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Pinocchio: The Most Unlikable Protagonist in a Children's Book

Updated on August 4, 2015

The classic Disney image of Pinocchio

The lying Pinocchio receives a good scolding from Jiminy Cricket.
The lying Pinocchio receives a good scolding from Jiminy Cricket. | Source

The general overview of Carlo Collodi's classic moral story The Adventures of Pinocchio

Originally published in serial form, The Adventures of Pinocchio is an 1883 children’s story of a naughty animated marionette who frequently lies, breaks rules, and disobeys his father, the woodcarver Geppetto. The story is meant to read as a didactic tale for children, illustrating the bad things that can occur if one does not do as one is expected to do. Pinocchio does not only perform little misdemeanors; he acts out deplorable transgressions against his father who loves him and cares for him. In each of his little adventures, Pinocchio experiences negative consequences for his selfish actions and ends the tale by promising to be better next time.

Trailer for Disney's Pinocchio (1940)

A brief synopsis of this Italian tale

Pinocchio originates as a mischievous talking block of wood that the woodcarver Geppetto purchases in order to use to carve a marionette. Once Pinocchio becomes a marionette, he acts out in very bad ways, and a lot of misfortune occurs to Geppetto because of his marionette son, such as immediately being thrown in jail because Pinocchio makes the police believe he is being mistreated and abused. Pinocchio repents after he realizes, with his father gone, he has no way of obtaining food. Once Geppetto returns, Pinocchio promises to be a good boy and go to school.

Geppetto sells his only coat to buy Pinocchio an ABC book, which Pinocchio sells to visit a marionette theatre one day while he's playing truant. Pinocchio, however, has a good heart despite his mischief, and he saves a fellow puppet from being used as firewood. The puppet master is so touched that he gives Pinocchio five gold pieces. Pinocchio, however, is swindled out of his money by a Cat and a Fox, who at first, while incognito, try to murder Pinocchio by hanging him from a tree. He is rescued by the Azure Fairy. Once he is fully healed, he rushes out to meet his father once again, but encounters the Cat and Fox again. They persuade him to bury his money in the ground in order to grow a money vine and accrue more coins. Pinocchio, as to be guessed, comes back and his money is gone altogether. He is then thrown in jail.

Once he is released, he tries to steal some grapes from a farm because he is hungry. He is caught and is made to replace the farmer's dead watchdog. Pinocchio catches the weasels who have been stealing the chickens, so Pinocchio is released. He learns that his father has supposedly drowned trying to cross the ocean in search of his son, so he meets up with the Fairy and begins to live a good, studious life with her. This, of course, does not last. He is seduced into running off to a land where there is no school, where little boys do nothing but play all day. Because of his transgression, he eventually turns into a donkey and it sold to the circus. Suffering an accident, he is sold to a musician who wishes to use his skin for a drumhead.

Pinocchio is thrown into the sea to drown, where he is eaten by fish and becomes a marionette once more. He is eaten by The Shark and meets his father in belly. Together, they escape, and Pinocchio spends years caring for his father and the ill Fairy. Because of this, he becomes a real human being and becomes very wealthy and happy.

Pinocchio makes several appearances in the Shrek franchise.
Pinocchio makes several appearances in the Shrek franchise. | Source
Screenshot from 1996 cult horror masterpiece, Pinocchio's Revenge
Screenshot from 1996 cult horror masterpiece, Pinocchio's Revenge | Source

Purchase Pinocchio's Revenge on DVD. You won't be sorry.

Pinocchio is a little punk

In the story, Pinocchio starts out as a selfish, obnoxious, disobedient little urchin; he ends as a caring, responsible, upstanding "real boy." The frustrating part for the reader is that it takes a ridiculous duration of time and an astounding number of pitfalls for our hero to get from Point A to Point B. There is character development, but it occurs at a plodding, eye-stabbing pace. Although towards the end he is still messing up by skipping school and lying, he is not nearly as cruel as he was at the beginning of the story. It's undoubtedly cruel that Pinocchio murders the Talking Cricket with a hammer in Chapter 4 (the Cricket takes on the presence of a ghost to come back and admonish Pinocchio for his bad behavior). The neglect that Pinocchio subjects his father to is also cruel and unfeeling; he allows his father to get falsely arrested for child abuse, and when Geppetto sells his coat to buy an ABC book for his son, Pinocchio turns right around and sells if for a day of fun at the theatre. Although Pinocchio does redeem himself after a very long and drawn out development process, we cannot forget (nor forgive) how terrible he once was, both as a sentient being and as a protagonist.

Adventures of Pinocchio Trailer

The story is just a bit too pedantic

Although the book was written as a means of instructing small children about the virtues of being obedient and good (and the consequences of being disobedient and bad), the story unnecessarily beats the reader over the head with that idea. In his misfortunes, Pinocchio frequently pauses to burst into crazed weeping, repenting of his transgressions and promising to be better next time. The repetition of this gets tiring and boring to say the least, constantly having to stop the narrative to listen to Pinocchio implore his father and the Fairy (and, implicitly, the reader) to forgive him and give him another chance.

The Adventures of Pinocchio is filled with dark humor

Despite the fact that the novel is directed towards school-age child readers, there are many instances of shout-outs, per say, to the adult readers, who are possibly reading the story to their young ones. There is a consistent breaking of the fourth wall, showing that the narrative is extraordinarily self-aware of it's goals, something that adults can appreciate but children can not. It is also very dark and hilarious in ways that go over most of the youngsters' heads, such as the serpent who laughs so hard at Pinocchio that he experiences sudden cardiac death. The line is written so casually and nonchalantly that it struck me as particularly funny: "At the sight of the Marionette kicking and squirming like a young whirlwind, the Serpent laughed so heartily and so long that at last he burst an artery and died on the spot."

The boys turning into donkeys (or, making asses out of themselves) is both terrifying and linguistically funny simultaneously, but I imagine the hilarity of the language is lost on the poor children being threatened with unwilling, transfiguration.

Order this gorgeous illustrated version of the classic today

Some parting thoughts

Reading this story was a fruitful experience, as it usually is to read the original text versions of beloved Disney classics. I was not necessarily surprised how dark the story was, as I am learning that a lot of public domain children's literature is not what one would call "child-friendly" by modern, twenty-first century standards. I was, however, taken aback and turned off by the pedantic tone of the text; but the annoying pedagogical stance of the narrative is relatively easy to look past when you focus instead on the riotous mishaps that Pinocchio gets himself in and out of.

Overall, I'd give the book a 7 out of 10.


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

      Very interesting Jen - I've never seen Disney's Pinocchio, much less read the original, so I knew nothing about the story or character other than that he was made out of wood (and had a nose with a propensity for sudden growth!)

      Nonetheless it comes as no surprise that it is something of a deep morality tale as so many 19th century childrens' stories were. I'll certainly accept your judgement of the story's negative points, though it does seem to be a powerful theme which perhaps more childrens' writers should explore today. Well summarised and critiqued. Voted up.