Pinocchio on the Damascus Road
In Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, Vigen Guroian confirms with theological insight what generations of parents have intuitively known: that the classics of children's literature not only delight and divert and reassure children but also provide deep and abiding moral instruction. Guroian's fresh readings of beloved stories such as Charlotte's Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, and the Chronicles of Narnia will stir memories among many readers and prompt them to take these classics down from the shelf, while others will be introduced to these inexhaustible riches for the first time. What follows is an excerpt from Guroian's chapter on Pinocchio.
In the 1943 Disney animated film version of Carlo Collodi's 1883 classic, The Adventures of Pinocchio, the woodcarver Geppetto wishes upon a star that the marionette he has made might become a real boy. In the end, Geppetto's wish is granted by the Blue Fairy because the woodcarver has "given such happiness to others" and because Pinocchio has proven himself to be "brave, truthful, and unselfish." The contemporary children's writer Maurice Sendak judges that Disney's Pinocchio "is good; his 'badness' is only a matter of inexperience."1 Sendak likes it this way, as he also dislikes Collodi's Pinocchio because the puppet "is born bad" into a world that is itself "a ruthless, joyless place, filled with hypocrites, liars, and cheats." According to Sendak, Collodi created a character who is "innately evil, [a] doomed-calamity child of sin" who "doesn't stand a chance; … a happy-go-lucky ragazzo, but damned nevertheless."
I strongly disagree with Sendak's reading of Collodi. Yet his remarks raise profound questions about the meaning of childhood and about the nature of moral perfection. These matters pertain to Collodi's story and, as I will show, contrary to Sendak's opinion, make it one of the great works of literature for children.