An Essay on Violence in Children’s Literature as per Pinocchio and Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

‘For every act of violence that befalls heroes and heroines of fairy tales it is easy enough to establish a cause by pointing to behavioural flaws’ (Mary Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales)

In this essay, I am going to explore the presence of violence in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (will be referred to in its more commonly known title Alice in Wonderland through the rest of the essay) in (1865), and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883) I will look at what violence brings and how it can effect a story, and also how violence in children’s literature possibly effects the reader of the story itself.

Whilst the memory of my first introduction to children’s literature came in the form of The Very Hungry Caterpillar[1], one of my earliest exposures to this kind of writing was through later versions of Pinocchio. As a child, I took from the moral of the story to not waste what I have, be grateful for having good things, and to share. As I have gotten older and subsequently discovered the original versions of stories like Pinocchio, I can honestly say I was shocked to see the level of violence present in these original texts. Some of the violence used in Pinocchio serves almost as a means to add comedy into a scene, ‘And, becoming more and more angry, from words they came to blows, and, flying at each other, hey bit and fought, and scratched.’[2]

In this section, the wood that would become Pinocchio begins to purposely antagonise Master Antonio and Geppetto. This section, I believe, adds a certain silliness to the old characters, likely to be amusing to a young reader, and possibly an older one. However, this seen does link to the quote made earlier in the essay by Mary Tatar, to a degree. Whilst this was not violence faced directly by Pinocchio, it is violence that is caused by a floor in Pinocchio’s cheeky and antagonistic personality. Whilst it is likely not the case, it is possible to suggest that this was Collodi showing an early sign of the damage that can be caused as a result of Pinocchio’s actions.

It would not be outlandish to think that Collodi would want to children about the perils of bad behaviour, as he apparently (according to new found information) disliked children. Especially badly behaved children[3]. The initial ending that Collodi wanted for the story was to have Pinocchio hung for his actions. In an article called ‘Bad things happen to bad children’ by Nathaniel Rich, the original ended was written as follows, ‘a tempestuous northerly wind began to blow and roar angrily, and it beat the poor puppet from side to side, making him swing violently, like the clatter of a bell ringing for a wedding. And the swinging gave him atrocious spasms…. His breath failed him and he could say no more. He shut his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched his legs, gave a long shudder, and hung stiff and insensible. The end.’

This ending combined with knowledge that the childless Collodi did not like children would indicate to me that Collodi used violence in his story order to show what can happen to you if you are bad, and influence young readers to behave with a better moral code than he (Collodi) apparently believed children at the time had. The psychologist and author Julius Ernest Heuscher has written about the effect that folklore and fairy tales with these themes on young readers, ‘There can be little doubt that offering a fairy tale to a fifteen-month old child would pose a threat, as he could hardly separate its content from his everyday world. It is unwise to narrate fairy tales to children much below 4 or 5 years old. The years from 5 until 12 are those during which the child both enjoys and learns from the fairy tale, just as the adolescent years can be enriched by legends, epos, ballads, and myths. A rejecting or insecure parent may use the cruelties in folklore for his own sadistic or controlling needs which in the absence of fairy tale would undoubtedly find other equally effective and equally harmful expressions.’[4]

Heuscher’s writings would indicate that whilst violence in story telling does work as a vessel to pass moral teaching and information, it would be abusive to try make a very young reader learn through this manor. Whilst I would agree that it would be wrong to make someone not able to understand what they are consuming is a story read stories with such graphic violence, I think it is undeniable the lessons that Pinocchio taught and the effect that the story and character has had on pop-culture and society. Daniela Guglietta-Possamai seems to find an explanation for Collodi’s in her paper ‘The Twists and Turns of a Timeless Puppet: Violence and the Translation and Adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio’, ‘As a nineteenth-century children’s author, Carlo Collodi, too, drew on the recurring motifs of violence and death in vogue at the time. Unfortunately, owing to the dearth of pertinent material on violence in nineteenth-century Italian children’s literature, I cannot comment on either its use and significance specifically within the Italian literary context or its influence on Collodi and Pinocchio. Fortunately, however, what is known about the Italian author is that in writing his masterpiece he relied heavily on the classical tradition—The Odyssey (Homer), The Aeneid (Virgil), and The Divine Commedy (Dante)’. It would appear a possible reason for Collodi’s violent influence on the story and teachings of Pinocchio stretch much further than the belief of he simply does not like children. Writing in 19th century Italy was generally rather conservative. And as Collodi, like a lot of the contemporaries of that time, was influenced by the Greek texts and stories which championed moral teaching and logic. It would appear this is just how the writing of the time worked and violence with the following repercussions was a fantastic way to convey that message.

It would appear that a large amount of the torment that Pinocchio suffers throughout his adventure do in fact support the statement earlier referenced by Mary Tatar. There does seem to be an action that Pinocchio does that is met with an almost Einsteinian sense of reaction. Pinocchio’s misfortunes are always a result of his wrong doings. Whether that is because he was violent or acted out of Geppetto’s best interest. This would appear to be a result of children’s literature across Europe at the time taking a degree of influence from older Greek stories, taking their habit to have a strong moral teaching throughout the piece.

Lewis Carroll also appears to have put teachings into Alice in Wonderland, but not in the conventional style of writing seen in children’s literature during the Victorian period. Lewis Carroll held many roles throughout his life. A mathematician and a logician to name a few, Carroll was quite obviously a well-educated man. Carroll’s time of writing was one of great change for Great Britain. With developments such as the development of Darwinism as well as the industrial revolution, it was a time where a lot of what people thought was not possible suddenly became possible. Carroll’s writing a lot of the time is not explicitly violent. However, when you reread the book as an adult, there is actually violence present, it just seems to be spoken rather than acted out. This can be seen in chapter 4 of Alice in Wonderland, ‘We must burn the house down!’ said the Rabbit’s voice. And Alice called out as loud as she could, ‘If you do, I’ll set Dinah at you!’

There appears to me to be a lot packed into what is quite a small quote. Firstly, the exchange between the two characters seems relatively light but what both acts are suggesting are actually rather alarming. Mr. Rabbit wanting to burn down the house is manic, whilst Alice suggesting that she should get her cat to attack the Rabbit seems savage. This statement is made even more alarming when you consider that all these animals in the fantastical world that Lewis Carroll has created appear to be sentient, so there appears to be tones actually suggesting the Rabbit should be murdered. Another reading that can be given to this scene could potentially suggest that Lewis Carroll is actually making links to Darwinism in this writing. As discussed earlier, Carroll’s time of writing was dominated by what could have been arguably the biggest string of scientific break throughs that the world had seen by that point. I feel it would be hard to believe that any writer working at this time could avoid being even slightly influenced by the new discoveries of the time. This scene could be Carroll retelling a verbal tale of survival of the fittest, suggesting that the cat kill the rabbit in a battle of supremacy, linking the text to Darwinism.

Whilst verbal attacks between characters can, when analysed, can have horrible connotations, Carroll’s use of actual violence in Alice and Wonderland tends to be used as a way of shocking Alice yet keep the story fight free enough for it to stay as a kids book to, as George Kruglov pointed out in his article called ‘Diluted and Ineffectual violence in the Alice Books’, ‘violent acts committed by characters throughout lack the aspect of damage and injury, making the violence watered down and ineffective.’[6] Carroll’s use of this type of violence can be seen in chapter 6 of Alice in Wonderland, ‘the cook takes the cauldron of soup off the fire, and at once set to work throwing everything within her reach at the Duchess and the baby.’

Whilst an act of violence making physical contact does not appear in this section, any adult will see that the Duchess and the baby nearly got scolded in what was a terrible and outrageous act by the cook. Whilst a child may be able to understand this act was bad, it takes until you become an adult to realise just how dangerous and violent this act is. Lewis Carroll seems to use violence in many forms to show when people are acting wrong. Whilst the reader may not pick up on the severity of the actions, I certainly did not at that age, throughout the story the violent words and violent actions performed by characters seem absolutely abhorrent. Whilst Carroll’s presentation of violence is less obvious than other writing at the time and before, like Pinocchio, there still seems to be an almost subconscious teaching the violence should be avoided as violence brings danger to yourself and people around you.

The interesting thing about Alice as protagonist is that at times she seems to react to the violent themes and violent characters running throughout the story. This can be seen in chapter 6, ‘The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off with – ‘ ‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.’

Carroll presents the Queen of Hearts as one of the most violent characters in the story whilst at the same time portraying her similar to a petulant child. All of her problems she solves by beheading people. When she becomes intimidated by Alice, she naturally threatens and commands that she be beheaded. Yet Alice’s response leaves the queen bested. It is possible that this section of the story, this interchange, was written by Lewis Carroll to show the reader that Alice brings human reaction to the violence in Wonderland. Whilst she may at times react like a child in the story, this is understandable as Alice is obviously a child. Yet at times like these, when in the face of blatant violence, Alice seems to mirror the reaction of the reader. Whilst Lewis Carroll wrote the story Alice in Wonderland as a story for children, and it is still considered children’s literature, over the years after the book was published many adults have taken to the book and it is possible to argue that the adult audience for Alice in Wonderland is potentially a lot larger than the intended children’s audience. Yet the sense that Alice reflects the views of the reader still seems to be an accurate reading of her reactions in the story. It is possible that Lewis Carroll’s portrayal of Alice in the story actually teaches the reader right from wrong through the reactions to the violence. An interesting point about the queen of Hearts was brought up by Dennis Knepp in Lotte Roelofs’ academic paper ‘Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The Influence of Dystopian Elements on the Teaching of Morals, ‘Dennis Knepp argues that the Queen of Hearts is used to satirise dictators, because many “ruthless tyrants terrorize the people, supposedly for their own good’[7] It is possible to suggest that this was Lewis Carroll subtly casting his opinion on Queen Victoria II, as she was the reigning monarch at the time.

The notion I find quite interesting Is that I do not think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland actually applies to the statement earlier made by Mary Tatar. Whilst it may be true for certain exceptions, I believe for the most part that a lot of the drama and violence that Alice falls victim to in the book actually stem from the behaviour of other characters rather than the young naïve protagonist in Alice. Granted, whilst I would not class Alice in Wonderland as a fairy tale, and Fairy tale character mishaps is what Mary Tatar was focusing on, I feel this shows a change in the reception of violence in children’s literature as children’s literature has developed across centuries. Despite being published in the 19th century, Collodi’s presentation of violence in Pinocchio is vastly different to Lewis Carroll’s presentation and use of violence in Alice in Wonderland. Though I suppose you could suggest that late 19th century Italy, that Collodi was writing in, and the mid to late Great Britain, that Lewis Carroll was writing in, were vastly different places. Collodi’s Pinocchio, despite being published after Alice in Wonderland, seems a lot more dated with its heavily folklore inspired way of using extreme graphic violence and subsequent punishment as a way to portray a moral to the story. Alice in Wonderland, however, features a strong female protagonist who reacts in the face of violence. Carroll’s type of violence he gives us the reader is different to what his fellow writers were offering at the time. Alice in Wonderland definitely seems relevant and ahead of its time compared to Pinocchio.

It is interesting, however, that after all the differences between the presentation of violence in Collodi’s Pinocchio and the violence in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that both the texts have in some sense graduated to be read by all readers rather than just young readers. In fact, similar to the point I made earlier that the protagonist Alice lending herself more to an adult reader than a child reader, many feel that the Pinocchio actually also lends itself to a more grown up reader. It is as I got older that I started to notice literary choices that Collodi made, such as beginning the story with the classic fairy tale opening, ‘Once upon a time.’, then beginning to break fairy tale tropes, which I can appreciate as a very smart decision now I have gotten older and a more experienced reader. I think whilst the two texts use two completely different styles of violence to varying levels of shock, both texts still use violence as a way to convey teachings to the young reader, and to entertain.


Read more