Books & Reading

Becoming a Real Boy with Pinocchio (A Summer Diaries Entry)

June 20, 2016

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.

Is Pinocchio just the story of a naughty little boy who learns to behave himself? Pinocchio is about so much more than that -- here's my interpretation...
Is Pinocchio just the story of a naughty little boy who learns to behave himself? Pinocchio is about so much more than that -- here's my interpretation...

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.

Is Pinocchio just the story of a naughty little boy who learns to behave himself? Pinocchio is about so much more than that -- here's my interpretation...

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 providential!

In my mind, after reading Pinocchio aloud four times, and reading through what Guroian has to say about it, I’ve developed my own interpretation of the tale that I not only think accurate, but 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 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. 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 previously, 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 Pinocchio’s 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.

Is Pinocchio just the story of a naughty little boy who learns to behave himself? Pinocchio is about so much more than that -- here's my interpretation...

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, after all. But what if it was God’s grace that he was swallowed?

I think that it was.

I 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 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.

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)


Summer Diaries
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14 Comments

  • Reply Jessica Ptomey March 26, 2017 at 7:06 am

    My 5-year-old son loves The Adventures of Pinocchio! We read it last summer, and he insisted on re-reading it recently. I was originally so surprised that he was so captivated; after every chapter he would plead for “just one more!” But I figured out quickly just why this book captivated his imagination, and it is for all of the reasons you mentioned. I look forward to checking out these books on moral imagination!

  • Reply Robyn Bray December 13, 2016 at 2:56 am

    I loved Pinocchio when it read it to my son. First, it was funny and seemed to have been written by someone who had been quite a restless, mischievous boy himself. In fact, I believe I read, perhaps in the preface, Carlo Collodi’s confession that he wrote the book based on his own history.

    We both laughed through the entire story. I wasn’t concerned that the book was glorifying disobedience because consequences always quickly followed the transgression or his bad judgment.

    I saw, in addition to the Father/Mother human roles of Gepetto & the Blue Fairy, a spiritual symbol of Creator Father God and the hovering, nurturing, convicting Holy Spirit.

    In addition to the Biblical comparisons of Jonah and The Prodigal Son, this book reminded me of Pilgrim’s Progress, or at least “A Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress,” which I still enjoy more than the original version. It was abouth 3 inches thick and didn’t seem to skip a detail.

    I recently discovered our wonderful, oversized copy of Pinocchio in our basement, warped from humidity and likely mold. I just walked by it, leaving it until another day. I need to scrounge up the courage to toss it. ?

  • Reply Cameron June 22, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    I stumbled across Tending the Heart of Virtue at our library a few years ago. A negative review actually peaked my interest to read it. I thought he made some really good points. Thanks for pointing out his other book, I would like to check out that title now. We are reading Pinnochio right now with our younger crew, so this post is timely. Thanks for your insight.

  • Reply Sharron June 21, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I didn’t really enjoy reading Pinocchio to my girls and they also got annoyed with his repeated foolishness, but now I may need to read it again! All these thoughts you’ve shared are very interesting and inspiring!

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol June 20, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Well, you certainly have made me want to take another look at Pinocchio! I started pre-reading it ages ago (maybe 8 years?) and gave up in frustration over how he would do something bad, kind-of-but-not-really repent, do something worse, etc. It just felt dreary.

    I’m glad you wrote this, Brandy!

  • Reply Lisa V in BC June 20, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    I love your interpretation! Do you intend to share it with your children? I know I’ll have a hard time letting them do all their own processing with such great thoughts to share 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 20, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      I don’t. But I trust that over time, rich books like these bear fruit of their own — often in ways I can’t predict. 🙂

      • Reply Dawn June 23, 2016 at 3:08 am

        This is so true. The foundation provided by the excellent, idea-filled titles we share with our children spurns them to make these connections on their own. Earlier this year my 8 year old son described the grandmother in The Princess and the Curdie as “coming down like a dove – like God’s Spirit” in a narration of that book. Just this week my 5 year old said that the North Wind in At the Back of the North Wind was God. I had not said anything to prompt either of these responses from them.

        I sure do love George MacDonald:).

        • Reply Robyn Bray December 13, 2016 at 3:02 am

          Your kids are far advanced beyond the sexist, “superior” commentators in scholarly volumes who accuse George MacDonald of having a mother fixation due to the strong female characters in his books!

          Reading MacDonald was, for me, as impactful as it was for C.S Lewis. Just opening the pages of his fantasies, I hear the sound of a rushing might wind!

  • Reply Tara June 20, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Are you saying that this is the author’s intended meaning of the story, or an interpretation that makes the story more meaningful for Christians and fits reasonably well? I haven’t read this original version of Pinocchio, so I’m just trying to get clarification about whether you’re saying this is a generally accepted interpretation or one that you’ve personally developed.

    One part that doesn’t quite seem to fit for me is the part where he works to purchase new clothing to replace his rags. From a gospel perspective, I think of being clothed with righteousness, rather than us having to work to replace our filthy rags.

    I’m also not sure I understand what is meant by the part about caring for parents in old age. Specifically this part: “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.” If I’m correctly understanding what you are saying, it sounds like he sent money to care for the Fairy’s care (his “good mama”) – rather than directly caring for her himself. She was still in an “institution” – as might an elderly person who has physical needs that require professional assistance. Is a person who doesn’t do the actual physical care of an elderly/ill parent not properly caring for or honoring the parent? [I’m not in this situation personally, as my parents aren’t old enough for that stage yet… so I’m not saying this out of being personally offended. But it seems an overgeneralization to me, and I think that in the same way those of us who are “low-energy moms” know there is more to our story than meets the eye and we don’t want others judging us in overgeneralized terms, I feel it isn’t fair to say that all of those who aren’t personally providing for the daily care of their elderly/ill parents aren’t keeping the 5th commandment. Perhaps “providing” is the term in question… whether this is referring to being the primary provider of care, versus providing financial resources, time, energy, love, etc. Sorry, I’m not trying to be difficult. 🙂 Just what came to mind when I read this post.]

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 20, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      You are not being difficult. 🙂

      As far as I know, there is not one single accepted interpretation of Pinocchio, so yes — this is one I’ve developed myself. It jives rather well with what Guroian writes, but beyond that, I don’t know.

      So what the rags were supposed to represent, I can’t be *sure*, of course — but I mainly read it as symbolizing his willingness to sacrifice himself to the point of need. I didn’t see the clothes as being theologically significant. Could I be wrong? Of course! 🙂

      He did two things in terms of the 5th commandment: he personally cared for his father Gepetto, and sent money to his “mama” the fairy. I don’t mean to say that I never think institutions are appropriate. I think we can delegate, for sure. That is why, even though I homsechool, I believe in schools — I believe that parents can hire a school to teach their children for them, and it’s a valid option. So can we hire caregivers? Of course! My point is that, culturally speaking, we don’t think of the 5th commandment beyond being nice to our parents and grandparents, but that isn’t actually what was meant by it — and taking care of parents was part and parcel of being a good son during Collodi’s time.

  • Reply Anne White June 20, 2016 at 7:07 am

    ” 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.” Something like the beasts in George MacDonald’s fiction.

    I’ve always loved Collodi’s Pinocchio, for all the reasons you’ve said.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 20, 2016 at 1:41 pm

      Yes, Anne! I hadn’t thought of the MacDonald connection, though I *did* think today about how the process of the fish eating off his skin was rather like the undragoning of Eustace Scrubb.

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