- Pippi Longstocking:The Comedy of the Natural Girl
Outrageous, delightful Pippi Longstocking is a character who comes to us in translation from a Scandinavian culture, but is as familiar to us as the little girls who live in our midst. Her most striking characteristic is her great capacity for joy, which we adults recognize from afar, but which has more immediacy for children. The primacy of enjoyment in her life is the key to her deliciousness and her shock value. Pippi does exactly as she wishes, and says so.
That the nature of the comedy is related to the gratification of Pippi's desires is indicated by the episodic structure of the Pippi books. Breaking up a narrative into episodes happens to suit the concentration span of children, but the structure of Pippi is organically generated as well. As in a Rabelaisian fantasy in miniature, Pippi moves from one situation to the next, taking from each everything it offers her wild imagination, and incidentally giving the other participants either wonderful bolts of surprise or horrible moments of shock.
A sense of outrage, in fact, is built into the adroit combination of fantasy and reality that Astrid Lindgren gives us. Pippi is a fabulous superheroine who inhabits a real Swedish village. She may be familiar, but that is because we recognize in her our own unfettered impulses; no one we know has her powers or lives the way she does. The life she leads is pure fantasy, placed in the context of the real world. I say "real world" advisedly, for it is sketched in cartoon fashion, and from a child's point of view. Nevertheless, it retains the moralistic strictures which make it identifiable as reality. And the more moralistic the society drawn becomes, the [End Page 47] more outrageous Pippi is.
The very circumstances of her life are fantastic. She is exceedingly rich, has no parents to bother her, and lives, moreover, with only a horse and a monkey in a dirty and exciting house. We are surprised to come upon an independent, self-sufficient child, and more surprised because the child is female. A little girl without parents to protect her and represent her to the world would ordinarily have the lowest status, be the least powerful member of her society. But Pippi can both romp and manipulate the people around her with utmost nonchalance. Her super strength is emblematic of her ability to make other people do as she wishes. Moreover, our sense of outrage derives from the mixture of fantasy and reality in her characterization. By being a natural female child she belies most of our expectations about central characters in books for children. She is a girl, and many girl protagonists are pretty, but Lindgren allows her to be at best comical looking, at worst ugly. And her behavior can be as ridiculous as her appearance. Her naturalness entails selfishness, ignorance, and a marked propensity to lie; but she is simultaneously generous, quick and wise, and true to herself and others (like real children, she is complex). It is astounding that she is a girl with super powers, and without the culturally imposed inhibitions to prevent her from using those powers. There is nothing demure about Pippi. Thus, the comedy stems from two sources: the undercutting of our own attitudes about little girls in stories and in life, and the undercutting of the conventional expectations held by those characters who represent society in the book. In effect, we are laughing at ourselves as well as at the satire of social conventions.
The way Lindgren treats Pippi's lies is typical of the [End Page 48] humor of the story. It is startling that Pippi brags and tells tall tales the way male figures in folklore are wont to do, and funnier that her bragging—"Don't you worry about me. I'll always come out on top"1—proves true. Her tall tales involve exotic places and relay hints of a style of life that feels fuller and more real than the narrowly confined existence of her two conventional friends, Tony and Annika. And Pippi lies with a sense of honesty, freely...