Once upon a time, I was browsing one of my many local bookstores, when I happened to overhear two girls discussing The Beatrice Letters. I immediately stopped what I was doing and, like some sort of demon sprite being summoned, appeared behind them to ask, slightly crazed, “Are you guys talking about Lemony Snicket?” That really tells you all you need to know about my relationship with Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler. (Regular readers of this blog know all too well that I have two literary obsessions, and he is one of them.)
In any case, I decided I would blog about all of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events, in a monthly dose of Snicket. This is, obviously, one of my very favorite series, and it’s interesting watching characters develop and plots thicken, and things changing tonally. So sit back and grab a little something to counter your inevitable depression, because there are spoilers to follow…
In The Bad Beginning, we are introduced to the three Baudelaire children: eldest Violet, an inventor; middle child Klaus, a voracious reader and researcher; and baby Sunny, who communicates in largely unintelligible shrieks and bites. It’s not the worst day of their lives, by far, but it’s the start of a seemingly endless series of terrible days, when they discover that their parents have perished in a fire and they are now the three Baudelaire orphans who must live with their geographically closest, relative, the abominable Count Olaf.
This is ostensibly a book for children, whose protagonists are children, but who suffer through very adult things and learn very adult lessons. Such as: people will stand helplessly by while you suffer. Adults will ignore the pleas of children. Occasionally you will be forced to make decisions in no-win scenarios, and you will have to live with the emotional consequences. People that you love and trust are occasionally selfish or cowardly, and will abandon you in your hour of need to serve their own ends. It’s bleak stuff, one hundred percent, but the benefit is that the bleak stuff also comes with a silver lining of hope, that not everyone is hideously awful, that there is always love and trust and hope (somewhere), that you make your own family, and that even a tiny bit of knowledge can be powerful as all get-out.
But that’s a larger scope of the series as a whole. In The Bad Beginning, we mostly just see small-scale villainy. Count Olaf wants to get his grubby hands on the Baudelaire fortune, which isn’t available until Violet becomes of age. So after keeping the orphans as his slaves for awhile (including humiliating them in front of his weird actor friends, and hitting Klaus in the face), Count Olaf upgrades his plans. He plots to marry Violet and gain her inheritance that way, through the guise of “marrying” her in a play (that he himself has written). He’s conned well-meaning next-door neighbor Justice Strauss into playing the “role” of judge, and as Violet’s guardian, he can approve her being married at fourteen. Klaus reads a book on nuptial law found in Justice Strauss’s library, which she is kind enough to offer the Baudelaires passage to at any time they want. Klaus figures out Olaf’s plan, but when he and Violet confront Olaf, Olaf counters by trapping infant Sunny in a birdcage and suspending her from a tower. “Unfortunate Events,” my ass, that is some seriously dark stuff. Count Olaf threatens to drop Sunny thirty feet unless Violet agrees to marry him. His assistant, the hook-handed man (Olaf’s assistants do not get names in this particular novel, they are just odd folks with interesting identifications (the hook-handed man, the white-faced women, the person who neither looks like a man nor a woman) and an appetite for evil), threatens that Klaus and Sunny will be disposed of altogether once the marriage is finalized. Olaf definitely hurls a veiled threat at Klaus pre-performance about breaking a leg, and he does not mean it in terms of theatre jargon.
Furthermore, Olaf and the hook-handed man make frequent reference to how pretty Violet is, and how they’d hate to damage her loveliness. This is not done in the way that, say, well-meaning but ultimately useless banker Mr. Poe would call her pretty, because Mr. Poe isn’t marrying her, and Olaf is. Violet is fourteen. It’s really disturbing.
Rest assured, though, the Baudelaires manage to escape this arrangement. Olaf, being a grandiose, self-important actor-type, cuts off his play mid-performance to announce to the room at large that the whole thing was a scam and now he’s married to the teenage girl. Performer (“performer”) Justice Strauss and well-meaning but ultimately useless banker Mr. Poe are horrified by this turn of events, even though Violet and Klaus did their best to warn both adults up until the point Olaf threatened their infant sister with a really icky death. Violet and Klaus, however, save themselves. Klaus uses his researching skills to look up the specifications of nuptial law, including the part about the bride signing the legal document in her own hand, and Violet uses her inventing mind to come up with the last minute solution of signing the document with her left hand rather than her dominant right. It’s an easy solution, well enough, and Justice Strauss’s terrible guilt that this happened at all leads her to rule the entire marriage invalid.
But here’s the glorious thing: the Baudelaires save themselves. We teach our kids that in times of trouble, they need to go and find a helpful and trustworthy adult. What we don’t teach them is that sometimes even trustworthy adults are useless. The Baudelaires learn that all too soon, but then they turn it around and help themselves. This is a recurring theme in the series, about learning how to adapt your skills to suit a situation, and/or about increasing your level of knowledge about a subject, and essentially learning how to save yourself. Admittedly, the odds of finding yourself about to be married against your will to your legal guardian are (hopefully) low, and likewise you are not going to have to learn all about nuptial law in a night or have to make a grappling hook to scale a thirty-foot tower and save your sister from a birdcage (again, this is a hopeful assumption; I don’t know your life), but overall, they’re still important lessons to take with you. Self-sufficiency is important, learning is important, and you should probably never trust anyone who says he’s a count when you’re not sure of what is he the count.
Unfortunately, for all of his grandiose bad acting and his brutishness, Count Olaf is actually clever, and he makes his escape in a moment of mass confusion, taking the time to whisper threateningly in Violet’s ear as he departs. The kind Justice Strauss, with her lovely garden and extensive library, offers to take in the children, but their parents’ will specifies they have to be raised by a relative, so the last we see of the Baudelaires is them being whisked off in the back of Mr. Poe’s car, to points unknown.