Asked to name the two most important things about Pinocchio, most Americans would answer: First, his nose grows when he lies, and second, he is a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. At this, Carlo Collodi would most likely shake his head. The 19th-century Italian author, who wrote the book that inspired the Disney movie and countless other adaptations (including the live-action reboot released last week and another version from the director Guillermo del Toro coming out later this year), saw his character very differently.
A radical political commentator who turned to children’s literature late in life, Collodi wrote a complex, unsettling novel—miles away from the morality tale that Pinocchio’s story has become. Collodi’s is a multilayered work of fiction that, although primarily aimed at young readers, is imbued with social criticism and pessimistic humor, and can be read, among other things, as an irreverent attack on established authority.
What became The Adventures of Pinocchio really encompasses two novels. In Italy, a Catholic country, the joke is that Pinocchio is “two in one,” just as God is “three in one.” Pinocchio was first published as a short serial of 15 episodes, from July to October 1881. It was brutal and frightening. The Fox and the Cat aren’t tricksters, but assassins. The Blue Fairy isn’t a reassuring motherly figure, but a ghostly and possibly dead little girl who refuses to help Pinocchio, because she’s “waiting for my coffin to come take me away.” Pinocchio grows his nose, but just to annoy Geppetto, and kills the Cricket in a fit of rage. Also, no happy ending: The puppet ends up dead, hanged on an oak tree.
But, likely prompted by the popularity of the story, Collodi resumed the serial the next year. Pinocchio, it turns out, wasn’t really dead. The 21 episodes that followed, published from February 1882 to January 1883, introduced the elements that the modern public would recognize and that eventually became fodder for Walt Disney. The uncanny little girl—who, the reader assumes, wasn’t really dead either—becomes a fairy, disciplines Pinocchio by making his nose grow when he lies, and promises to turn the puppet into a real boy if he starts behaving (which, spoiler alert, he eventually does). But the author’s attitude toward this redemption is ambivalent: Collodi, and with him the reader, roots for Pinocchio because the puppet is a mischievous rule breaker, not in spite of it. As the scholar Caterina Sinibaldi puts it, the “pedagogical attitude” is “ambiguous.”
The Adventures of Pinocchio, which combined both novels, was published as a book in February 1883, with minor changes. Different in tone and plot, Pinocchio’s two parts share the same themes. Poverty dominates throughout the story and is often the subject of bitter humor. “What’s your father’s name?” a character asks Pinocchio. “Geppetto,” Pinocchio responds. “And what’s his job?” “Being poor.” “Does he make a lot of money doing it?” Haunted by a “hunger so real it could be cut with a knife,” Pinocchio is reduced at various points to eating fruit cores and performing strenuous labor for a meager glass of milk. Distrust of authority is central as well. Doctors are pompous incompetents. One is said to “solemnly” intone, “When the dead cry, it means they’re on the way to recovering.” The police? Always blaming the victim. The judiciary? Literally apes. At one point, Pinocchio gets thrown behind bars for getting robbed—“This poor devil has been robbed of four gold coins. Therefore seize him and put him straight in jail”—and needs to convince the guards that he is not an innocent victim (“but I’m a crook too”) in order to be set free.
There is also a palpable sense of disillusionment. As the translators John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna note in a recent critical edition published by Penguin, it’s no coincidence that the utterance “Pazienza!” occurs 15 times throughout the novel. Literally, it means “patience” and can be translated to the English phrases “oh well,” as Hooper and Kraczyna do, or “too bad”—although in Geoffrey Brock’s translation for The New York Review of Books, it sometimes becomes “don’t worry” or “oh all right.” It’s a quintessentially Italian admission of defeat, conveying frustration and acceptance in equal parts—an acknowledgment of one’s powerlessness that, as Hooper and Kraczyna note, “echoes centuries of unwilling yet unavoidable resignation.”
In other words, Pinocchio harbors a strain of systemic injustice and deep betrayal. That has a lot to do with the historical context in which it was written: two decades after Italy’s unification.
At the time, many of the intellectuals who had mobilized during the so-called Risorgimento—the decades-long process by which Italy became a nation, following a wave of failed revolutions and wars of independence—felt betrayed by the direction that the newly founded nation had taken. One of them was Collodi. Born Carlo Lorenzini in 1826, in what was then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (Collodi was a pen name, after the Tuscan village of his maternal family), he started editing a satirical newspaper, Il Lampione, in 1848. Soon, he garnered recognition as a voice of the most progressive side of the Risorgimento—one that hoped to build an egalitarian and democratic nation. As a political commentator, Collodi stood out for his republican stances: “Trusting in a king, we took up arms and lost; let’s take up arms again, trusting in the people, and we shall win.” He was also a wry aphorist: “The habit makes the person. Take black suits away, and you’ll no longer find a single serious man on the face of earth,” he once wrote.
Collodi fought in Italy’s first two independence wars, in 1848 and 1859. However, by the time the country actually became an independent, unified state in 1861, the pro-democracy camp that he represented had been sidelined; Italy had become a monarchy where only a few people had the right to vote while the majority-illiterate and wretchedly poor population was kept at the margins. Disaffected, Collodi became a bold critic of the nation he’d helped found. He wrote a famous invective against the government’s decision to make early education compulsory, objecting not to the idea of educating the poor but to the hypocrisy of expecting starving families to send their children to school when they could not even feed them. “Man needs, first and foremost, to have food, water and a shelter,” he wrote in a 1877 open letter titled “Bread and Books.” “Only then he can be in the state of mind of listening to his conscience and feel the ambition of improving himself.” Proving Collodi’s point, the law remained largely unapplied, and severe poverty remained rampant in Italy’s poorer regions well up to the 1950s, forcing families to send their children to work in order to put food on the table.
Pinocchio is, incidentally, the tale of a hungry child who cuts school. Readers acquainted with Collodi’s earlier writings might be tempted to think that the author was approving the choice as both inevitable and an act of rebellion against hypocritical authorities. The novel, as Sinibaldi puts it, can be read as a “denunciation of bourgeois social policies.”
But Alberto Asor Rosa, a literary critic and staunch Marxist who has enjoyed a legendary status in Italy, offered a more nuanced interpretation. In his seminal 1975 essay, “Le Voci di un’Italia Bambina,” Rosa suggested that Pinocchio’s central political theme was, in fact, the acceptance rather than the rejection of the compromises that go with nation-building: “It’s a universal tale, destined to repeat itself for every person and for every nation. There always comes a moment in which individuals or communities become more adult than they used to be and, looking back, mourn the time when they could be puppets, i.e. do what they pleased.” According to Rosa, Collodi’s greatness lay in his understanding that coming of age, both privately and politically, entails a loss: “Growing up means gaining something but losing something else: A puppet has riches that a boy could never have.”
Taking Rosa’s reasoning a step further, we can read Pinocchio’s arc as a defeated idealist’s acknowledgment that his vision failed and that the only thing to do is have pazienza—perhaps this is the way things are meant to be. If being a puppet represents uncontrolled rebelliousness, and becoming a real boy—actually “un ragazzino perbene,” a well-behaved kid, in Collodi’s words—means submitting to the social order of a modern nation, with all its hypocrisies and injustices, this would explain the bittersweet, slightly nostalgic tone of the novel’s conclusion: “How funny I was when I was a puppet! And how happy I am now to have become a good little kid!”