Today, many people have the illusion that they know who Pinocchio is. They think that he is a wooden marionette who becomes a human boy; that he was swallowed by a huge fish; and that when he told lies his nose grew longer. (As a result of this last incident, for over a hundred years politicians have been caricatured with a lengthened nose when they prevaricate in public—most of all Richard Nixon, who already had a kind of Pinocchio nose.)

These people are right, but often in a very limited way. They know Pinocchio only from the sentimentalized and simplified Disney cartoon, or the condensed versions of his story that are thought more suitable for children. The original novel by Carlo Collodi, which today survives mainly in scholarly editions, is much longer, far more complex and interesting, and also much darker. The critic Glauco Cambon has called it one of the three most influential works in Italian literature (the others, he claims, are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Manzoni’s The Betrothed). For him, and those who know the real version, The Adventures of Pinocchio is not an amusing, light-hearted fantasy, but a serious fable about art and life. It is a story about growing up—and it is also, in essential ways, a story about growing up poor and Italian.

Carlo Collodi, whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini, was born in Florence in 1826, the first of ten children of household servants. When he did well in the local school, his parents’ employer paid for his further education in the hope that he would become a priest. This did not happen. Instead, after graduation Lorenzini went to work for a bookseller, and eventually became a liberal journalist, skeptical of both education and the Church. In Pinocchio school is something that all boys dread, and religion is hardly mentioned.

Originally, Pinocchio was published as a serial in the newspaper Il giornale per i bambini (“The Paper for Children”). It appeared in eight parts between July and October of 1881, and then in eleven more installments from February 1882 to January 1883. The form of the story was that of a picaresque novel, in which, perhaps because of the pressures of time, some of the chapters are more original and better integrated into the whole. Some of these episodes—for example those in which Pinocchio meets a giant serpent, is caught in a trap and made to serve as a watchdog, rides on the back of a pigeon, and is mistaken for a fish by a monstrous green-haired fisherman—are often left out of the condensed English-language versions.

The Disney film omits even more of the story, and changes it drastically. Geppetto, Pinocchio’s foster father, appears to be a prosperous toymaker, and the town where he lives looks Swiss or Bavarian: his workshop is full of music boxes and cuckoo clocks. In the original story, however, Geppetto is a desperately poor Italian woodcarver. When the film begins Pinocchio is a lifeless wooden toy; he comes to life only when a fairy grants Geppetto’s wish for a child. In the book Pinocchio is alive from the start. Though he is only a nameless stick of firewood in the shop of the carpenter Master Anthony, he can already speak and move. When Master Anthony strikes the stick with his axe, it cries out “Ouch! You hurt me!” The carpenter is terrified, and offers the piece of wood to his friend Geppetto, who wants to make a marionette. It continues to act up, mocking Geppetto, and striking Master Anthony, provoking two fistfights between the old friends.

When Geppetto gets home he begins to carve the marionette. But as soon as Pinocchio’s mouth is finished he laughs at Geppetto and sticks out his tongue, and once he has arms he snatches Geppetto’s wig off his head. When his legs and feet are finished, he runs away.

From the start, Collodi’s Pinocchio is not only more self-conscious but far less simple than the cute little toy boy of the cartoon. He is not only naive, but impulsive, rude, selfish, and violent. In theological terms, he begins life in a state of original sin; while from a psychologist’s point of view, he represents the amoral, self-centered small child, all uncensored id.

Unable to control his own impulses, Pinocchio provokes external control. As he runs down the street, pursued by Geppetto, he is stopped by a policeman who returns him to his foster father. Immediately, in a maneuver that will be familiar to many parents of small children, Pinocchio flings himself on the ground and declares that he won’t walk anymore. A crowd gathers and (like some modern experts on child development) begins to blame Geppetto for Pinocchio’s delinquency. Eventually they convince the policeman to put Geppetto in prison. In Collodi’s world, the law is always stupid and often corrupt. It is usually the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator, who is punished. (Later in the story, when Pinocchio goes to court to complain that he has been robbed, the judge, who is a gorilla, sends him rather than the robbers to jail. He is released only when he falsely admits that he is a criminal.)


Once he is free again Pinocchio returns home, where he meets what many readers have recognized as his conscience, or external superego, in the form of a Talking Cricket. The Cricket scolds Pinocchio for running away, and warns him about the dangers of idleness: if he doesn’t go to school, he will grow up to be a perfect jackass. But Pinocchio refuses to listen. The only trade in the world that will suit him, he says, is that of “eating, drinking, sleeping, having fun, and living the life of a vagabond from morning to night.”1 When the Cricket remarks that “everyone who follows that trade is bound to end up in the poorhouse or in prison,” Pinocchio becomes angry and throws a wooden mallet at the Cricket, killing it. It will appear in the story again, however, first as a mysterious black-clad doctor and finally as a ghost.

Pinocchio’s external conscience also appears in the Disney cartoon, but there he has been turned into a comic figure, and rechristened “Jiminy Cricket” (the phrase is, very aptly, an old-fashioned American euphemism for Jesus Christ). Jiminy Cricket wears the top hat and tails of a vaudeville performer, he sings and dances, and most of the time his admonitions are amusing but ineffective. Pinocchio only half listens to him, but does him no harm.

Disney’s Pinocchio is shown as about five or six years old, and throughout the story he remains innocent and simple, like the ideal child of Romantic literature. He is without rudeness or malice: what gets him into trouble is curiosity and boredom. Collodi’s hero is clearly several years older, and full of aggressive and rebellious impulses, which are only tamed at the end of the story. Here he recalls a classic character in American children’s fiction of the late nineteenth century, the Good Bad Boy. This figure made his first important appearance in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy (1869). Aldrich’s hero, who was based on his own childhood self, is bad only in contrast to his priggish schoolmates, who lack a sense of enterprise and fun. He and his friends skip school and have adventures, but they do not go very far. The book became very popular, and many imitations followed, the most famous of which was Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

Whether or not Collodi read Tom Sawyer (first published in 1876), there are similarities between the stories. In both books the hero has exciting adventures, learns from his mistakes, and makes his peace with society at the end of the book. Like Pinocchio (and unlike Aldrich’s original Bad Boy), Tom is seriously delinquent. He lies, steals, smokes, skips school, causes an uproar in church, runs away from his adult guardian, and associates with dubious companions. He loves freedom and pleasure and craves adventure. He is impulsive, thoughtless, and mischievous. At the same time Tom, like Pinocchio, is basically good at heart. He learns from his mistakes, and at the end of the book he is forgiven and reconciled with his family and society.

Pinocchio, with his energy and impudence, his scorn for established institutions, and his underlying goodness, is in many ways an Italian cousin of Tom Sawyer. Like Tom, he is a Bad Boy who eventually becomes a good citizen. But Pinocchio’s world is much bleaker than Tom’s. Tom’s Aunt Polly is by no means rich, but she owns a house with a garden. Pinocchio’s foster father, Geppetto, is seriously poor. He lives in a small dark room under the front steps of a building, and must worry constantly about where his next meal is coming from.

Collodi’s world is far more dangerous than Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri: full of angry, deceptive people who want to exploit and rob and even kill you. When Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn run away from home they meet both good and bad characters; Pinocchio, though he is helped by a bird and a fish, meets only hostile humans. And for him even the animal kingdom is dangerous. His most important opponents are animals, two of whom also have parallels in Twain’s work. These are the Fox and the Cat, shabby but pretentious con men very reminiscent of the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn (1884). (Since Pinocchio was not translated into English until 1892, it seems likely that this is just an instance of types familiar since Aesop’s Fables reappearing in fiction.) In both books the con men come to a bad end, but whereas Huck feels pity for them, Pinocchio merely passes by in silence. In this, the story is closer to the pattern of the classic European folk tale, in which the villains seldom reform and do not need to be forgiven.


At one point in Tom Sawyer Tom runs away from home to Jackson’s Island in the Mississippi, where he and his friends can enjoy themselves without interference from adults. They are away only a few days, however, and when they become homesick and return to Hannibal, they are greeted as heroes. The lesson seems to be that you can skip school, worry and frighten your relatives, and get away with it.

Pinocchio also travels with other boys to a kind of children’s paradise called Funland, where there is no school and “the days go by in play and good times from morning till night.” But his holiday lasts far longer than Tom’s. He lives in Funland for five months without tiring of it or missing Geppetto. Then, as the Talking Cricket has predicted, he and his best friend Lampwick turn into jackasses. They, like all their comrades, are then sold at fairs and markets by the wicked wagon-driver who has lured them to Funland in order to make a profit on their inevitable transformation. Pinocchio goes to a circus, where he is forced to perform tricks, and is beaten and starved; when he becomes lame, he is sold to a dealer in hides who tries to drown him.

These events are both a metaphor and a warning, one that Collodi reinforces by remarking that “by virtue of playing all the time and never studying, those poor gullible boys turned into so many donkeys.” The moral (as true today as it was in Collodi’s time) is that poor boys who quit school and hang about doing nothing and enjoying themselves are apt to end up as exploited and overworked laborers—or possibly dead.

Pinocchio’s metamorphoses are frightening but thematically interesting. During the book he moves from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, rising gradually within each class. His name, which in Tuscany at the time meant “pine nut” or “pine seed”—the contemporary term is pignola—associates him with a plant. He begins life as a featureless stick of firewood (possibly pine wood) which is then transformed into a wooden puppet. Next he moves through animal identities (watchdog and donkey), and finally achieves full human status. Metaphorically, it is the same progression that we see in children, who start out as more or less inert matter, then become ignorant if lovable bundles of need and greed, with short attention spans and a wish to explore the world without regard for its dangers. Later, like animals, they resist confinement, live in the present, and continually seek food and amusement.

Apart from this possible parallel, why did Collodi choose a puppet for his hero instead of just a naughty boy?2 Possibly because in the theater what scholars call “performing objects”—puppets, marionettes, automatons, shadow figures, animated props—have advantages denied to human actors. Actors are never the same as the parts they play, and however skilled they may be we are always aware of the real person beneath the disguise. Puppets, on the other hand, can appear as pure representations of some individual type or character. (For this reason, the British stage designer Gordon Craig once expressed the hope that in the future all actors would be replaced by puppets.)


Pinocchio has sometimes been seen, especially by readers who think first of the Disney version, as a classic fairy tale. If so, it is a tale of a special type. In most fairy stories with a male protagonist, the young hero leaves his original family, has adventures, and ends up marrying a princess and starting a new family. Folklorists refer to such tales as Stories of Adolescence. Pinocchio, by contrast, is what they have called a Story of Childhood, like “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Hansel and Gretel.” Here the hero does not start a new family; instead he ends up back home with a beloved and loving parent. The same pattern occurs in the second most famous Italian children’s classic, Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, where the central relationship is also between a father and a son, and one important motive behind King Leander’s invasion is to find his lost son Tony. (Interestingly, when Tony is discovered, he is working for humans as an entertainer—a kind of puppet.)

In many folk tales, the young hero or heroine is aided by a supernatural figure: a dwarf, a talking animal, a wise woman, or a fairy godmother. In Pinocchio this role is played by the Blue Fairy, whose most distinctive feature is the color of her hair. Blue or green hair is a traditional attribute of supernatural beings; sometimes good or neutral, like the Green Man and Green Children of British folklore, and at other times evil like Bluebeard. In Pinocchio the Blue Fairy appears in many guises. At first she is a white-faced little girl who declares that she is dead, but soon proves able to save Pinocchio from near death, summoning three doctors to cure him. When they part she claims to be his older sister. Later in the story she appears as a young working woman who takes Pinocchio home, feeds him, and declares that she will be his Mama. Next he sees her as a little she-goat with indigo hair; finally she appears in a dream as a beautiful fairy who changes him into a real boy.3

Collodi, however, seems to deny the idea that Pinocchio is a romantic fairy tale at the very start of his book:

Once upon a time, there was…

“A king!” my little readers will say right away. No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was 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….

In other words, his story will be grounded not in a world of high-flown fantasy but in the harsh economic realities of working-class life in Italy in the late nineteenth century. It is a place of constant, grinding poverty, eased only by love and self-sacrifice. Pinocchio begins life as a rebellious, inconsiderate, self-centered little boy who disobeys adults and disregards rules, always with dangerous results. Instead of going to school, for instance, he sells the schoolbook Geppetto has bought him and buys a ticket to the puppet theater. There he is entrapped by the terrifying Puppet-Master and nearly burned alive on a kitchen fire.

Willingness to work and sacrifice himself for others is Pinocchio’s eventual salvation. At the theater he escapes death when he impulsively offers himself as a substitute for another doomed puppet, briefly touching the Puppet-Master’s heart. His final transformation is the result of his agreeing to work long hours at an exhausting job to earn money for his ailing foster father, Geppetto, and his supernatural mother, the Blue Fairy.

In the Disney film it is inexperience and bad advice rather than selfishness and disobedience that get Pinocchio into trouble. He is led to the puppet theater by two villains, the Cat and the Fox, who—in a very Hollywood touch—promise him fame and money in a song whose refrain is “It’s great to be a celebrity.” (Of course, in Disney’s hands Pinocchio did become a kind of celebrity.) He also, in the film version, becomes prosperous. In the original novel he merely manages, through hard work, to support his foster father—though, in the end, the Blue Fairy does transform their shabby room into a comfortable cottage and give him forty golden coins. But the important thing is that he becomes “a proper boy,” un ragazzino per bene, which in Italian, as the critic Ann Lawson Lucas points out, has a double meaning: Pinocchio is now both a real boy and a good boy.4

Will Pinocchio remain a good boy? And, if he does, will readers continue to care about him? The book is thirty-six chapters long, and only in the last two does he consistently behave well. Delinquency and rebellion are more interesting and more fun to read about than moral perfection. As the critic Lois Kunetz says, “Pinocchio is loved the better for his misdemeanors.” In this, he may remind us of other Good Bad Boy heroes, both in fiction and in real life. It is perhaps an especially popular type in Italy, where the grown man with a warm heart, a love of escapades, and an impatience with social rules and restrictions is often seen as charming and seductive. If someone like this appears truly (though sometimes only temporarily) sorry for his transgressions, he may be forgiven again and again by his friends and relatives, as repentant sinners are by the Catholic Church.

Pinocchio is an Italian story in several other ways. It is full of Northern Italian landscapes and Italian dishes, such as the red mullet with tomato sauce and tripe à la Parmesan that the Fox and the Cat dine on at the hero’s expense. It also embodies the traditional Italian belief that the family is of central importance. You can have a good time with your friends, but you can only truly trust your kin. Good parents will sacrifice themselves for their children without a murmur, as Geppetto does when there is nothing to eat in the house but three pears, and he allows Pinocchio thoughtlessly and greedily to devour them all. (This episode, like others, was eliminated from the Disney film.) Good children will also sacrifice themselves for their parents, as Pinocchio does when he and his father, like Jonah in the Bible, escape from the belly of the Great Shark, and he carries Geppetto out of the sea on his back.

Some critics have noted other parallels between Pinocchio and Christian legend. They have remarked that the hero is the foster son of a carpenter named Giovanni (the Italian version of Joseph) and that he dies and is resurrected at least three times. (In one of these deaths, he is hung on a tree.) They have also suggested that the Blue Fairy is a version of the Virgin, who in art often wears a blue robe—though Mary’s robe is usually sky-blue, while Collodi always describes the Fairy’s hair as indigo.

To some readers, Pinocchio is a sacrificial victim; others have seen him as a hero of the rebellious working class, whose escapades defy social rules. Psychologists have seen his escape from the Great Shark as a kind of rebirth, and suggested that his expanding nose tells us that lies are virile. Like most great works of children’s literature, Pinocchio lends itself to many and varied interpretations, and will surely continue to do so in the future.

This Issue

June 24, 2004