An odd choice for a book to read? Let’s find out.
The end of the 19th century was a curious time for European literature. As a sort of backslash against the harsh growing industrialism that consumed the forests and mechanized people’s lives, a romanticism sprang up that lead to old men writing fairy tales. Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde wrote their stories in England, Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid in Denmark, the Grimm brothers rediscovered the old tales of Germany, and in Italy Carlo Collodi wrote Pinocchio. Even though their stories often gave harsh criticism of the societies of their times, they packaged their tales as children’s literature to sort of get away with it.
Collodi wrote Pinocchio late in life, after a lifetime of fighting in war and brooding on black-and-white ideas of morality. He wrote a nasty little fairy tale. Collodi died not long afterwards, before the story really gained in popularity. Only via Disney’s adaptation in 1940 did it enter international consciousness.
As is so often the case with fairy tales and how we are familiar with them now, the original Pinocchio from 1883 is quite different from the Disney animation from 1940. Disney greatly edited and abridged the story and made it sweeter. We know Pinocchio as a naughty boy who occasionally tells lies, and his master Geppetto is a kindly old man. In the book though, Pinocchio is rather nasty and ugly, Geppetto is a hateful character and their relationship is a toxic codependency. And Jiminy Cricket is no more than a six-legged insect without a hat, who is actually murdered by Pinocchio in the first scene and henceforth only there as a ghost.
The story is a bit dark and nasty, but frequently also comical. A kind of typical Italian passion shines through in how the hot-tempered Pinocchio and Geppetto gesticulate at each other. It is also a bit bewildering when you are used to modern fantasy literature to read a fairy tale in which magic simply happens. Geppetto receives a piece of wood that is just alive, for one reason or another. No explanation, it is just alive, we move on. It’s a fairy tale, whatever.
The first edition was only a quarter of the length. Collodi ended the tale quickly by having Pinocchio hanged for his stupidity and die. It was supposed to be a harsh lesson about that children should listen to their teachers and if something bad happens, they only have themselves to blame. But the story was serialized in a paper and readers wanted more, so he extended the tale further.
The story is chopped up into 36 small chapters of only a few pages, and it is easy to read a few and put it away again. There isn’t much plot to it, besides Pinocchio getting into trouble because he never listens and doesn’t think ahead, and ends up sad. The moral is the same every time: be a good boy or you’ll get hurt. Sometimes I felt sad for Pinocchio because he can’t catch a break, but he just doesn’t learn. I wasn’t really pulled into the story though. The plot is mostly one thing after another and the moralizing was a bit tedious and on the harsh side.