The boy who is really a puppet begins to cry, and not merely to cry, but to cry “desperately.” He says, “The Talking-cricket was right. I did wrong to rebel against my papa and to run away from home… If my papa was here I should not now be dying of yawning! Oh! What a dreadful illness hunger is!” The short narrative that follows is perhaps the most delightful, unexpected moment in the history of literature. And friends, consider: it is only chapter five.
Pinocchio is a universe filled with such places, parts that sum up and refract the whole in their strangeness, humor, and wisdom. And, in order to be clear, what is meant here is Pinocchio the book by Carlo Lorenzini, not the cartoon movie. While Lorenzini was a moralist like Walt Disney, the critical difference is that he was also a realist.
It is necessary to point out that a moralist is not necessary one who embraces truth. Certainly moralists always have a sense of justice, but it may be a completely fanciful justice. Disney has his Pinocchio’s nose grow whenever he lies. In the book, however, while Pinocchio lies all the time, and while his lies never go unpunished, the nasal protraction only occurs at certain points by the intervention of a fairy. The moralism of Disney is one that is ultimately ineffectual: a child knows instinctively that the moral principles of the cinema (the principle, e.g., that bad actions are punished immediately and always in the same way) are often false. Meanwhile, the same child knows that the principles behind the fairy’s action is true: if one is lucky enough to have a good and wise parent, then he will be punished when caught doing wrong; if he is not caught right away, well, he will be eventually. His actions will catch up with him, not always with the same result, but in some fitting manner.
The world of this and all realistic fairy tales is not fair, but it is just. Like our world, it is a world where the wages of sin always come due. Not to mention the other malefactors in the book, the puppet himself is drenched, burnt, hung, and all but fried as a result of doing wrong.
Just as Pinocchio is a moral tale that does not offer vicious straw men, it is similarly realistic in its depiction of how goodness is rewarded and experienced this side of paradise. The good is always unambiguously shown as such, however, good people sometimes suffer for no apparently good reason—a circumstance weighing on several characters in Pinocchio, including a talking cricket, a fairy, and several birds who are eaten after trying to save Pinocchio’s life (As a side note, this realism is perhaps behind another circumstance featured again and again later in the book: resurrection from the dead).
While they may seem unrelated and even opposed on Earth, morality and reality are related because both are related to the good. Whatever is real is good insofar as it has existence; and morality is simply the good as chosen by human beings. For this reason, Lorenzini is as eager to expose Pinocchio’s stupidity as he is to point out the wicked things he does. Throughout the story, a comical duo of shabby miscreants repeatedly takes advantage of the puppet’s gullibility as well as his selfishness and laziness. It is only as Pinocchio begins to accept reality as it really is that he also starts to practice virtue.
Very little has been said so far about humor in Pinocchio, which would seem a glaring omission to anyone who has read the book. It is one of the most funny books ever written, elastic in its comprehension of all modes of humor such as the pun, verbal repartee, physical comedy, and satire. But strangely enough, it is the very combination of moral insight and concern for the truth already mentioned that makes this such a humorous, such an absurd book.
Here a fine distinction must be made. There are two definitions of the word “absurd,” which are in reality contraries of each other. The first definition includes the “unreasonable,” which excludes the world of Pinocchio. At the same time, Pinocchio is the epitome of the second definition, which describes the “ridiculous.” Is this not the source of humor that in this life the reasonable is ridiculous—that is, unreasonable in appearances—while the unreasonable is often what seems eminently sensible to fallen humans? Lorenzini eminently captures such a paradox in Pinocchio.
Just as in real life, where Satan is the most menacing yet ultimately the most impotent of adversaries, the most terrifying character Pinocchio meets survives for only about a minute of reading before suffering his ridiculous fate. Another recurring theme that is in complete concordance with real life is the fact that boys, as well as puppets, are easily manipulated (and would remain so absent God’s grace, as older boys can attest). They are also constantly smiling, not to mention easily tangled up, and almost impossible to destroy except by fire.
Coming full circle, consider the absurd when you sit down to read chapter five and an egg rolls into the story. Pinocchio thinks, as we probably would in his situation, of this egg in the terms of its use to satisfy hunger, an eminently reasonable idea on the surface. What Pinocchio does not know, however, and what his adventures help to remind us, is that creation, like an egg, has a purpose and value all its own—a truth that we, like Pinocchio, ignore at great risk.
Pinocchio, while fiction, is a realistic work, true to life, and profoundly moral in so far as it calls on us to be true to the good. It is the conspiracy between the good and the true that makes us laugh—or rather that the apparent incongruities that cloak the good and true make us laugh, and that is why this book, a book about the way a puppet is transformed under the fairy-land grace of goodness and truth, is so funny, and so very important for the moral imagination.