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Food for Thought

Thus Conscience Doth Make Crickets of Us All

Tim Madigan is startled by the form of the angel on his shoulder.

Take the straight and narrow path
and if you start to slide,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
And always let your conscience be your guide.
– As sung by Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio

Ethicists such as Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler and Immanuel Kant grappled mightily with the question of the nature of our conscience – that inner voice which tells us when we are acting rightly or wrongly. But for all their learned writings, none of these wise gentlemen have had as major an impact on the popular understanding of the conscience as Walt Disney, who gave us its best known representative – Jiminy Cricket, the dapper, devil-may-care bug with a song in his heart who is always willing to give advice to his pal Pinocchio on proper behavior. Voiced by the beloved Cliff Edwards (known to all the world as ‘Ukelele Ike’), Jiminy is the kind of friend anyone would long to have. 2010 will mark the 70th anniversary of the film, which has just been released in a spiffy 2-DVD Platinum Edition to mark the occasion.

Coincidentally, a new edition of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Le Avventure di Pinocchio has also just been published, ably translated by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco. Like most people in the English-speaking world, I had never read the original. Eco notes:

I remember the discomfort we Italian kids felt on first seeing Walt Disney’s Pinocchio on the big screen. I should say at once that, watching it again now, I find it to be a delightful film. But at the time, we were struck by the stark difference between the American Pinocchio and the Pinocchio we had come to know both through Collodi’s original text and through the book’s early illustrators… And though I admit that Disney’s Jiminy Cricket is an extraordinary invention, he has nothing to do with Collodi’s Talking Cricket, who was an actual insect: no top hat, no tailcoat (or was it a frock coat?), no umbrella. (Pinocchio, p.ix)

Indeed, not only is the Talking Cricket – a rather minor figure in the picaresque tale – undressed and unnamed (“Jiminy Cricket!” being a popular American way of nicely saying “Jesus Christ!” when upset), he isn’t even Pinocchio’s friend. The cricket first appears in Chapter IV, where it is stated that he has lived in Geppetto’s home for over a century (unlike the vagabond Jiminy, who scuttles in to get out of the cold at the very moment of Pinocchio’s ‘birth’). He scolds the marionette boy for his misbehavior which includes kicking people in the shin, lying, and causing Geppetto to get arrested by pretending to be physically abused by him: “Woe to any little boy who rebels against his parents and turns his back on his father’s house! He will come to no good in this world, and sooner or later he’ll be filled with bitter regret,” the cricket solemnly intones (p.14). Wise words, but not very friendly. He further chastises Pinocchio for shirking his household responsibilities, and for not desiring a proper education. If you won’t go to school, he warns, you’ll have to get a job to support yourself. “Of all the trades in the world,” Pinocchio replies, “there’s only one that really suits me... That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.” The cricket laments that this attitude will only lead to the poor house or to prison. When the puppet warns him that his gloom-and-doom prognostications are starting to get on his nerves, the cricket calls him a blockhead, which is literally true, but not very nice to say. Much to my surprise, Pinocchio reacts to such rebukes in a manner very different than in the Disney version, where he is always contrite after being upbraided. In the Collodi original, he grabs a wooden mallet and flings it at the criticizing cricket. “Perhaps he didn’t mean to hit him at all, but unfortunately he hit him square on the head. With his last breath the poor Cricket cried cree-cree-creeand then died on the spot, stuck to the wall.” (p.15) Wow! That was uncalled for.

As Eco points out, Collodi’s original puppet is much more mischievous and genuinely naughty than the rather goody-goody Pinocchio in the film version. However, he is never deliberately malicious. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn (whose own sense of right and wrong is beautifully delineated in philosopher Jonathan Bennett’s classic article ‘The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn’) he is in need of a conscience. It’s just too bad that the one he finds is such a prig. Walt Disney astutely realized that his puppet needed a pal, not a know-it-all. Yet Collodi’s Pinocchio seems to do fine without the bug, who later reappears as a ghost, and at the end of the tale is charitable towards the puppet, when he sees how compassionate he has become toward Geppetto. When Pinocchio asks for the Cricket’s forgiveness, he replies “I’ll have mercy on the father and also on the son. But I wanted to remind you of the cruel treatment I received, to show you that in this world, whenever possible, we should treat others kindly, if we wish to be treated with similar kindness in our hour of need.” (pp.154-155). As the Golden Rule tells us, don’t hurl mallets at others’ heads if you don’t want mallets hurled at your own.

Collodi’s book is filled with many bizarre characters and situations not found in the film. This is not surprising, since it was written originally as an ongoing serial, very loosely structured. Collodi, a Florentine journalist and freethinker whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini, became bored with his own creation, and tried to kill him off. He did this by having the Fox and the Cat (called Honest John and Gideon in the film) hang Pinocchio from a tree – thereby getting his own comeuppance for killing the cricket, appropriately enough by means of another wooden contrivance. But, just as Arthur Conan Doyle found out when he tried to do away with his creation Sherlock Holmes by having him plunge to his death from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, the public wouldn’t stand for such an ending, and Collodi was compelled to bring him back to life.

The Disney movie version stands on its own as a true cinematic masterpiece. In many ways, it’s even more disturbing than the original. For instance, in Collodi’s work, the Fox and the Cat pay the price for their evil-doing by becoming blind and paralyzed. Not so in the Disney story, where we never learn what becomes of them. And I for one will never forget the chilling scene where the wayward boys turn into donkeys, and cry out for their mothers. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Walt Disney was smart to spruce up the Talking Cricket, putting on a top hat, tying up his white tie, and brushing up his tails. Jiminy Cricket earns his 18 Carat Gold Official Conscience Badge from the Blue Fairy by giving good advice through personal example and sincere friendship. As Walt Disney so astutely understood, nobody likes to be scolded. We want a conscience with a touch of class!

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2009

Tim Madigan’s favorite Disney character is J. Worthington Foulfellow.

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