The origins of Pippi Longstocking, or Pippi Långstrump, the character and the narrative, emerged from a collaborative inspiration between mother and daughter. Lindgren’s seven year old daughter Karin was laid up in bed and begged her mother to entertain her with stories. Lindgren asked for a subject, and Karin concocted the name Pippi Longstocking. The rest, as they say, is history. For the next few weeks, Lindgren regaled Karin with all of Pippi’s exploits, eventually turning them into a book, which she presented to Karin on the occasion of her tenth birthday.
Pippi’s visage is inseparable from her spirit. Her outer appearance, as defined by the braided pigtails sticking straight out, the mismatched socks, and the too big shoes, all perform a specific role in the characterization of Pippi Longstocking. Untameable and untamed (her hair), out of place and singular (mismatched socks) and larger than life (her humongous shoes), Pippi’s irrepressible spirit is made manifest in Lindgren’s carefully sketched physical characterization.
In certain ways, Pippi is Lindgren’s response to the disappearance of “play” in her own life. Speaking wistfully of that time, she wrote, “I remember it so well. We always used to play with the priest’s granddaughter when she came to Näs in the holidays. But one summer’s day, when she came and we were going to start playing as usual, we suddenly discovered that we couldn’t play any more. It just didn’t work. It felt odd and sad, because what would we do if we couldn’t play?” What indeed? That question, both existential and practical, is the point of departure for the Pippi Longstocking series. For Pippi brings the concept and practice of play into everyday life and speech. It is this playfulness that endears her to neighbors Tommy and Annika, as well as her scores of readers, yet at the same time outrages the authority figures in the narrative, as well as many “grown up” readers. For Pippi, there is no such thing as a world without play, and, despite the efforts of “Authority” and “Society” to curtail her youthful exuberance and gleeful anarchy, Pippi keeps on playing.
The narrative is breathlessly paced, and one follows along(side) the nine year old Pippi and her young neighbors and playmates, Tommy and Annika, with incredulity and delight. Tommy crows “You just never can tell about anything when it comes to Pippi,” which pretty much says it all. What will Pippi do or say next, the reader wonders throughout. The narrative is comprised of an array of scenes in which Pippi’s exploits and exclamations are artfully framed. Many of the scenes take place at and around Pippi’s home, Villa Villekulla, which she dwells in alone, having lost both mother and father, the former to illness and death, the latter to sea, whereupon he now reigns as a “cannibal king.” Pippi lives in the old house with her pet monkey, Mr. Nillson, a horse, and a big suitcase full of gold pieces.
The original text’s title page shows Pippi wielding a knife held loftily overhead in one hand and a revolver pointing downward in the other. Her hair is braided in those signature pigtails, and she is wearing a long dressing gown. Lindgren writes simply “this was the way she looked: hair the color of a carrot braided in 2 tight braids that stuck straight out; nose the shape of a small potato dotted with freckles; very wide mouth with strong white teeth; hand-sewn blue dress with little red patches everywhere; one brown and one black pair of stocking; black shoes twice her size.” Pippi is constantly noted as “remarkable,” particularly for her physical strength. Her neighbors Tommy and Annika are “good, well brought up, and obedient children” and serve as Pippi’s foils. Their first encounter introduces us to Pippi’s elaborate penchant for telling what appear to be tall tales, but which leave the reader wondering simultaneously “what if…” The tales are themselves notable for their oft reliance on Orientalist conceptions of the “other”, wherein the exotic and strange represents a parallel permissible world for Pippi that contrasts sharply with the civilized one she inhabits as an outsider. Brazil, Borneo, the Congo: all are referenced as an opposing and in some ways oppositional universe of morality, childrearing, and social decorum. This racialized and at times racist language and narrative “othering” has caused concern and consternation among some cultural critics and led to varied translations and censorship as a result.
The children’s adventures range from “thingfinding” missions (“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. and that’s just what a thing-finder does,” Pippi tells Tommy and Annika) to encounters with neighborhood bullies (Pippi’s physical strength on full display), to situationally varied illustrations of Pippi’s resistance and resilience (as in the visit to Tommy and Annika’s school). All of these narrative exploits take place after Pippi has started her day with a cup of coffee, a portion of bread and cheese, and completed her morning exercise regimen of 43 somersaults!
I could rehearse the key moments of the narrative here for you, and I will give you a glimpse of one such moment, but that would be doing a disservice to the spirit of the narrative, I think. For it is not so much the story as it is the singular fact of her existence that marks Pippi as a literary treasure. However, the instance in which Pippi accompanies Tommy and Annika to school (so that she too can experience school vacation!) illuminates the extent of Pippi’s divergence from the “norm” and Lindgren’s culturally constructed challenge to these social constructs.
When the teacher begins an arithmetic lesson, or as Pippi calls it the “pluttifikation” tables, Pippi beseeches her “why don’t you sit down in a corner by yourself and do arithmetic and leave us alone so we can play tag?” The exchanges ensue from there much in the same vein and encapsulate Pippi’s repeated effort to contextualize and narrate experience. When the teacher poses arithmetic problems, Pippi lends the narrative arc that demands an explanation rather than just a mechanical process. The teacher asks Tommy “If Lisa has seven apples and Axel has nine apples, how many apples do they have together?” Pippi replies, “Yes, you tell her, Tommy, and tell me too, if Lisa gets a stomach-ache and Axel gets more of a stomach-ache, whose fault is it, and where did they get those apples in the first place?” Pippi repeats the same sort of narrative intervention and contextualization when the teacher attempts to turn to a lesson in reading. And so on and so forth. Finally, when the teacher’s frustration has brought instruction to an end, the class turns to drawing. Pippi sets about sketching her horse on the classroom floor, citing the paper’s physical and spatial limitations as the rationale for her artistic enterprise. Clearly, this is a girl with unbounded spirit; she can neither be controlled nor contained, nor can her expressiveness. An impressive illustration by Pippi and Lindgren both!
Pippi’s “participation” in the circus performance she attends conveys another central facet of her personality and broader significance. There, she alternately jumps on the show horse with Miss Carmencita, walks and does tricks on the tightrope, and beats the strongest man in the world in a battle of physical might! Pippi’s joie de vivre, her propensity to live life rather than just observe, critique, or be subsumed by it, via social norms, mores, and institutions, makes life a participant rather than spectator sport. It is for this that she has captivated children and adults alike for seventy years and is still going strong. As the critic David L. Russell remarks, “Pippi Longstocking dares to hold up a mirror to society—a mirror unclouded by the social accoutrements of adult manners and mores. What we see in that mirror are a teacher, well meaning but uncreative and inflexible, policemen enforcing laws they little understand, society ladies absorbed in frivolous details.” What we see in that mirror is, in essence, every bit as much a construction as the literary text Lindgren has gifted us.