Monday, December 14, 2015



Starting on that fateful Christmas day years and years ago when I unwrapped the first ten books of Lemony Snicket’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS and, incidentally, fell down the staircase while reading THE REPTILE ROOM, this series was a staple of my childhood. As a young person, I connected very deeply with the stories, but only now, as an adult, am I beginning to understand why. So I figured I’d share my revelations with you. You’re welcome.

From the very beginning of the series, the Baudelaire children become forcibly acquainted with misery—long, drawn-out misery. When I was younger, I sometimes wondered why Lemony Snicket chose to cover such dark subject matter in a series of children’s books. Like, why not write about happy things? Don’t get me wrong—I really enjoyed the stories. I just wondered, is all. (I believe that question came from this sense I had as a child that I could handle much harder things than most little people could. I was rather pompous back then, I think.) Now I get it, though. On the one hand, I would hazard a guess that this series is meant to help adults understand what it is like for a kid to experience suffering, but on the other hand, it is also meant for kids who are suffering to see that they are not alone, that there is someone out there who not only understands but cares.

Mr. Poe. After the children lose their parents and their home in a terrible fire, their parents’ banker, Mr. Poe, is charged with finding a good home for them. He fails miserably at this job—in fact, all thirteen books in this series are pretty much a tribute to the fact that he is a horrible guardian-seeker (that’s totally a proper term). While he does take the Baudelaires in for a while before handing them off to their distant relative, Count Olaf, he offers no true support. When the children come to him with their concerns about Count Olaf, he shuts them down and does not bother to look into the matter, even though Klaus tells him that Olaf struck him.

Worse still, Mr. Poe supposedly has a chronic cough, but I believe his cold his more habit than anything since it seems that whenever one of the children has something big and important to say, something that might involve difficulty and action, Mr. Poe breaks down into one of his infamous coughing fits and then changes the subject.

Mr. Poe is the classic adult figure that so many suffering children in real life must face. He is the man who claims to care and has been charged with caring but does not really care. As long as it does not take too much effort, he will help out, but when it comes to exerting himself or digging deep or actually trying, he won’t do anything. He’s too busy with his bank or he’s too busy with coughing and he just not invested enough. Worse, he won’t take the children seriously because they are just that—children. Every time the Baudelaires warn him about Count Olaf, now that they know his evil plans, no matter how often they have been right before, he brushes them off as being too distraught or as having a tendency to see Count Olaf everywhere. His reluctance to listen to them is often what puts them in the most danger, and every time, without fail, Count Olaf escapes after being exposed and Mr. Poe does nothing to stop him. Absolutely nothing.

Like Mr. Poe, many adults downplay what children have to say because they are children or because they have been through something traumatic or just because. Adults can assume that, since children are young, they need not be trusted or listened to. So too often children with legitimate struggles, children who need help, get swept under the rug because let’s face it, kids with issues are a hassle and why bother with all that effort—all that work—when you can just cough into your handkerchief loudly enough to drown out the sound of suffering?

Count Olaf. Count Olaf is pain; he is the antagonist; he is the constant source of misery that follows the Baudelaire children around everywhere. He is the one who taints everything, the one who takes even happy moments and twists them into something awful. And no matter how hard the children try, they can never escape him. Perhaps, if they had had actual help from those in a position of authority and power, they would have been able to live happy childhoods. But no one cared enough to truly save them from Count Olaf. Instead, the vast majority of adults in the Baudelaires’ lives offered Band-Aid solutions, patted themselves on their backs, and left it at that.

But Olaf is also the adult who sees the children only as a sum of their misfortune. True, I know that he looks down on them and so chooses to talk down to them, but I don’t think it’s an accident that he refers to the Baudelaires as orphans, as if orphans are a different species of people. That’s something else that adults often do to children—label them and see them only as the sum of their suffering.  

Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine is so afraid of everything, she won’t even let herself or those around her live. She allows her fear to control her, and it puts the children, who are under her protection, in danger. Instead of taking care of them, which is her job, she puts her own life first. She is terrified of door knobs and welcome mats and telephones, but she isn’t frightened by the things that should truly scare her, like the fact that she lives in a house literally suspended on rickety stilts over Lake Lachrymose. Maybe if she had stopped caring so much about the things that couldn’t hurt her, and maybe if she had started focusing on the things that still could, she would have been able to be a proper guardian. Maybe if she hadn’t been such a sniveling coward, to the point where she couldn’t even bring herself to use the phone in order to call the police, she wouldn’t have sold out the children to Count Olaf in order to save her own skin.

But I think in some ways it’s easier for her to be afraid of the small manageable things, the ones that—deep down—she knows can’t really harm her, so she doesn’t have to think about the big things, the ones that can harm her, the ones she feels she can’t avoid. Why else would she live teetering on the brink of a precipice yet refuse to use the stove because it might catch fire?

Ultimately, it seems to me that A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is a veiled lesson about the many ways in which adults fail children—a muted harangue of sorts. This is why I especially appreciate the fact that Lemony Snicket pulls in so much intelligent material, as though he is telling his audience how he believes that they are more than just young people, that they matter, and that they are smarter than adults often assume. While he explains bigger vocabulary words along the way (which really helped me when I was a young person, even though sometimes his explanations wouldn’t count for proper definitions) he doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that, because children might need a few words defined for them, they can’t understand big things like death, loss, suffering, and abandonment.

Finally, beyond the hard, powerful themes, Lemony Snicket can’t seem to keep from pulling in literary and classical references, like the “Virginian Wolfsnake” (bonus points if you get that) and Brett Helquist’s illustration of Damocles Dock depicting an arch with a sword hanging over the Baudelaire children’s heads (even more points if you get that reference without clicking this link here)—all of which serve to deepen the story.

Okay, little coffee beans, that’s it for today. I will be covering the next three books in a week or two. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Have you read the series? Do you agree/disagree with my analysis? What literary/classical references have you noticed in the books? Which installment is your favorite? Which character is your favorite?


  1. I totally love this! I haven't read the books in a long time, but I love the way that you point out how Olaf dehumanizes the Baudelaires by referring to them as orphans rather than people... And Poe. Yeah. Like, adults who are supposed to care but don't. I feel like a lot of it is meant to identify with children because the adults are the way adults look in the eyes of children and young people. Adults sometimes don't care about the right things or let their fears get in the way of a child's dreams, and it's terrible.

    BUT YES. This is awesome, Liz!

    1. Thank you! I hadn't read them in a long while either, and I really enjoyed rereading them all. You're right, it's definitely something that speaks directly to children in that way, and it's definitely great for exposing how some adults just don't care enough about the right stuff.

      Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. :)

  2. I LOVE THIS. Lemony Snicket's books are some of my favorites ever, and I'm always trying to tell people that there's soooo much beyond the depressingness and witty jokes. :P

    1. Aww, thank you! Lemony Snicket's books are brilliant and wonderful and I feel bad that so many people miss out on that. I wish more people saw how deep and smart they are. :)

  3. *applauds* This is an awesome analysis. I too read and loved the books when I was younger, but I don't think I ever thought about them quite this deeply.
    It's true, though, what you said. There's so much more to this series than the depressing sense of humor and elaborate definitions of long words, and it really does speak to the suffering that a lot of kids with issues deal with.


    1. *bows deeply* Why thank you. :) It was definitely a fun mental exercise to go through them and try to really think about them as I was rereading.
      I really like all the surface cleverness and darkness, and I guess it's easy to miss the deep stuff, but yeah, ASOUE deals with suffering really well.

  4. Oh yes, ASOUE is definitely a story which shows the ways adults fail children -- but at the same time, I think the true beauty is in how you don't quite understand everything about the series until you become older and closer to the adults and begin to also fail those younger than you. Looking forward to the rest of the analysis!

    1. Great point. I definitely didn't see how wonderful and deep it was until I reached the age where the messages would be more relevant (in some ways) to me. But, I do like how, even though I didn't fully realize what it was about, it was still an encouragement to my childhood self. Thank you!