Study Guide

Pippi Longstocking Themes

By Astrid Ericsson Lindgren

  • Family

    Annika and Tommy have one. Pippi doesn't. So where does that leave her in Pippi Longstocking? Not all that bad off, as it turns out. She's got a house, two animal housemates to share it with, and a couple of best friends next door. Plus she seems to have a whole lot of fun. So then is Astrid Lindgren suggesting that family doesn't matter? Not at all.

    For one thing, Pippi counts Mr. Nilsson and the horse as kin. And for another, Pippi references her parents constantly. She fully believes that her mom is watching over her from above and that her dad will be back for her as soon as he can. So she does have a family—more or less—and her parents' influence endures, even when they're not around.

    Questions About Family

    1. What makes a family? Is a family with a mom, a dad, and two kids more valid than a family with just a girl, a horse, a monkey, an angel-mother, and a father who's lost at sea? Why or why not?
    2. How much influence does a family's structure have on the personalities and traits of the children in that family?
    3. At what point in a person's life (infancy? the toddler years? adolescence? adulthood?) do you think parents have the most influence? Explain your reasoning.

    Chew on This

    Because the child characters in Pippi Longstocking appear to be greatly influenced by the environments in which they are being raised, this book makes a great argument for nurture over nature.

    Tommy and Annika are held back in many ways by their parents, while Pippi, who lives on her own, is free to develop to her full potential. In this way, Pippi Longstocking is an anti-family book.

  • Education

    Education, shmeducation. Who needs it anyway? Well maybe Tommy and Annika. They do, after all, attend school every day in Pippi Longstocking, and no one ever suggests that they shouldn't. Not even Pippi, who only needs a few hours to decide it's not for her, Christmas vacation or no.

    Still, Pippi knows how to do a lot of things that most ten-year-olds don't. She cooks, cleans, sails, sews, rides horseback, cares for complicated pets, teaches herself to dance and draw, and out-thinks a fire chief in order to rescue children from a burning building. She knows the capital of Portugal because she's been there, but does her life experience count as education?

    Questions About Education

    1. Do you think Pippi will need to attend school at some point? Why or why not?
    2. Even after Pippi decides that formal education isn't her thing, Tommy and Annika continue to go every day. Should they? Why or why not? And if you think Tommy and Annika should keep attending school, but that Pippi probably doesn't need to, explain your reasoning there, too.
    3. What do you think of the schoolteacher in Pippi Longstocking? Does she seem like a real person? A real teacher? Is she a good teacher? Why or why not?
    4. What does it mean to be educated? Is every individual who graduates from high school necessarily educated? Are people who've never had any formal schooling at all uneducated? Use examples from Pippi Longstocking to explain and support your opinions.

    Chew on This

    People can get pretty much all the education they need through life experience and self-study (especially with the Internet at their fingertips). Formal education is completely unnecessary.

    By having Pippi dismiss the idea of going to school so quickly, Astrid Lindgren both undervalues the importance of public education and damages its reputation with her readers.

  • Gender

    Sugar and spice and everything nice? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails? Whatever you think boys and girls are made of, you can forget it—Pippi Longstocking takes traditional gender roles and throws them out the window. Sure Annika is a conventional 1950s girl—polite, proper, helpful, kind, and well dressed. And Tommy, her brother, is a typical boy. He too is well dressed and polite (that's the kind of family these kids come from), but he's more of a risk taker than his sister.

    And then there's Pippi. She lives on her own, she never cries (though both Tommy and Annika do), and she's stronger than the strongest man in the world. Crooks who think little girls are easy targets need to think again when it comes to Pippi, and anyone who believes girls need to conform to society's ideas of beauty to fit in can take a hike, too. Pippi doesn't play those games, but she still comes out on top.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Pippi was written in the late 1940s and published in 1950. What kinds of roles did women play in society at that time? (Remember—this is a Swedish book, so check to see if there was a big difference between women's positions in Sweden and in your country.)
    2. In what ways might the character Pippi have challenged stereotypes about women and girls in the 1950s? How is she different from what was expected of a young girl at that time?
    3. Does Pippi still challenge stereotypes in today's world? How? What stereotypes still exist in terms of the ways men and women (and boys and girls) are expected to behave?

    Chew on This

    If Pippi Longstocking had been published for the first time in the year 2010, Pippi wouldn't be considered a feminist icon at all; she'd just be a weird kid who lived with a monkey and a horse and happened to be super-strong.

    Even though Pippi Longstocking was written over sixty years ago, it still challenges gender roles today.

  • Society and Class

    It's hard for individuals to find their place in society. Societies have to have rules, and the rules don't always suit all the individuals, but it's even harder when the individuals are individual to the extreme. Like Pippi in Pippi Longstocking—she's not exactly a blend-into-the-crowd kind of gal, and she certainly has her own ideas about how to live. Being raised on the ocean seems to have made her particularly unfit to live amongst others on the land, but with her super-strength and her refusal to be boxed in according to her age, gender, or size, we wonder if being raised in a more traditional setting would have made fitting in any easier for her.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. The people in the town give up on putting Pippi in a children's home after she outwits (and outmaneuvers, and outmuscles) the police, but should a nine-year-old really be able to live in a house alone with no adult supervision?
    2. If Pippi is allowed to live on her own and decide whether or not to attend school, won't other kids be encouraged to rebel against the system? What kind of impact do you think her decisions will have on others around her?
    3. You've probably heard someone use the old If we let one person do it, then everyone's going to want to do it line as a reason for not allowing someone a particular individual freedom. What do you think of this justification? Can exceptions to rules be made for individuals, or does that just encourage others to ignore the rules?
    4. What do you make of the coffee party scene? Is it funny? Is it sad? And how do you interpret Pippi's last line in that chapter, when she yells after the ladies, "SHE NEVER SWEPT UNDER THE BEDS!" Is it significant that this is the only piece of dialogue in the entire book that is in all caps?

    Chew on This

    Pippi Longstocking is amusing, but the choices she makes—such as ignoring police officers and refusing to go to school—make her a bad role model for children,

    By the end of the book Pippi has found her place in the society of the small town and been accepted by the other residents.

  • Youth

    Pippi, like Peter Pan, embraces her youth—every single moment of it. Though some adults in Pippi Longstocking definitely have a children should be seen not heard approach to kids, the overall take on childhood is that it's a blast and kids should be left to enjoy it. Pippi is creative and fun and silly and spontaneous, she can make a day of hunting for tin cans or climbing trees. Without adults around to shape her development or impose a lot of rules, the people of the town at first worry that Pippi will be taken advantage of, or become a delinquent, or otherwise fail to thrive… but they're wrong on every count.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Think about how Pippi, Tommy, and Annika spend their time. How is the portrayal of childhood in the book similar to childhood in today's world? What's different? How close is the representation of childhood in the book to the way you remember your own childhood? Are there any similarities? Any glaring differences? Explain.
    2. We keep saying that Pippi is kind of like Peter Pan, but what do you think? How are the two characters alike? How are they different? Will Pippi ever grow up, and if so, what do you think she'll be like as an adult?
    3. How much adult intervention do kids need in their everyday lives? How much freedom should kids be given to just do whatever comes naturally?

    Chew on This

    It's all well and good to say that kids should have time to climb trees and have picnics, but the childhood depicted in Pippi Longstocking—where kids roam their neighborhoods free of all adult supervision—is unrealistic in today's world.

    Kids today are overscheduled and overregulated. Parents, educators, and kids would all do well to take a page out of Pippi's book and chillax when it comes to their schedules.

  • Strength and Skill

    Obviously Pippi's super strong, but why do you think Astrid Lindgren made her that way? Sure it's funny to think of her lifting cows and horses and policemen, so comic relief is part of the reason, but we think there's a bigger one. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman when society needed a hero to battle bullies like Hitler and the Nazis. Pippi came along a decade or so later to take on a few bullies of her own: institutions that demand conformity; societies that over-regulate children; and anyone who's ever used the phrase throw like a girl as an insult instead of a compliment.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. There's no doubt Pippi is physically strong (you try lifting a cow). In what other ways is Pippi strong? In what ways, if any, might she be described as weak?
    2. How do you think you would react if a nine-year-old appeared in your town and started lifting large animals and people? How do the other characters in the book react to Pippi's incredible strength? What do you make of their reactions? Are they under-reacting? Over-reacting? Why do you think Lindgren made the characters react the way they do?
    3. We're never given any explanation for Pippi's super strength—she's kind of like a superhero with no origin story. Why do you think Pippi is so strong? And why do you think Lindgren didn't bother to offer any explanations for Pippi's abilities?

    Chew on This

    Pippi's physical strength is what makes Pippi the remarkable character she is; without it, she would be a completely different and far less compelling character.

    Pippi's physical strength isn't really that essential to her character; without it, she'd still be just as dynamic, capable, and interesting.

  • Isolation

    It might shock you to think about isolation as a theme in Pippi Longstocking—after all, she's so funny and she always comes out on top. But when it comes right down to it, Pippi is alone in the world in a lot of ways. Her appearance sets her apart from others right away and even earns her a few jeers and taunts. Add to that the fact that she has no parents, she's freakishly strong, and many of society's key rules don't really suit her, and you've got one isolated nine-year-old.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Jot down a quick list of all the places Pippi has been kicked out of, asked to leave, or made to feel like she doesn't fit: any place that Pippi doesn't seem to belong. Then jot down a second list of all the places where Pippi does fit in well with others. Compare your lists. What do you see?
    2. Pippi has two good friends in Tommy and Annika. Can someone have friends and still feel isolated? How?
    3. Do you think Pippi is bothered at all when Bengt and his cohorts tease her about her hair and her shoes? Point out a few lines of text from Chapter Two that support your opinion here.

    Chew on This

    Everyone feels isolated from time to time—it is part of the human condition.

    Pippi would be happier if she could rein in her outrageous behavior and fit into society instead of always standing apart.

  • Principles

    What does it mean to be a principled person? Can you still be a principled person if you:

    • lie on a regular basis? 
    • disrupt coffee parties? 
    • defy authority figures? 
    • skip school? 
    • contemplate putting an old man in a rabbit hutch and feeding him dandelions?

    These are all things Pippi does in Pippi Longstocking, and yet we get the feeling she actually has some pretty solid principles—honor, loyalty, kindness, compassion, and a strong work ethic to name a few—that she adheres to rather fiercely.

    Questions About Principles

    1. It may seem that Pippi lives a life of spontaneity and chaos, but she's also a very principled person in many ways. What do you think are the top three principles that guide Pippi in her decision making? Give examples of how each of these principles show up in the book.
    2. Pippi lies. A lot. Explain how she can still be a principled person even though she tells so many untruths. Do you think honesty is an important principle from Pippi's point of view? Why or why not?
    3. Rank the following characters from most principled (#1) to least principled (#5) and explain why you've put them in this order: Pippi, the schoolteacher, Bengt, the ringmaster, Mrs. Settergren.
    4. What principles are most important to you? Explain your choices.

    Chew on This

    Pippi's principles are so inconsistent throughout the book that she really can't be said to have any at all.

    Pippi may seem uncompromising and even a little bit self-absorbed, but when it comes to Tommy and Annika, she always puts her friends' needs first.