Symbolism of the Donkey
Collodi’s version of Pinocchio is an obvious attempt to teach young boys, or children in general, how to be good, but the severe punishments are atypical to techniques used in many other children’s literature stories of the time. One particular punishment Pinocchio endures that puzzled me was his transformation into a donkey. Why a donkey? Why did the author choose this animal over others? What traits or characteristics does the donkey possess that would parallel the wrongs of the boys?
In Italy, where the original tale was written, the donkey symbolized stupidity or lack of use of the brain. Depicted in the tale as well as the most recent Disney adaptation, the place where children go to escape is intended to bring out idiotic behaviors or to “make jackasses out of the boys.” In the tale, the children literally turn into jackasses (another name for donkey) when they reach a certain level of stupidity or when enough time has passed so that it is unlikely the children will ever recommit to their studies.
Donkeys also can depict laziness, which mirrors the boy’s actions in this chapter of the story. In this case, the donkey symbolizes the desire to not do anything productive but to spend time playing and avoiding responsibilities.
In the 1940 Disney film, you can see the degree to which the “curse” transforms the boys due to level of idiocy, mischievous behaviors, or the level of inherent “jackassness” depicted by the individual. The boys who were not as ill mannered kept their voices for longer or transformed at a later date all together. Those who were good in their heart and core were unaffected, such as the cricket in the Disney film whom spent a long period of time in the play land but was not affected at all. This condition of the transformation implies that the transformation was only intended to bring out what is already underneath the surface. No jackass will be displayed if one is not already a jackass by personality (clever Collodi.)
This relates back to Collodi’s underlying impression of little boys in general: they are all jackasses at some level, but some are more than others. The transformation of boys to donkeys in Pinocchio is meant to externalize the boys’ inner character.