Netflix recently announced that it would be producing a series based on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the acclaimed 13+ volume children’s series. 1%JIHAD staffers gallons and s.s. decided to take this opportunity to read the series over and figure out why it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye. See our assessments of books 1-3 here, and 4-7 here.
gallons – These next three books, plus “Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography,” which was released right before book the ninth, bring us deeper and deeper into the vast moral quandary – a phrase which here means “a conflict between good and evil in which it is disturbingly hard to figure out which side any given action will land you on” – that we’ve already begun to see hints of in the preceding chapters. “The Hostile Hospital,” “The Carnivorous Carnival,” and especially “The Slippery Slope” find the Baudelaire orphans and Lemony Snicket increasingly blurring the lines between good and evil, truth and fiction, and story and frame. We thought things were already getting a bit heady in our last recap, but by the time we reach “The Slippery Slope,” it’s clear that we, the audience, are meant to have grown up at least as much as Sunny Baudelaire herself. We also get far deeper into the mystery of V.F.D., especially in the “Autobiography.” But more on that later. What do you think about the trajectory of morality over the course of these three books, s.s.?
s.s. – It’s hard to know where to begin, but I think we can start by laying out two adjacent lines of thought that have finally intersected. The first is something we mentioned in our two previous segments – there are many, many, many, well intentioned individuals (all of them adults) who are incredibly incompetent and follow their own aphorisms and/or personal creeds to a distorted and grotesque degree. Snicket (maybe Handler?) clearly paints this blind allegiance as having terrifying consequences. [spoiler alert] In “CC,” for example, Olivia/Madame Lulu believes in giving people what they want so much that it ends up killing her. For the first six books or so, this distortion of language is basically restricted to the Baudelaires’ caretakers and, importantly, there is no real disturbing action that accompanies it except for inaction.
The second is the moral gray area that accompanies the Baudleaires’ efforts to survive after they basically stop having caretakers. For instance in “The Vile Village” the Baudelaires attempt to use “mob psychology” as a way to prevent Jacques Snicket’s death and feel guilty about essentially trying to trick people into supporting them. In “HH,” Klaus and Sunny feel bad about tricking people into thinking that they are surgeons and are alarmed at Klaus’s willingness to wield a rusty knife at Olaf’s retinue. “CC” is where things start to get really gnarly and the Baudelaires inadvertently use mob psychology again to a tragic degree. “SS” shows a climax of some kind when the Orphans try to “fight fire with fire” and dig an enormous pit to trap Esmé Squalor only to feel so villainous about it that they prevent Esmé from falling in.
The point seems to be that even actions that are justified can still be villainous just like creeds that are mostly good can still be bad. As an adult reader it’s hard to not agree with Handler’s point in general, but I still really, really, really, wanted the orphans to trap Esmé in that pit. I’m not so sure that the “ends” don’t at least sometimes “justify the means” but maybe that’s the Iraq-invadin’-American in me. I’m trying to think of an example of the orphans doing something nefarious that they deem is worth it and don’t feel guilty about – anything come to mind?
gallons – Yeah, it definitely would’ve been fun to see them follow through and do something legitimately bad, but I think that would be a tough pill to swallow for the younger audience these books are aimed at. I can’t recall a point, in these books, that they did anything worse than steal Hal’s keys, and they definitely felt pretty bad about that.
The moral relativism angle in these books is really interesting though, especially considering that they’re for kids. It feels like the general message Snicket is trying to convey is that evil is not always evil and good is not always good – as you pointed out, most of the well-intentioned characters in the books end up being just about as bad as the villains. Even the actually-not-dead Quigley Quagmire has some sort of “overly-good” vibes, what with his obsession with whether or not someone is “well-read.” (One of the more fun ways in which the books depict this moral ambiguity is on the title pages of each book – For books 1-8, the Baudelaire’s were always depicted in the same way, unmasked, while Olaf was shown below them in whatever guise he takes in that book – an intercom speaker in the case of “HH.” Starting with “CC,” though, the orphans are shown disguised – as circus freaks in 9 and Snow Scouts in 10 – while Olaf is shown in his own clothes, unibrow and all. The tides are turning, indeed.)
I think one of the darkest moments in the series thus far, and sort of the culmination of its moral ambiguity, is when Violet, Klaus, and Quigley are waiting for Esmé to fall into their pit and Klaus straight quotes “Beyond Good and Evil” – “‘When I was looking into the pit,’ Klaus said quietly, ‘I was remembering something I read in a book by a famous philosopher. He said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”‘” Quigley asks what happened to this philosopher, and Klaus responds, ‘”He’s dead.”‘ (“SS”, 274) This scene recalls the motto of Prufrock Preparatory School – “Memento Mori.” No matter how hard the Baudelaires try to retain their humanity, no matter how careful they are when circling the abyss, death is still coming for them, just like it came for their parents, Uncle Monty, Aunt Jospehine and Ike, Beatrice, and Jacques Snicket.
Speaking of Jacques Snicket – He seems to be a pretty pivotal figure, and we get to learn a lot more about him from Quigley in book ten. Any thoughts on Jacques’ role in the story, or the way he ties together the Baudelaire and Snicket trajectories?
s.s. – The Nietzsche reference clearly matters quite a bit to Handler because it is one of, if not the only, time that a literary reference is explicitly spelled out. It seems that this ties in quite well with the “well-read” theme, as Klaus’ breadth of knowledge manages to allow the orphans to avoid the pit-fall (ha ha) of becoming just as bad as Olaf.
Jacques is one of the most tragic characters in the series. We find out from Quigley that Jacques has been tracking down the Baudelaires ever since he found out their parents had died. He is, so far, the most intelligent and genuinely good character to appear in the book – so of course he dies. It makes me think that Handler is purposefully exposing just how stacked the deck is when you try to be an ethically strong and powerful person. You don’t win very often and even when you do it usually takes a lot more work.
We find out quite a bit more about Jacques in the “Unauthorized Autobiography.” Namely, that he has been involved in the orphans’ affairs (directly and indirectly) for quite some time. Specifically, he has been helping Lemony (his brother) avoid capture and has been advising Jerome to avoid marrying Esmé (and to buy the apartment at 667 Dark Avenue). We find out very little about the man himself and his exact position within V.F.D. – but it’s interesting to think about his obviously close relationship with the Baudelaires and how that might tie into his brother Lemony. Jacques is pursuing the Baudelaire orphans even though (as we find out in book 10) there are many other orphans he could pursue. Obviously, the picture in the Snicket File links the Baudelaires and the Snickets together – we just don’t know how. The auto-bio does little to explain the connection despite being entirely about the Snickets and Baudelaires and, as a whole, it manages to both explain and deepen every mystery in the series, which is probably the single best thing it can do. I am beginning to suspect that most of the mysteries in the book will remain unsolved, and I think I’m glad about that.
gallons – What makes Jacques’ death even more tragic is that, at the time, back in “The Vile Village,” all we knew about him was that he was a unibrowed man with an eye tattoo who had the same last name as the author. He came and went so quickly – such is the fate of all good men, apparently.
But yeah, the auto-bio is a fascinating document. From the at-least-five-layers-deep frame-tale device that initially posits itself as an introduction by Daniel Handler, “the official representative of Lemony Snicket in all legal, literary and social matters,” to the wild-goose chase in the Index, where “Baudelaire case” leads to “Snicket file” leads to “solemn vows” leads to “noble causes” leads to “necessary evils” leads to “moral uncertainty” leads to “villainy” leads to “conspiracies” leads to “overall feeling of doom” leads to “doom, overall feeling of” leads to “ix-211,” i.e. every page in this book, this is where Handler has the most fun goofing around formally. It’s also where we get some of the most detailed information about V.F.D., an organization which, as I mentioned in the last post, is directly ripped from Pynchon, much like a lot of this series.
To wit – “The Crying Of Lot 49” is constantly moving around a conspiracy involving a shadowy organization called “W.A.S.T.E.” It turns out that W.A.S.T.E. is a secret organization of couriers, which experienced a very V.F.D.-esque schism in which its other half turned into the United States Postal Service, an organization W.A.S.T.E. considers evil and is battling at every turn in weird clandestine ways that don’t make much sense to the outside world. Furthermore, W.A.S.T.E. has a insignia they put everywhere of a muted horn, and their initials stand for “We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire” – “The world is quiet here,” anyone? Honestly, the entire structure of mysteries that beget more mysteries in an unending cycle of mystery is very pomo and very Pynchon – Just think about “The Golden Fang” in “Inherent Vice” – Is it a ship? A drug cartel? A dental association? We never really find out, and just like you say, s.s., I’m not sure we’ll ever find out what the deal is with just about anything in A.S.o.U.E., but that certainly doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it.
But anyway – V.F.D. is the central mystery we’ve been circling around for some time now. What do you think their deal is, based on what we’ve just read?
s.s. – Even though it became pretty clear early on that V.F.D. stood for Volunteer Fire Department, it still felt surprisingly anti-climactic when the acronym was finally revealed. For how much build up the initials were given, Quigley just sort of throws out the definition in the middle of his larger narrative. Klaus even gives it the run-of-the-mill definition treatment: “In some communities there’s no official fire department…” It’s funny, but I think it might have been a bit more satisfying to see the mystery spiral a little more, or have it be a front for something. A Volunteer Fire Department isn’t a very secret institution, after all.
Still, the absurd world we are wandering around in contains some top-notch arsonists, so maybe V.F.D. ‘s literal purpose is more important than I’m giving it credit for. The auto-bio also really complicates things by making it pretty clear that V.F.D. kidnaps children (like Lemony) and then trains them rather poorly. The disguise kit is hilarious. It’s so bad that I almost think it’s a fake made solely so Olaf can’t disguise himself properly. All of the disguises that include “business card” are great. Big fan. Anyway, V.F.D. is pretty much the most intense Volunteer Fire Department ever, so there is still some mystery to exactly why V.F.D. is as secretive as it is.
Now that V.F.D. has more or less been revealed, the big mysteries that we have left are: Who is Lemony Snicket? Is there a Baudelaire parent still alive? Where are the other two Quagmires? What’s the deal with the incredibly menacing man with a beard but no hair and woman with hair but no beard? And why is the sugar bowl important??