II – The Reptile Room
III – The Wide Window
By Lemony Snicket
All Posts Contain Spoilers
“If you are interested in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable lives. It is a terrible thing, their misfortune, so terrible that I can scarcely bring myself to write about it. So if you do not want to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance to put this book down, because the misery of the Baudelaire orphans begins in the very next paragraph.” (‘The Wide Window‘, p. 2)
Children’s stories should be twisted.
I believed this when I was a child, and I believe it now: children’s stories should be dark, and troubling. They should deal with the frightening and dismal, the grotesque and the foul. Children have a need for this subject matter, and a particular aptitude for it. They inhabit a world full of menace over which they have no control, and their literature must help them confront and name this. Children’s literature which ignores the monsters that lurk in the night is pointless and, worse, insulting. I love, and have always loved, the books for children which belly up to the reality of a world of which death and terror are immutable characteristics.
And children themselves are not at all the precious, immaculate angels that forgetful adults like to imagine. The same troubles obsess them that obsess us: death, destruction, mutilation and violence. They are creepy little beings who, like adults, need literature to speak to them as they are, and not as we wish them to be.
By this measure, willingness to tell darkness plainly, Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ might be the finest children’s books ever written. They tell the story of the three Baudelaire children, Violent (age 14), Klaus (“a little older than twelve”), and Sunny (age 1). The children of loving and wealthy parents, the Baudelaires are orphaned one day in a fire which destroys their family and their home, and put into the temporary care of Mr. Poe, a well-meaning banker and the executor of their parents’ will.
“”Your parents,” Mr. Poe said, “have perished in a terrible fire.”
The children didn’t say anything.
“They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house. I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”
Violet took her eyes off Mr. Poe and stared out at the ocean. Mr. Poe had never called the Baudelaire children “my dears” before. She understood the words he was saying but thought he must be joking, playing a terrible joke on her and her brother and sister.
“Perished,” Mr Poe said, “means ‘killed.'””(‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 8)
That will states that they should be raised by a “relative”, and the relative that Mr. Poe first chooses is, disastrously for the Baudelaire orphans, one Count Olaf, a stage actor and thorough-going villain, whose only intention is to acquire the Baudelaire fortune for himself. When his first plan, to force Violet into an under-age marriage and thus take possession of her inheritance, fails, Olaf goes on the lam. In each successive book, he will hunt down the children, murder their new guardian, and attempt once again to seize their money.
And these are not mild, child-friendly deaths. They are grisly, terrible ends, often coming to characters to whom the reader has become attached, like Uncle Monty, who is injected with snake venom, or Aunt Josephine, who is fed to carnivorous leeches. Although the orphans themselves are not killed, they are subjected to terrible threats and ordeals, such as being imprisoned in a birdcage and dangled from an open window, or held at knife point, or forced to eat food to which they are allergic. These children suffer.
I have a good reason for endorsing darkness in children’s books – I’m not just a terrible, child-hating sadist. The world is a large and frightening place, full of dangers, and children are particularly vulnerable. They are small, and naive, and powerless within the systems which govern human lives. Children’s literature should prepare them for this, warn them about danger, and give them a way of understanding misfortune. The sorrows of good children’s books have morals.
And the moral of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ is: Do not trust adults. Count on your wits; count on each other. Read, think, be brave, because no one is coming to save you. Don’t count on adults. They will fail you, either through corruption, or incompetence, or mortality. Even the kind ones, the well-meaning ones, will not be able to save you when wickedness comes. And wickedness will always come.
What a great moral!
One of the measures of a really good book is whether it can get you wound up even if you know what’s going to happen. Each of the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events‘ that I have read so far (The Trouble Begins) adheres to a basic formula: meet a new guardian, lose the guardian to Count Olaf, escape Olaf’s clutches at the very last.
But, despite my perfect certainty about what was going to happen, I found myself getting emotional, angry and scared, during each book. Partly, this is because the consistent failure of the adults around the Baudelaires is hard to read about. Each time that the children identify Count Olaf in disguise, and each time they are disregarded by their caretakers, you suffer with them a little. You feel the rage of the child; you do not sympathize with the adults. And the structures which bind them, like the law, like their parents’ will, which were designed to keep them safe, instead trap them and their guardians again and again. These books are the best indictment of adulthood I’ve ever seen.
Most importantly, though: they are funny. They are really funny, and weird. They are studded all over with strange asides and examples, presented in the wry voice of an unknown narrator.
“Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf’s plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right. But the law is an odd thing. For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price. A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit. And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its border.” (‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 153)
“Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.
As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony. This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there. For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.” (‘The Reptile Room‘, p. 32)
I loved these books. I wish they had existed when I was a kid – I would have loved them then, too. Dark, funny, weird: these are hard things to do well in children’s literature. To do all three well at once is remarkable.