Opening Passage: (from The Bad Beginning, p. 1)
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
Summary: The three Baudelaire children were playing alone on the beach one day when they are given very bad news: their house has burned down, and their parents both died in the fire. According to their parents' will, they are to be raised by a relative in the most convenient way; because of this, they are placed in the care of Count Olaf, a distant relative in blood, but a very close relative in distance, since he lives in the same city. But they have never heard of him. Count Olaf, who lives in a dirty house with carvings of eyes everywhere, is a not-at-all-pleasant man, and it becomes clear very quickly that he is out to get his dirty hands on the Baudelaire fortune. His plan for doing so is to use a little-known legal provision to marry Violet, which will give him the power to manage the fortune she stands to inherit. The Baudelaires will have to use their abilities to bite, to research, and to invent in order to get out of the mess.
The Bad Beginning is also a very simple beginning; Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, is only fourteen years old, and Sunny is barely more than a baby. Their full scope of action is quite small. But this is a recurring theme throughout the series: everyone's scope of action in the entire world is actually quite small, although it can be increased a bit by things like intrepidity, reading, and mechanical invention. Mr. Poe accomplishes nothing except what is his duty; Justice Strauss is only able to help to the extent that the Baudelaires help her to do so. The nice, decent people accomplish nothing of significance, and the villains fail -- but get away.
In the first book, the children are failed by the law. They will successively be failed by science (The Reptile Room), family (The Wide Window), industry (The Miserable Mill), education (The Austere Academy), high society (The Ersatz Elevator), community (The Vile Village), medicine (The Hostile Hospital), entertainment (The Carnivorous Carnival), their own plan (The Slippery Slope), trusted friends and allies (The Grim Grotto), themselves (The Penultimate Peril), and religion(The End -- although it is much more coyly done than the rest, which is interesting, given that Daniel Holder is himself a secular humanist). This is not particularly surprising; when we speak about any of these things, we are really speaking about what human beings do, and failing themselves and each other is one of the things human beings, sad to say, do best. (It is also not particularly surprising writing-wise, since the series drums up interest by deliberately letting standard story conventions fail on a regular basis.) But one thing does not fail, and that is the firmness with which the Baudelaires stick with each other, through thick and thin, through good and bad.
Much of the storytelling is cyclic. The same things keep happening in different variations. In parts this is handled quite well, so that you hardly notice it unless you are looking for it; in other parts, it does not work so well, as with the more formulaic books at the beginning of the series, in which the cycles are too obvious. This is a series that clearly grew with the writing. One of the flaws that creates is that the things that make the series particularly interesting arise too late with too little foreshadowing. The real appeal of the series is the V.F.D. and its schism, and we have nothing about it, beyond some very brief and very limited clues (like the dedications and vague asides by Lemony Snicket), until the tail-end of The Austere Academy (Book the Fifth). It is only with The Ersatz Elevator, which I would say is the strongest book in the series, capturing both the attractions of the earlier books but also setting up the later books, that the secrets and mysteries begin to unfold -- into other secrets and mysteries, of course, but that is precisely what makes it all interesting. For example, little clue toward the end of the series suddenly sheds a little light -- although only a little light -- on why Aunt Josephine in The Wide Window is so terrified of realtors. And learning about the differences -- and all too often non-differences -- between villains and volunteers, is really what makes it possible to get through the series.
The series is sometimes said to take a turn into moral relativism toward the end, but having read it more than once, I don't think this is at all true. The line between being a villain and being a volunteer -- between being the sort of person who starts fires, both literal and figurative, and the sort of person who puts out fires, both literal and figurative -- always remains clear. It is true that beginning with The Slippery Slope, the Baudelaires start worrying about what they are doing in order to escape the clutches of Olaf, and in particular about whether they are becoming villains themselves; and it is true that by The Penultimate Peril, their participation in villainous deeds has become clear enough. But to focus on this is to miss the point, which is made quite clear by the end. Everything becomes more complicated as the Baudelaires grow older and become more experienced. At the beginning of the series, for instance, the occasional mentions of the Baudelaire parents always place them in the glow that comes from children missing their parents. As we learn more of the role of the Baudelaire parents in the V.F.D., a few qualifications start to arise, as we wonder about their role in the schism, the theft of Esmé Squalor's sugar bowl, and, worst of all, the poison darts at the opera. Likewise, we learn that there is more to Count Olaf than one might think, and that he has a surprising amount in common with the Baudelaires. But this is simply the price of knowledge, and of the failures of the world.
Villainy and volunteering are abstract, but villains and volunteers are not. Villains may sometimes volunteer good deeds; volunteers may occasionally do villainous ones. It can sometimes be extraordinarily difficult to tell the difference, particularly since we all have our secrets, good and bad. But the difference between the two sides themselves is not blurred by this. The Baudelaires growing more uneasy about what they do in order to escape indicates a maturation of their ability to tell the difference between what is villainous and what is not. It does not change their recognition that they should not be villains. Count Olaf may have had things bad himself; but he remains unrepentant of the bad deeds he has done, a villain until the end.
For here is the thing of it. As the villains and the volunteers result from a schism in the V.F.D., so it is throughout the world. All our lives are a series of unfortunate events. They are even, over and over again in a neverending cycle of variations, the same kinds of unfortunate events -- deaths, and divisions, and confusions, and losses, and serious mistakes, and failures, and betrayals, and fires figurative and literal. We all experience the treachery of the world -- and we all contribute new treacheries to it. We all have secrets, bad as well as good. We even all use the same kinds of excuses, over and over and over again -- give the people what they want, don't rock the boat, he who hesitates is lost, we didn't have a choice, we were doing our jobs, what else could we do? Whether what we are doing is good or bad is not a matter of what team we are on, even though some teams are better to be on than others. But this is all just the way moral life is. It is not relativism; it is realism.
Thus far. But the series, of course, is unremitting and unrelenting in its pessimism, in part for the comic effect and fun of it. The regular theme is that the world is a terrible place, so one might as well be kind and noble, and to the very end it appeals to precisely that sense in the readers. But it is a weak appeal to a weak hope, and does not pretend to be anything else.
To a great extent, of course, talking about these heavy moral issues is foreign to the nature of the books. The series is not about morality. It is about reading. Morality has to come up because morality plays an ineliminable role in reading, with villains, and heroes, and all that. And morality is the heaviest kind of topic with which books deal, pretty much by definition, since all of our heaviest topics are kinds of things we call morality. But it is far from being the only thing involved in reading. There is the delight in reversal, the love of words and the play of expressions, our taste for allusions and clues, and most of all, for our love of reading itself. (This is one reason why moral relativism is impossible for the series: the pursuit of being well-read is a marker, defeasible but real, between villains and volunteers and the kinds of moral characters they have.) People often complain that The End does not solve the mysteries. There was never any intention to do so. The entire series is structured as a novel. We start with The Bad Beginning, the action rises and becomes more intricate through the next several books, until we reach Hotel Denouement in The Penultimate Peril, and, finally, find ourselves at The End. And as Lemony Snicket tells us, the beginning of a story is not an absolute beginning, nor is the end of a story an absolute end. But more than that, the series was never merely about the Baudelaires, or even, despite appearances, primarily about the Baudelaires. The series is the story of the reader reading a story about the Baudelaires. This is explicit throughout. That story began before The Beginning. And no matter what may happen to the Baudelaires or not, the end of the story of the reader reading about them does not and cannot stop with The End.
Favorite Passage: (from The End, pp. 232-233)
The sun filtered through the shade of the enormous apple tree, and shone on the gold block letters on the spine of the book. The children wondered whether the letters had been printed there by their parents, or perhaps by the previous writer of the commonplace book, or the writer before that, or the writer before that. They wondered how many stories the oddly titled history contained, and how many people had gazed at the gold lettering before paging through the crimes, follies, and misfortunes and adding more of their own, like the thin layers of an onion. As they walked out of the arboretum, led by their clay-footed facilitator, the Baudelaire orphans wondered about their own unfortunate history, and that of their parents and all the other castaways who washed up on the shores of the island, adding chapter upon chapter to A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning, HarperCollins (New York: 1999).
Lemony Snicket, The End, Egmont (London: 2006).