Pinocchio as a Comedy and a Tragedy: Is It Appropriate for Children Today?

Today’s entry continues our series of guest posts from students in Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” course. In this edition, Catherine Woodcock considers a familiar question in light of an old classic: Is Pinocchio appropriate for today’s children?

By Catherine Woodcock

Ann Lawson Lucas, the translator and author of the introduction and notes in The Adventures of Pinocchio, described the essence of the novel perfectly when she aptly stated, “In Pinocchio, the emphasis is on comedy, yet tragedy is present to a significant degree.  These adventures entail danger, fear, loss and grief, and there is a great deal of death in the book.  …Pinocchio is about growing up.” (Pgs. xli-xlii)  I wholeheartedly agree with this assertion and this summation of the story Carlo Collodi weaved about the misadventures and life lessons of this little wooden boy, Pinocchio deals with very adult issues that are not sugar-coated nor masked, though they are occasionally softened by the silliness of talking animals or growing noses.  When attempting to discern the appropriate age this text should be recommended for it is extremely difficult because even though the problems the novel addresses and the plot twists it takes can very justly be considered ‘adult’, they are also arguably a fundamental part of growing up and learning how to, through literature, deal with problems and plot twists of life – something that I believe is essential for young readers.

Pinocchio kills a talking cricket who comes to haunt him as a ghost, he finds a fellow child when he is lost in the woods who claims she is dead, he suffers starvation, imprisonment, and being hung, he discovers the tombstone of his closest friend, he is blamed for the murder of a fellow school mate, Pinocchio is almost eaten, he witnesses his father’s drowning, sees his best friend-turned-donkey labored to death, and he has to work extremely hard to financially support his ill father as well as the gravely ill fairy/mother figure he has come to love.  This is more than one person should or could even bear in a lifetime yet Pinocchio endures all of this in just a few short years.  As we follow and suffer with him the many misfortunes and tragedies Pinocchio experiences there are times that even I thought, this is too much, too far, and not for kids, but yet, simultaneously I understood the lessons Collodi was trying to impart upon the intended readers and I also acknowledge how very valuable it is to learn, through our little wooden puppet, how to deal with life and death, to learn that lying leads to trouble, and “those children who rebel against their parents…will never do well in this world, and sooner or later they will bitterly regret what they did.” (Pg. 12)

Ann Lawson Lucas helped to bridge the gap that history has made between the reading of this book by children in 1883 and today, and the different life experiences that shaped and influenced the novel Collodi has written.  She says,

“A century ago death was a commonplace of every day life, Collodi had ample experience of it himself, especially among his siblings and through the early death of his father.  Perhaps the deaths and griefs in Pinocchio were a way of confronting children’s worst fears.  Although shocking and unpalatable to modern taste, they have an important function in the balance of the narrative: the joy is more joyous because of the survival through the experience of sorrow, and conversely the story is constantly pulled back from frivolity by the depth of serious emotion evoked.” (Pg. xlii)

I agree, though the story is fantastical and fraught with silliness and surprising circumstances, it addresses very real issues, issues that may not be as present in the life of children today, but regardless, everyone in their lifetime will experience death, every child will be tempted by their own version of the “Land of Toys”, every child will tell a lie or misbehave, and they will witness or endure poverty.  Though the delivery of these life lessons and experiences by Collodi may not be as softened, or palatable, as readers might expect or be accustomed to today, many of the themes and teachings in The Adventures of Pinnochio still endure in contemporary culture.  The website GoodReads, a place for book sharing, reviewing, and recommending, rated Pinnochio for those ages five and up and though I can’t see many parent wanting their five year old to read, “They strung him up to dangle from the branch of a big tree…He had no breath left to say anything else.  He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, straightened his legs and, giving a great shudder, hung there as if frozen stiff, “ right before bed I still would agree with this rating. (Pg. 48)  Pinocchio is unapologetically a story that is both comedy and tragedy, it is, as Glauco Cambon described it in Pinocchio and the Problem of Children’s Literature, a book that “has to do with the education of a child, both through the traditional humanist instrument of classroom and books and through the school of hard knocks.” (Cambon, Pg. 54)  In short, Pinocchio is about growing up, which all children have to do one day.

Catherine is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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