A while ago I wrote that Mary Poppins was a malevolent trickster god. I stand by this. There is still a sinister edge to Mary Poppins that unsettles me. There is something similar happening with Pippi Longstocking, with her impossible pigtails and super-human strength. She is the folk tale to Poppins’ myth. She is also chaotic, but amorally so. She is the careless chaos brought on by the intriguing narcissist. She is also one of the saddest characters I’ve ever read.
I know I know she’s supposed to be a nine-year-old menace but stay with me.
To back up, Pippi Longstocking is a freckled nightmare whose father may or may not be “king of the cannibals,” as if that were anything to write home about. The book begins by appealing to children’s natural hatred of their parents. Pippi is lucky not to have them, you see, since that means no one tells her when to go to bed or to take medicine. They did leave her a big house to live in, but nevermind all that.
The book is structured around Pippi’s adventures with her neighbors, Tommy and Annika, and whoever else in the town pops up. There are a lot of ways in which she is a natural icon for feisty young girls. She is self-sufficient and adventurous. She is confident. (There’s a delightful bit where she fights the strongman at the circus. “Man, yes,” she said, “but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that.”) She is unafraid of adults or bullies. In one story, she defeats two bullies and later two burglars by lifting them up and sticking them on top of things, reminding us that the key to not being bullied is just to be magically stronger than everyone around you.
But Pippi Longstocking also does that infuriating hipster thing where she insists on authentic-seeming stereotypes of other cultures and uses them to make herself more interesting. Here is a list of things she says are true of other places:
- In Egypt everyone walks backwards.
- In Guatemala people sleep with their feet on pillows and their heads under the covers.
- Everyone in the Congo lies.
- People in China have ears big enough to use as capes, and they eat swallows’ nests.
- She fought a snake in India that ate five people.
- In China they also have weirdly shaped cakes?
For a moment it seems like you have to believe her. After all, she had to have gotten that horse and that monkey somewhere. Maybe her father really is a pirate and she really has sailed around the world and that’s really how people do things in Guatemala. But twice she is called out for lying, which is where things get depressing.
The first time it’s by Annika, who says it can’t be true how they walk in Egypt. Pippi is caught, and spins another tale. She says that of course she lies, given that her mother is dead and her father is off sailing somewhere, “how can you expect her to tell the truth always?” But she immediately follows it with the tale about the Congo, saying she spent too much time there and learned it from them. Colonial implications aside, you have to feel sorry for her.
The second time it’s by a random girl walking down the street, and when Pippi is caught she does that thing attention-seeking people do at parties where they try to own it and pretend the whole point was the lie, and really you’re the idiot for believing her in the first place. “Do you really think a child can live without food from May to October?” she asks the girl who dared believe her. “You mustn’t let people fool you so easily.”
Maybe I’m being too hard on her. She is a child, and the whole point of being a child is to make up stories about places you’ve never been. Or she’s a fictional, magical character and I’m reading too much into this. But it’s a cycle I see because I recognize it in myself.
Her friends are a horse and a monkey and two children nextdoor who see her more as an entertaining oddity than a true friend. She knows her value lies in her novelty, so she plays it up because it’s the only way she can attract attention. It gets her in trouble, over and over again, but she can’t stop because to stop might mean she’s proven right–that everyone who visits and smiles and cheers is only waiting for her to do the next absurd thing, for the next story, and that to just be wouldn’t be enough. She always has to have another trick up her sleeve.
This is no more obvious than in the chapter “Pippi Goes to a Coffee Party,” which came about four pages after I asked myself “Why the hell haven’t Annika and Tommy’s parents invited this poor girl over yet?” It’s a classic setup–menace gets invited to a fancy party, everything is ruined. But whereas in most of these setups the menace doesn’t really know or care what they’re doing, Pippi is desperate to be liked. “Oh I’m so nervous. What if I can’t behave myself?” she asks Annika, and promises she’ll try her hardest “so you won’t have to be ashamed of me.”
But immediately it’s a disaster. Pippi shouts commands at herself to be polite, sticks her face in a pie, sprinkles all the sugar on the floor, eats nearly everything, and keeps interrupting Mrs. Settergren and her friends’ conversation to talk about her Grandmother’s maid. Even when Mrs. Settergren tells all the children to go upstairs, she pops her head down the stairs and continues shouting her story. Eventually she is asked to leave and never return, and bursts into tears. “That’s just what I was afraid of,” she said. “That I couldn’t behave properly. It’s no use to try; I’ll never learn. I should have stayed on the ocean.”
It is so easy for self awareness to never turn into self reflection. You know you do things that push people away, and it happens and you cry, and you think to yourself that you’re fixed the way you are and you shouldn’t have to change for anyone anyway. That’d be ridiculous, to change your core just because etiquette or society or uppity neighbors say you should. They must just be jealous that you figured out how to live life outside the rules.
Maybe there’s something telling you that there’s a middle ground, that you don’t have to change completely but the things you do that make you happy very quickly make you sad. But no one has taught you change is okay, and you’re stubborn and stronger than all of them anyway.
In the last story Pippi invites Annika and Tommy over for her birthday party, and they bring her a gift. It’s a sincere gift, a music box, for a girl who loves to dance, and it hints they may not be fair-weather friends after all. And Pippi gives them thoughtful gifts in return, and they sit for cocoa and cake and cards, and they play, and for a second it looks like just three kids playing in a house with a horse and a monkey. But then Pippi mentions ghosts live in her attic, and they check it out, and when she kids get scared Pippi tells them not to be silly, there are no ghosts. “If anyone insists that there are ghosts, I’ll tweak him in the nose.” More lies, more distance.
Or maybe not. Maybe she cares enough about her new friends that she doesn’t want to scare them away. So she lies to protect them, adding more proof to her untrustworthy reputation but sparing them the fear of meeting ghosts in her attic. She knows what people think of her, but maybe this time she can use her faults for good. The kids go home and Pippi stands on the porch, waving goodbye, yelling about becoming a pirate, and maybe hoping that they weren’t too scared, that they’ll keep coming back no matter how destructive she is. Either way I cried.