What’s there to like about The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carol Collodi? Is Pinocchio just the story of a naughty little boy who learns to behave himself? That’s what I thought after my first reading, but I’ve since changed my mind. I think Pinocchio is about so much more than that, and it’s actually very instructive.
Let me explain.
Some of my personal reading recently dovetailed nicely with this topic and reminded me of the book that first began to change my mind about The Adventures of Pinocchio. That book is called Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian. I highly recommend it if you want to think about a number of childhood tales through the lens of developing the moral imagination — Pinocchio is just one story in one chapter; each chapter covers a different story or even a number of stories.
This week found me reading a different book by Vigen Guroian: Rallying the Really Human Things, which is a collection of essays. As a pleasant surprise to me, I came to the chapter that discusses Pinocchio only a day or two after we had finished the tale as a read aloud. How serendipitous!
In my mind, after reading Pinocchio aloud four times, and reading through what Guroian had to say about it, I’ve developed my own little interpretation of the tale that I not only think might be accurate, but I find personally satisfying — I think it’s theologically sound, and also fair to the story.
Here is how I see it: Pinocchio is born in rebellion — that’s why he’s wooden. He’s not “real” — in the sense that he’s not what humanity ought to be. He’s still got a conscience, of course — this is the cricket, whom he promptly kills during the course of their first meeting. After that, all he has left is the ghost of a conscience.
He’s also got a fairy in his life who plays a mother figure to him. Guroian sees the fairy as God’s grace working in Pinocchio’s life, and I’m inclined to agree with him. No one but God would give Pinocchio so many chances — he’s the worst of scoundrels … he’s the fool from Proverbs.
On various occasions, Pinocchio attempts something like repentance. He even cries over what he’s done — or is it his consequences? It’s hard to tell, but he does cry. It’s never the godly sorrow that leads to true repentance, though, because his resolve is always short lived, and once again he gives into his passions, which tempt him at every turn. Interestingly enough, he seems in a steady decline — each time he gives in, his sin is a bit worse than the previous, with his ultimate sin being the one where he so indulges his appetites that he becomes a donkey — rather than becoming a “real boy,” he’s less human than he was as a puppet — he unwittingly exchanges the glory of his fallen humanity and becomes an animal — an ass — instead.
This is Pinocchio’s Romans 1 moment.
As a donkey, Pinocchio is purchased by a man who intends to make a drum from his skin. The man decides to kill Pinocchio by drowning, and, after attaching weights to keep him from floating, tosses him into the sea. This is his metaphorical death — he’s become an animal, and now he’s left to die in the ocean.
But Pinocchio does not die. Instead, the fish come and eat him down to the bone — down to the wood. He’s a puppet again.
This is the beginning of his restoration.
To escape the man (who has decided that if there is no skin left with which to make a drum, he might at least sell Pinocchio for fire wood), Pinocchio swims away. In the midst of the sea, he sees a goat — one of the many manifestations of the fairy. The goat reaches out to save him, and at that moment, Pinocchio is swallowed by the horrible Dogfish. There are some mixed messages when this happens, I think. On the one hand, it looks like God’s grace via the fairy failed to save him. Pinocchio was swallowed by the Dogfish, after all. But what if it was God’s grace that he was swallowed?
I think that it was.
I now see this as Pinocchio’s baptism. Not only is he in the water and assumed dead, but he’s also in the very belly of the Dogfish — reminding us at once both of Jonah (whose repentance came in the belly of the whale) as well as of Jesus (whose death was signified by Jonah’s stay inside of the fish for three days). In this, Pinocchio’s baptism is clearly identified with Christ. It is the work of God. It is the grace of God.
And in the belly of this great fish, Pinocchio meets his father — his earthly father, Geppetto — who also had been swallowed by the Dogfish.
Here there seems to be a fulfillment of Malachi 4:6, where we are told that when Elijah comes to pave the way for the Messiah, part of his work is reconciling parents and children to one another:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…
Pinocchio is reborn. He is reconciled to his father, and because of God’s grace to him through his baptism and ultimately through his salvation, he is now able to be what a son ought to be — to do what a son ought to do.
First, Pinocchio contrives a way for them to escape. Then, he carries his father as he swims, and fatigues himself almost to the point of his own death. Pinocchio is now capable of living for others. They make it to the shore, and Geppetto is not well. He must lean on Pinocchio in order to walk. The fairy mysteriously provides a hut in which Pinocchio and Geppetto might live. Here he reconciles with his conscience, the Cricket, who begins to guide him in good ways once more. Pinocchio, who has always preferred begging to an honest day’s work, now works to provide food and milk for Geppetto, who remains ill.
Every day he works, and he manages to put away enough to purchase clothing and shoes for himself, his current attire being rags. On his way to buy them, he encounters one of the Fairy’s servants, who informs Pinocchio that she has taken ill and is in the hospital. He, who always clung to or wasted his money, now sends his treasure with the servant to provide for the Fairy’s care. He declares:
Up to this time I have worked to maintain my papa: from to-day I will work five hours more that I may also maintain my good mama.
It is easy for us to miss the significance of this. We need to ask the question: what does it mean — how does the Bible define — being a good son? Vigen Guroian, in both of the books mentioned above, points out that this is one of the central questions of the narrative. In fact, in Rallying the Really Human Things, Guroian says,
Collodi works hard to depict Pinocchio’s path to real boyhood as a struggle to be not just human but specifically a good son.
In the United States, where it is customary to put our old people into institutions, and where it is common to expect them to provide for themselves in their old age (or to live off of the government), it’s a very foreign concept that the epitome of “good son” is one who offers provision and care in the parent’s old age. This is what it means to keep the fifth commandment. It is in learning to keep this commandment that Pinocchio becomes a “real boy” — that he becomes human.
It’s important to remember that the moral Law is not just a list of rules. It is a description of what it means to be human in the ideal sense — the ideal human’s right relationship with both God as well as his fellow man. Pinocchio receives a body, yes, but the body only reveals what is true about him at that point: he is no longer wooden; he is Real. The fairy’s speech is telling — Pinocchio has learned to relate rightly to others, in spite of the fact that he isn’t yet perfect:
Well done, Pinocchio! To reward you for your good heart I will forgive you for all that is past.
Let me pause. Aren’t these the magic words we all want to hear? We eagerly await the ultimate Well Done while yearning for the forgiveness that only Grace can give to us. She goes on:
Boys who minister tenderly to their parents, and assist them in their misery and infirmities, are deserving of great praise and affection, even if they cannot be cited as examples of obedience and good behavior. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy.
I saw this as a sort of prosperity gospel the first time I read it, but no longer. I suppose it is the combination of viewing Pinocchio’s ordeal with the Dogfish as baptism and salvation, along with remembering that it is Grace who is saying the words. I see this now as an expression of the tension in reality: you are not perfect, and yet God has made you good — look at how you are taking care of your parents! These are the good fruits you have so far! The idea that continuing in repentance will make him happy — well, that is just true.
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. (Proverbs 3:13)
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