by Elizabeth Taft '18 and Samantha English '19
Content warnings: mention of child abuse, sexual assault, death
You are in a restaurant called the Anxious Clown, and a man is sitting in front of you, interviewing you for a job you do not want and are ne█er going to get. You stare at a painting of the infamous Virginian Wolfsnake on the wall and try not to think of the sonnet folded in your pocket. A waiter approaches your table, wearing a red nose and a look of despair. His name is Larry, at least according to his tag, but you know that clowns are never to be trusted. He places two glasses of parsley soda in front of you even though you asked for root beer.
“I’m sorry,” Larry says, interrupting your loud interviewer. “I didn’t realize this was a sad occasion.”
Your interviewer looks up at him in annoyance. “What are you talking about? I already told you, we’ll have two Cheer-Up Cheeseburgers.”
You, however, meet the clown’s eyes. This is the moment you have been waiting █or.
“The world is quiet here.”
Larry hands you an envelope, which you immediately rip open. Normally it is extremely rude to ignore your job interviewer, but sometimes a situation calls for ru█eness. The file, thick and dusty, holds a script for the movie Zombies in the Snow, a number of tea█-stained letters, a burned napkin from a restaurant called Cafe Salmon█lla, thirteen █rumbled newspaper articles, a manuscript of a novel, and a photograph of three children in black and white. A girl and a boy and a baby are frozen on the paper, with pleasant-enough facial features and eyes wide in horror. The photographer casts a shadow on their faces.
But before you can open the file, the room explodes. You run and rip the snake portrait off the wall. It reveals a doorway. You open it, grab the ho█se from the table next to you, and disappear into the passageway as the Anxio█s Clown drowns in sand.
Do we have your attention?
Has the man standing behind you stopped read█ng over your shoulder?
Good. Here’s what we really had to say:
If you have ever been a child, you know that adults rarely listen to children. And if you are an adul█, you may not listen to us (though we have not been considered children for some time). Here is the thing, though. Stories never grow up. Books are always sitting on a shelf, waiting to be opened for the first or one-thousandth time. So█etimes they sit on a shelf for more than a decade after publication and long after the rest of the world has moved on, until an executive at a certain television production company dusts them off. Sometimes you find the story before those ex█cutives, or before your best friend, or before your enemies, and sometimes you discover them much later than you would have liked. But certain stories will wait for you, or they will find you. No matter how happy or terribly, mind-numbi█gly sad they are, the stories will be there, waiting to be read, perhaps in a street library that they know you will walk past on the way home from the beach one summer afternoon. All thir█een of them, lingering.
We are talking, of course, about Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
If you are familiar with these books, we’re sorry for reminding you of them. If you are not, please take this opportunity to flip to the crossword.
Lemony Snicket—taxi driver, rhetorician, and all-around enigma—tells the sorrowful tales of the three Baudelaire children. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are orphaned by a suspic█ous fire and handed off to Count Olaf, a bad actor and a worse man. The children must use their u█ique talents to escape Olaf time and time again as they try to unravel the mysteries their parents left behind. Snicket follows the Baudelaire children from misfortune to misery as they are forced into a number of unpleasant places, including a lum█er mill, a hospital, and the bottom of an elevator shaft. Meanwhile, through coded messages and ded█cations to dearly departed Beatrice, Snicket hints at his own mysterious intentions in a mysterious world involving a myste█ious organization. Written by accordionist-turned-author Daniel Han█ler under the pen name Lemony Snicket, this series is important for its absurdist take on real tragedy. Though the t█ne of the novels is incredibly dark, the books are al█o witty, whimsical, and ludicrous. Handler includes literary references, farcical details, and tough philo█ophical questions in Unfortunate Events, creating a postmodernist hellscape for his target audience: middle grade readers.
Like the Ba█delaires themselves, these books are endlessly clever. Unfortun█te Events is an ode to literary history, and any book lover will spot countless references th█oughout the entire series. Most obviously, the ever-coughing Mr. Poe and his sons Edgar and Albert are an allusion to a certain Gothic poet. As seen in h█pnotist Georgina Orwell and a brief cameo from Clarissa Dalloway, literary references both subtle and blatant abound. The moniker Montgomery Mo█tgomery recalls Major Major from Catch 22 and Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Vill█inously fashionable Esmé Squalor is a reference to J.D. Salinger’s short story. Hugo the hunchback, Pru█rock the preparatory school, an entire opening chapter dedicated to The Road Less Traveled—the list goes █n and on.
On a nar█ative level, the story of three Baudelaire children calls on the time-honored tradition of the orphan novel. From Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist to Matilda and Harry Potter, young protagonists are orphaned or neglected, but never█heless survive. Our central characters share traits with their literary forerunners: in many ways, Violet Baudelaire, an overprotective eldest child who risks everything to care for her younger siblings, resembles Tess Durbeyfield of Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Similarly, the solace and indepe█dence Klaus Baudelaire finds in his love of books recalls Jane Eyre’s own empowerment through story. (Sunny Baudelaire, the biting baby, may be the first orphan protagon█st to climb up an elevator shaft with her teeth, though notify the nearest VFD member if we’ve for█otten a certain recruit.)
But, from the very beginning, Snicket, unlike so many other authors, does not gloss over the horrors of orphanhood. Villainous Count Olaf inflicts physical and emotional abuse on the Baudelaires, terrorizing the c█ildren in his attempts to steal their fortune. In the first book alone, appropriately named The Bad Beginning, he strikes Klaus across the face; he locks Sunny in a birdcage; and he threatens to sexually abuse Violet, a reference a child reader might not catch but an adult one certainly does. Though the children are taken from his guardianship at the end of the first novel, Olaf s█alks the children from guardian to guardian for thirteen books, scheming to take the Baudelaire fortune for his own.
These novels are dark in their portrayal of how abused children are silenced. Snicket’s adult characters are absurd caricatures of the real people who put children in danger everyday. Panapho█e Aunt Josephine, who cares for the Baudelaires in The Wide Window, is willing to sacrifice the children to save her own skin; in The Ersatz Elevator, good-hearted Jerome Squalor refuses to help the Baudelai█es because he fears confrontation. Even the Baudela█res’ most decent guardian, Uncle Monty, does not listen to the children when they attempt to point out Count Olaf in disguise, leading to Mo█ty’s own demise. Snicket himself, a bystander to the abuse inflicted on the Baudelaires, is an example of how even well-meanin█ people can be villainous when they refuse to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable. More importantly, perhaps, the series emphasizes the importance of listening to children and treating them as equals. Underestimated and uncared for, the Baudelaire children escape horrors and live to tell the tale—but their survival is thanks to their own invented, researched, or bitten ingenuity rather than the “help” of the inept adults around them.
But what makes the serie█ unique is its blend of tragedy and farce. As all of the above is happening, our characters find themselves in sit█ations that are as bizarre as they are fri█htening. Consider the scene in The Hostile Hospital where Esmé Squalor chases the children wearing literal stiletto heels—shoes with stiletto knives for heels:
Esmé viciously stabbed the floor of the Library of Records with each step, and occasionally the stilettos stuck, so the wicked woman had to pause and yank them out of the floor, which explained why her footsteps were so odd and tottering. These shoes happened to be the absolute latest fashion, but the Baudelaires had more important things to do than leaf through magazines describing what was in and what was out, so they could only stare at Esmé’s shoes and wonder why she was wearing footwear that was so violent and impractical.
Despite the hilarity of the sit█ation, the stakes are real: Olaf and his associates have promised to kill the children, and there is no doubt of their genuine malice. The reader knows Esmé could take off those heels and attack at any moment. Esmé is a threat—but a ridiculous, funny █hreat. Of course, the Baudelaires escape, and in the very next scene Klaus and Sunny dress up as doctors—a disguise that goes undetected by all around them. Indeed, in the next installment, Sunny wears a wig that covers her whole body and pretends to be “Chabo the Wolf Baby,” a disguise that, again, goes unnoticed. Need we say more?
However, the comedy of Unfortunate Events never undermines the sophistication of the novels. In some children’s series, the main characters never seem to age, remaining stagnant in a timeless limbo for books after █ooks. Just as they never grow older, they also never grow as people. The Baudelaires age over the series, but more significantly, they also devel█p a sense of (a)morality. While they are innocent in the early installments, they become increasingly implicated in treachery as the series progresses, veering towards moral ambiguity. A fe█ of the Baudelaires’ actions in the final books could even be called, to use their own word, villainous.* Indeed, the schism that divides the mysterious VFD is not clear-cut. We consistently sympathize with the Baudelaires, but Snicket’s world is a morally gray one. As the series progresses, the Baudelaire children eventually learn that nobility and villainy are relative, the line between being a firefighter and fire-starter is thin and, at a certain point, conventional morality is irrelevant: the children must learn both to survive and to settle for being “noble enough.” Furthermore, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny come to understand near the end of their story that they cannot escape the dangers of the world, whether that danger be a terrible actor or something even more horrid. As they tell the selfish Ishmael in the final book, “We are respecting our parents’ wishes [...] they didn’t want to shelter us from the world’s treacheries. They wanted us to survive them.” And survive them they do.**
Truly, there is too much to analyze about these books. So much that we literally cannot fit our ardent opinions into this very long article (we might have to write a thesis someday). Here is what we wil█ say in closing (which is, of course, not the end)—we consider these books literature. One of us read this series as a small child; the other only recently read them for the first time as an adult. We still both passionately adore them because these novels are timeless in their messages. Through Unfortunate Events, children and adults alike see that the world is dangerous, lonely, and morally trying, but it is not hopeless. No matter how many fires burn, no matter how many boats sink, no matter how many children are left parentless, there are always stories and libraries and knowledge to pursue. There is never, truly, a beginning or an end to the story in front of you. Even when you close the book in your hands, the story continues. There is always, somehow, an after.
P.S. The world is quiet here.
*Remember the time the Baudelaires burned down a hotel? (If not, it happens near the end of Book Twelve.)
**Maybe. (See Chapter Fourteen.)
██████████ DID YOU GET THE MESSAGE? ███████████
From December 2016 issue