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Of Gods, Puppets, Androids and Being Human

A Wink to the Dark Side

Collodi begins his book Pinocchio with these words:

There was once upon a time...
          'A king!' my little readers will shout together.
          No, children, you make a mistake. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.[1]

It is, perhaps, easy to dismiss the story as a children’s’ entertainment, however, Umberto Eco believes the book's beginning is, to say the least, complex. True, at first appearance the book is a fairy tale for children. The children actually appear in the narrative as the "author's interlocutors" who, responding to the fairy tale as children would be expected to do, make the wrong prediction about the story. Their false interpretation moves us to wonder if, indeed, the story is not for adults after all. But, Collodi quickly turns again to his "little readers," telling them it really is a fairy tale but not about a king. Instead it is about a piece of wood. We are easing again into a safe place of adult condensation when Eco increases the complexity:

Yet that beginning is a wink to adult readers. Mightn't the fairy tale also be for them? And mightn't the wink indicate that they should read it in a different light, yet at the same time pretend to be children in order to understand the allegorical meanings of the tale? Such a beginning was enough to inspire a whole series of psychoanalytical, anthropological, and satirical readings of Pinocchio, not all which are preposterous. Perhaps Collodi wanted to play a double jeu, and much of the fascination of this little, big book derives from this suspicion.[2]

I for one welcome the wink.  Mr. Cherry, the carpenter, mysteriously finds in his shop a piece of wood that has consciousness. When he picks up an axe to strip the wood of its bark in order to make it into a table leg, the wood speaks: “Don’t strike me too hard!”[3] From the outset, the wood itself, without obvious divine or human intervention, has apparent sentient qualities. When Geppetto visits the carpenter looking for wood to make a puppet it is this piece of wood Mr. Cherry gives him.

Ceppetto’s reason for making a puppet is not born out of a desire to have a son, though he does refer to the puppet as his son. He is a poor man and initially wants to make a puppet he can use to earn a living. As we shall see later, a main motivation for creating human like beings is utilitarian; that is, we create such beings to for our service. It does not surprise us when Ceppetto tells Mr. Cherry:

I thought I would make a fine wooden puppet-a really fine one, that can dance, fence, and turn somersaults in the air. Then, with this puppet, I could travel round the world and earn my bit of bread and my glass of wine.[4]

 Deciding on the name of Pinocchio, chosen from a family of Pinocchio’s the richest of whom was a beggar, he begins making the puppet, starting with the hair, forehead, and eyes, then the nose, mouth, chin and neck. As he crafts each part, they come to life, or rather simply are alive. No Fairy comes from the stars invoked by Ceppetto’s goodness and wishing for a son, giving life to an already completed puppet, as is case in the Disney version. Furthermore, the puppet himself is not bathed in sweetness and innocence. Pinocchio from his genesis is troublesome and does not at first deserve sympathy. Indeed, even before the legs are made, Pinocchio’s

cheeky, mocking behaviour made Geppetto feel sadder than ever before in his life. He turned to Pinocchio, and said, ‘You scoundrel of a son! You are not even finished, and you already disobey your father! That’s bad, my boy-very bad!’ And he wiped away a tear.[5]

When Pinocchio meets the talking cricket, who tries to council him, he throws a mallet at the small creature, hitting him on the head and leaving him for dead. In short, we do not find here the heart warming relationship between a sweet cricket and a pleasant puppet who wishes to be a real boy.

As in the Disney version, however, the puppet begins a journey of adventures which leads him into one difficulty after another. Here, however, his innocence is not so much naïve as maddening. He is very unlikable, and yet, at times, he understands the nature of goodness (when Geppetto sold his coat to help him) and is willing to sacrifice for others (risks his life for a friend).

The Fairy is introduced into the story as a little girl who appears dead. Importantly, her identity is hidden. Pinocchio running from would be assassins comes to the Fairy’s house:

     Seeing that it was useless to knock, he began kicking the door, and beating it with his head. At that, a lovely child opened the window. Her hair was blue, and her face as white as wax; her eyes were closed, and her hands were crossed on her breast.
     Without moving her lips she said in a very low voice that seemed to come from another world, ‘There is nobody in the house. They are all dead.’
     ‘But at least you should open the door and let me in,’ cried Pinocchio, weeping, and entreating her.
     ‘I am dead, too.’
     ‘Dead? Then what are you doing at the window?
     ‘I am waiting for the bier to come, and take me away.’
     As she said this she disappeared, and the window closed itself, silently.[6]

In the next chapter, with Pinocchio near death, we learn that the blue hair little girl is, in fact, a fairy who has lived in the forest for a thousand years. Now appearing as an adult, she saves Pinocchio who despite his good fortune complains about taking his medicine. Eventually he declares his love for the Fairy, receives love in turn, and learns Geppetto is on his way. Though the offer of happiness and love, home and security, a mother and father, are given, he again falls in with the cat and fox, his would be assassins, and sets out for the Field of Miracles. Upon the invitation to journey we read:

Pinocchio remembered the good fairy, old Geppetto, and the warnings of the talking cricket; yet in the end he did as all boys do who have no sense, and no heart-that is, he shook his head and said to the fox and the cat, ‘Let’s go! I’ll come with you.’[7]

It is clear from the narrative that Pinocchio learns the importance of love and the difference between right and wrong. But while his awareness and moral understanding increase, he does not act upon his growing inner maturity. Continually in trouble, he reflects, crying:

It serves me right! It serves me jolly well right! I wanted to be a good for nothing, and a vagabond. I listened to evil companions, so I have always been unlucky. If I had only been a good boy, like so many others-if I had been willing to study and to work, if I had stayed at home with my poor father-I would not be here now in this lonely place, working as a watchdog for a peasant. Oh, if I could only be born again! But it is too late, now. I must have patience![8]

He returns to the Fairy’s house only to find a grave stone:


Again the Fairy is associated with death and death with Pinocchio’s behaviour.

It is not, of course, too late. Eventually the puppet’s grief is exorcised when he yet again meets the Fairy. Hungry and refusing to work for food and drink, he begs. A little woman with two pales of water comes by and he begs her for a drink, which she gives him. He agrees to carry one of her pales for the reward of bread to ease his hunger. When they arrive at the woman’s home, she sits him at the table and gives him bread and cauliflower.

The little woman is, of course, the Fairy with blue hair. Once again her identity is hidden. When he realized who she was, he “fell on his knees before her, and threw his arms round that mysterious little woman, and began to cry bitterly.”[9]

It is at this point in the story that Pinocchio really takes on the quest to become human, or a real boy. At first the Fairy denies her identity but finally asks:

     ‘You rascal of a puppet, how did you recognize me?’
     ‘It was my love for you that told me.’
     ‘Do you remember? When you left me I was a little girl, and now I am a woman, nearly old enough to be your mother.’
     ‘I like that very much, because instead of calling you little sister, I shall call you mother. I’ve always wanted to have a mother, as other boys. But how did you manage to grow so quickly?’
     ‘That’s a secret.’
     ‘Teach it to me! I would like to be a little bigger. Look at me! I’ve never been more than a Tom Thumb.’
     ‘But you can’t grow,’ answered the fairy.
     ‘Why not?’
     ‘Because puppets never grow. They are born puppets, they live puppets and they die puppets.’
     ‘I’m sick of always being a puppet!’ cried Pinocchio, slapping his wooden head. ‘It’s about time I became a man, like other people.’
     ‘If you only deserve it, you could become one.’
     ‘Really? And what can I do to deserve to become a man?’
     ‘It’s very easy: you begin by being a good-boy.’[10]

The Fairy continues to tell Pinocchio that being good entail obedience, work, study, and truthfulness. The puppet promises to “turn over a new leaf” and then “looking at her with loving eyes” says:

     ‘Tell me, mother dear, it wasn’t true, then, that you were dead?’
     ‘It seems not,’ answered the fairy, smiling.
     ‘If you only knew how sad I was and how my heart ached, when I read: “HERE LIES…”
     ‘I know, and that is why I have forgiven you. As you were really sorry, I knew that you had a good heart; and if a child has a good heart, even if he is mischievous and full of bad habits, there is hope that the will mend his ways…’[11]

Their conversation continues until eventually we read:

     These words touched Pinocchio’s heart. He lifted his head quickly, and said to the fairy, ‘I will study, I will work. I will do everything you tell me, for I am sick of being a puppet. I want to become a real boy, whatever I have to do for it. You promised that I could, didn’t you?’
     Yes, it’s true, I promised, and now it depends on you.’[12]

This is the puppets moral moment. There are now echoes of divinity as the Fairy plays with death, grows quickly, offers Pinocchio bread at table. He falls at her feet on his knees. It is love that enables Pinocchio to recognize the Fairy and he desires to be able to grow as she has done. Of course, growth does not simply refer to “growing up” but to “becoming” as well. The Fairy explains that it is his nature to live and die a puppet. When he protests, she reveals that it will take her intervention to overcome his nature; or in other words, she declares that spirit is more powerful than nature. But as is usually the case in spirit intervention, there is a hitch. Intervention will occur only if and when he is deserving of such aid. To be deserving is to be good: to possess the virtues of obedience, discipline, and truthfulness. Pinocchio must practice those actions that nurture the virtues that constitute good character. He must be ethical.

Pinocchio inspired by the Fairy’s offer promises to live a life of redemption. But the rewards of true redemption are not just earned, they are also gifted, and the Fairy does just that. She forgives Pinocchio for his past life. Her forgiveness is grounded in his genuine grief experienced at her apparent death, an indication that he indeed has a "good heart." And where there is a good heart there is hope.

Pinocchio promises to do what he must do to become a real boy, but knows that ultimately the transformation of his nature will take divine intervention. He reminds her of her promise and she in turn reminds him that she can only act if he is deserving. It is worth noting that in Collodi’s story desire to become a real boy belongs to Pinocchio. His aspirations toward flesh are not narratively motivated by his creator’s wish to have a real son. The conditions for acquiring flesh and becoming human are set. Ethics, as character and virtue, duty and consequences, and personal desire will overcome ontology.

As the puppet’s adventures continued, he proved to be intellectually and physically superior to real boys. He kept his promise of redemption: practiced obedience, made sacrifices and risked death to save Geppetto and help the Fairy, displayed “real, unaffected love,” and confessed of past wrong doings (an essential activity for realizing redemption). The puppet is, in keeping with the Fairy’s promise, granted flesh:

That evening, instead of working until ten o’clock, Pinocchio worked until midnight; and instead of making eight baskets, he made sixteen.

Then he went to bed, and fell asleep. As he slept, he dreamed he saw the fairy, lovely and smiling, who gave him a kiss, saying,

‘Brave Pinocchio!
In return for your good heart,
I forgive you all your past misdeeds.
Children who love their parents, and
help them when they are sick and poor,
are worthy of praise and love, even if
they are not models of obedience
and good behaviour. Be good
in future, and you
will be happy.’

Then the dream ended, and Pinocchio awoke, full of amazement.
You can imagine how astonished he was when he saw that he was no longer a puppet, but a real boy just like other boys…Then he went to look in the mirror, but he could not recognize himself. Instead of the usual picture of a wooden puppet, he saw the expressive, intelligent face of a good-looking boy, with brown hair and blue eyes, who looked contented and full of joy.[13]


Wishing Upon the Light

While it is true that the film makes a bow to Collodi in the credits, and the story line resembles aspects of the book, the portrayal of Pinocchio and the overall tone of the soft cartoon is more sentimental than that of the book. Disney’s Pinocchio is sweet and likable. Collodi’s Pinocchio is, at least throughout most of the story, obnoxious and unlikable.

The film begins with the all too familiar song which sets the tone of the story:

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you. If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme…[14]

Geppetto creates Pinocchio from a “Good piece of wood,” though it exhibited no sentient qualities. The wood was not alive. The scene of creation is enjoyable. When he goes to bed, Geppetto says to his cat Figaro as he looks at the puppet sitting on a shelf: “He almost looks alive…Wouldn’t it be nice if he was a real boy?” The cat opens the window and Geppetto, on his knees, wishes upon a star for the puppet, whom he has named Pinocchio, to be a “real boy.” He falls asleep with those very words on his lips: “A real boy.”

After Geppetto and Figaro are asleep a light from the stars enters through the window. It is the beautiful Fairy, appearing as an adult. Because Geppetto has given happiness to others, she comes to make his dream come true. In this version of the story, the character, past behaviour, and desire of the creator are essential for the granting of life.

FAIRY: Little puppet made of pine…awake. The gift of life is thine.

She waves her magic wand and light embraces the puppet. Pinocchio awakes, rubs his eyes and looks around the room.

PINOCCHIO: I can move. I can talk. I can walk.
FAIRY: Yes Pinocchio. I’ve given you life.
FAIRY: Because tonight Geppetto wished for a real boy.
PINOCCHIO: Am I a real boy?
FAIRY: No Pinocchio. To make Geppetto’s wish come true, will be entirely up to you.
PINOCCHIO: Up to me?
FAIRY: Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy.
PINOCCHIO: A real boy!
FAIRY: You must learn to chose between right and wrong.
PINOCCHIO: Right and wrong? But how will I know?
FAIRY: Your conscious will tell you.

The talking cricket enters the scene and is knighted by the Fairy as Pinocchio’s conscious.

FAIRY: Be a good boy and always let your conscious be your guide.

 The entire scene is portrayed in sweetness. The Fairy, come from heaven and not the forest, continues to tell the puppet that the world is full of temptations and that when he needs help from his cricket conscious he should just whistle. Pinocchio has difficulty whistling (apparently only “real boys” can whistle; not puppets and androids). Geppetto is awaken and, as if to reinforce the danger of the world, pulls a gun from under his pillow (Disney was an American, after all), which he inadvertently fires. Geppetto discovers that the puppet’s strings are gone, that he has acquired a conscious, and that the Fairy has made a visitation. Geppetto suggests they go to sleep and Pinocchio, exhibiting curiosity (one of Data's most endearing qualities), simply asks why one should sleep.

The story unfolds with the by now familiar sequence of events. On his way to school he meets the cat and fox who are amazed to encounter a “live puppet without strings.” In the theatre Pinocchio sings a song about his lack of strings, which is to say, his freedom. While he gets into one predicament after another and subsequently lies, we are never left with the impression that he is really bad. Naiveté and innocence surround him, indeed, define him. Even on Pleasure Island, when he says “Being bad is a lot of fun,” we do not change our opinion.

Eventually he demonstrates the characteristics required of him and becomes a “real boy.” The Fairy returns, and during a second awakening, gives Pinocchio the gift of flesh, or “realness,” in addition to life.

After the first awakening, the strings disappeared. After the second, the wood. The transition from strings to freedom and wood to flesh are interesting. While the puppet is made by a human being, it takes an appeal to the stars (a prayer) and a spirit visitation to grant the gift of life. Humans can make things out of inorganic, or in this case dead, material, but it takes divine intervention to make life. The petition is granted in part because of the moral character of the human agent Ceppetto: a good man who makes known his wish, not just for a puppet to be used for financial gain, but for a son. The desires and character of the human creator are important for the granting of the gift of life.[15]

Geppetto made the puppet and the Fairy gave it life, which is to say, the puppet’s existence and life had nothing to do with the puppet himself. However, while it is true the spirit gave the gift of life, she did not grant realness, or flesh. Pinocchio was alive but not fully human. The acquiring of flesh, the fulfilment of his creator’s dream, the completion of the gift of life, could only be accomplished once Pinocchio himself had completed a journey of adventure and misadventure. Through learning, avoiding temptation, and nurturing the virtues of courage, truthfulness and unselfishness, Pinocchio would, again through divine intervention, become flesh and thus a real boy. Pinocchio as being was not ontologically human. Becoming human was a matter of epistemology, ethics, and divine intervention.

Darkness and Light and Being Human

In the end, of course, both Disney’s and Collodi’s Pinocchio became human beings. A quick comparison of the processes is intriguing. In both stories the naming of the puppet occurred before the actual process of creation. There is nothing made of the name in the Disney version, but in the Collodi book the name reflects the creator’s poverty and utilitarian aims:

‘What shall I call him?’ he asked himself. ‘I think I shall call him Pinocchio. That name will bring him good luck. I once knew a whole family of Pinocchios: there was Pinocchio the father, and Pinocchio the mother, and Pinocchio the children, and they all got along splendidly. The richest of them was a beggar.’[16]

 In Collodi’s version of Pinocchio, life was inherent and unexplained. The piece of wood, before being transformed into a puppet, could speak. There was no need for a fairy visitation. Disney was, however, much more directive concerning the origins of life. The piece of wood, though good, was dead. The puppet sat motionless unless manipulated by his creator through the pulling of his strings. It took a desire, a prayer, and divine intervention to bring life to the wooden puppet.

Disney also wasted no pedagogical time in presenting the human virtues necessary for transforming life into flesh. The puppet would have to demonstrate courage, truthfulness, and unselfishness. It is, however, some way into the story before Collodi shows his ethical hand. While truthfulness is important to both Disney and Collodi, the latter lists obedience and work/study instead of courage and unselfishness. Either way, for both being human is an ethical pursuit.

Truth telling is a prima facie duty considered necessary by philosophers, theologians, and ethicists for human integrity and societal harmony. Prima facie duties are those acts and/or norms that tend to be right given the nature of the acts and/or norms themselves. Different ethicists identify differing prima facie duties, but in general they include: Promise keeping, Making reparations for wrongs done, Duties of gratitude, Beneficence (doing good), Non-maleficence (avoiding doing harm), Justice, Duty of self-improvement in virtue and intelligence, Respect for the liberty and self-determination of others (sometimes called the Duty of Autonomy or the Principle of Respect of persons), and Truth telling.

If we translate unselfishness as Beneficence (doing good), and by implication, Non-malefience (avoiding doing harm), two more prima facie duties are included on our list of necessary characteristics defining the nature of humanness. Discipline (work/study) might be equated with the prima facie duty of Self-improvement in virtue and intelligence. Courage and obedience, while perhaps not seen as necessary prima facie duties by all ethicists, are, nonetheless, valued virtues.

It is clear in both stories that the puppets are not created with these ethical qualities. They are not human. To become human, truth telling, beneficence, non-malefience, self-improvement, courage, and obedience must be learned. It is “up to them.” Their ultimate goal was to be found in epistemology, not the recognition and embrace of ontology. And the epistemological requirement was to be achieved through the completion of a journey. The process of becoming human is a moral and ethical quest.

Ultimately, however, even the completion of the quest and the acquiring of ethical perfection would not realize the puppet’s dream. An outside intrusion was also necessary: the Fairy. The Fairy offers something more to the process of becoming human.

What that “something more” actually is, the something that transforms inorganic to organic, or mechanical living to organic living, may not be completely answerable. Collodi and Disney portrayed the Fairy in significantly different ways. Disney’s Fairy was unambiguous and heavenly. She came from the stars granting life and flesh. Collodi’s Fairy was mysterious and at times almost “dark.” She lived in the forest for a thousand years, was not responsible for giving the gift of life, but in the end did grant flesh to Pinocchio. She first appears in the story as a little girl apparently dead. When Pinocchio meets her again she is a grown woman who acts as saviour offering love and relationship. Again, however, she feigns death causing the puppet to experience grief. On her third appearance, again her identity is hidden. When Pinocchio does finally realize who she is, he falls to his knees before her in an worshipful manner.

Collodi’s fairy is direct in her teachings. Virtues lead to love and goodness of character. Love and goodness lead to divine intervention and transformation. In the film, goodness, or a good heart, equals hope, which in turns assures intervention and transformation. However, in both stories, a good heart is only possible after confession, redemption, and forgiveness.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

[1] Collodi 1974:7.

[2] Eco 1994:10-11.

[3]Collodi 1974:8.

[4] Collodi 1974:13.

[5] Collodi 1974:19.

[6] Ibid., p.74.

[7] Ibid., p.94.

[8] Collodi 1974:109-110.

[9] Collodi 1974:130.

[10] Collodi 1974:131-132.

[11] Collodi 1974:133.

[12] Collodi 1974:135.

[13] Collodi 1974:228-231.

[14] All quotes from the film are transcribed from the video.

[15] It might be argued that Disney was reflecting and teaching American family values: the importance of God, father (Geppetto) and mother (Fairy, who also plays the part of divine messenger), and righteous desire devoid of sexual overtones.

[16] Collodi 1974:17.

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