineteenth-century fiction was published serially, in magazines and newspapers. This was especially common with what, today, we would call popular novels, about who would marry whom or murder whom, and also with children’s literature. Such subcategories were products of the great nineteenth-century boom in literacy, and like many new things they were treated more lightly than old things were.

An interesting corollary of serial publication was that it occasionally gave readers a say in how the narrative would develop. A famous example is that of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle, the first of which appeared in 1887. Once the stories started running in The Strand magazine, in 1891, they became so popular that Conan Doyle had difficulty keeping up with the public demand. As a result, he became very rich, and very sick of Sherlock Holmes. In 1893, after six years on this project, he set out to eliminate his celebrated detective by having him fall into the thundering Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland, in a death struggle with the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. This might have seemed a good ending for the series (Moriarty perished, too), but that was not the view of the English reading public. Twenty thousand people cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand in protest. Conan Doyle, no doubt flattered but also annoyed, resisted the pressure for a decade and then gave in. Papering over Holmes’s supposed death, Conan Doyle had the detective reveal that he had hidden on a ledge in order to fake his own death and evade his enemies, thus allowing the series to resume.

Much the same thing, on a smaller scale, happened with Carlo Collodi. The Pinocchio stories were an immediate hit, but then Collodi got tired of doing them and decided to kill his hero off. In the Giornale’s printing of the hanging passage quoted above, the phrase “almost at death’s door” does not appear. “Almost at death’s door,” which was added for the book version, means not quite yet at death’s door. Clearly, Collodi, moved by the reactions of outraged readers and also, perhaps, by a need for money, decided to re-start the serial. Like Sherlock Holmes’s convenient ledge, this phrase enabled the author to continue the story he thought he had got rid of. Pinocchio refused to die, and that is how we ended up with the story we have today.

Under the circumstances, it is tempting to assume that Part 2 of “Pinocchio” is a reversal, a correction, of Part1. The ending of Part 2, which shows us Pinocchio as a well-dressed and rather arch young man—no longer a puppet—makes us even more likely to tell ourselves that that’s what the book’s second half is about. It’s not, though, or not until close to the end. Most of Part2, like Part 1, is a pretty rough-and-tumble affair, and that truculence is probably what children, and their parents, liked so much in “Pinocchio.” It was part of their inheritance from the commedia dell’arte and from the puppet shows, descendants of the commedia, that in late-nineteenth-century Italy still travelled from town to town. It is just such a show, with puppets trading insults and clobbering one another over the head, that Pinocchio is enthralled by early on in the story.

Scenes of cheerful brutality were familiar to Collodi and his contemporaries also from other nineteenth-century children’s literature: illustrated stories, sometimes newspaper cartoons, in which badly behaved children had popguns rammed down their throats (we see the blood, the broken teeth) or were thrown down the chimney into a bubbling soup pot. If they sucked their thumbs, their thumbs were cut off. (Wilhelm Busch’s “Max and Moritz,” first put between covers in 1865, is probably the best-known example.)

“Here’s an idea—paint about gathering.”

Cartoon by David Sipress

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In addition to the cartoonish violence, another quality that unites the two parts of “Pinocchio” is a long vein of sheer strangeness—alluring, bizarre, and often beautiful strangeness, like something out of Surrealist art. In Chapter 15, Pinocchio meets the Blue-Haired Fairy, who will become a sort of guardian angel to him. Running away from the Fox and the Cat, he spies a little cottage in the distance. Maybe, he thinks, someone in there could save him? He runs to the cottage and bangs on the door. No answer.

Then there came to the window a beautiful Little Girl with blue hair and a face as white as a wax image who, with eyes closed and hands crossed over her breast, without moving her lips at all, said in a voice that seemed to come from the world beyond:

“There is nobody in this house. They are all dead.”

“Well, then you at least open up for me!” cried Pinocchio, weeping and imploring.

“I am dead, too.”

“Dead? But then what are you doing there at the window?”

“I am waiting for the bier to come and take me away.”

As soon as she said this, the Little Girl disappeared, and the window closed again without making a sound.

After that, nothing in this book needs to go very far to seem strange, but things do go farther. The Little Girl starts to feel sorry for Pinocchio, and after seeing him hanged she dispatches her neighborhood falcon to sever the rope around his neck and bring him back to her house. There she installs him in a big fluffy bed and calls in three medical specialists: the Owl, the Raven, and the so-called Talking Cricket, who turns out to be the ghost of the cricket that Pinocchio murdered earlier. Each of them delivers a pompous speech diagnosing Pinocchio’s ailment, and each diagnosis differs from the others. Having done their duty, the doctors depart, whereupon the Fairy—it is roughly at this point that the Little Girl, without explanation, turns into a full-fledged fairy—mixes a medicine for Pinocchio. When he refuses to drink it, “the door of the room opened wide and in came four rabbits as black as ink, carrying a small coffin on their shoulders.” Is this the bier the Little Girl was waiting for, to remove her corpse and the other dead bodies she claimed were in her house? We never find out. All we are told is that Pinocchio, frightened out of his wits that he, too, may die and be carried off by the rabbit pallbearers, drinks down the Fairy’s potion and soon feels better.

One of the main dramas that occupy the second portion of the book is a trip to the Land of Toys, a place for boys who like to play children’s games—or, in the Disney movie, to smoke cigars and play pool—rather than go to school. Pinocchio is persuaded to go there with a bunch of local juvenile delinquents. He and his friend Lampwick throw themselves into the pleasures offered and, as a result, turn into donkeys. First, they feel something funny on their heads and find, with horror, that they have grown long, hairy asses’ ears. They try to laugh this off, but the laughter turns to braying. They run around on all fours and sprout hooves and a tail. Like Midas or Narcissus, the two boys have been transformed into an image of their moral lives.

Unbelievably, things get worse. The donkey Pinocchio, having been purchased by a man who is apparently a leather-goods merchant, is thrown into the ocean with a stone tied to his neck, so that he will drown and his hide alone can be harvested. But, as he is dumped into the sea, a school of fish, sent by the Blue-Haired Fairy, who can’t bear to see him suffer, attach themselves to his body and devour all his flesh—hide, tail, guts—slimming him down to the wooden puppet he once was. This is not the only horrible scene at the end of “Pinocchio,” but, brief and blunt, it is the most appalling. They are only a donkey and a school of fish, but it somehow feels like cannibalism.

All along, the story has been devolving in another sense. That is, it has been turning into a mess. Arguably, it has been doing so from the beginning. For instance, Pinocchio started off with a completely different wood-carver, Master Cherry, who botched the job and handed the log over to Geppetto. He then disappeared from the tale, never to be seen again. Other perplexities accumulate. We start hearing about people who need to be explained and aren’t. Things are supposed to happen, and then they don’t. Things are deplored, and we’re not told why. Pinocchio’s savior, the Blue-Haired Fairy, appears first as a little girl, at a window. Within a short time, she is a beautiful grownup fairy. Sometimes she’s dead, sometimes alive. At one point, she turns into a goat, but not for long.

But the most surprising inconsistency—many readers, I think, just try to forget about it—comes at the end. Here Pinocchio has at last, with the help of the Blue-Haired Fairy, become a “real boy,” the thing he is said to have wished for from the beginning. (In fact, we don’t hear about this wish until Chapter 25.) He looks at himself in the mirror: “He no longer saw the usual image of the wooden marionette reflected there; instead he saw the lively, intelligent image of a handsome boy with chestnut brown hair and light blue eyes, and with a festive air about him that made him seem as happy as a holiday.” Really? After having, shortly before, found himself, and Geppetto, in danger of being digested by a shark, in whose cold, slimy innards they were entrapped?

Many a chapter is only a few pages long, and whatever happens in it may well be forgotten by the next chapter. In one, Pinocchio encounters a slavering mastiff; in another, he is menaced by a snake; in another, he converses with a parrot sitting in a tree. Never mind. In a few pages, he/she/it will be gone, often never to be heard from again. That, not just the tale’s fidelity to national characteristics, is why “Pinocchio” is often compared to “Don Quixote.” It is a picaresque. It goes from episode to episode.

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