I read a few books in the A Series of Unfortunate Events volumes when I was younger, and I’m sorry to have only completed them now. Daniel Handler, a.k.a Lemony Snicket, treats the children as adults and the adults as children; a frustrating, refreshing, and frustratingly refreshingly realistic view. The three Baudelaire children journey through turmoils and terrors, being failed by adults and authorities at every turn. I don’t really remember my impression of these books all those years ago, other than enjoying them, but as a cynical young millennial, they seem to hit all the right nerves.
When a “baddie” is in a boat, about to sail off with a bunch of doomed islanders but without a compass, one of the Baudelaires calls out his need for a moral compass. Notice the quotation marks up there. At the beginning of the Series, baddies and goodies are painted as such in two-dimensional terms. As the books go on, the fleshing out of these characters happens in minuscule amounts until, all of a sudden, the protagonists and the readers are confronted with real people with stories of their own. It is no revelation to someone with a few brain cells that everyone is a mix of good and bad and all things in between, even if the ratios can vary. But somehow Snicket lures us into a universe where people really are just villainous or noble, only to then confront us with a boat-rocking announcement that maybe we should rethink this. Despite his thematic representation of children as (generally) the responsible truth-seekers and -sayers, the Series‘ world is shaped by walking us out of this childlike binary along with the Baudelaires and into a much greyer, foggier knowledge. Just as they come to terms with their dead parents’ dubious actions and their nemesis’ unfortunate childhood and perhaps “good” past, the readers find out that we have been duped into their simplistic attitude along with them.
Unsurprisingly (spoiler not spoiler), the books end on bombshells and cliffhangers and a mixed trolley of emotions. And the end is not an ending, and the beginning was not a beginning. And why is it so surprising that the Series reflects real life? Films and books have long been called out for their happy endings when everyone knows life goes on past the wedding or the victory or the rapprochement, etc etc blah blah. So why, in a self-proclaimed series of unfortunate events, did I still expect a happy ending with closure abound for the Baudelaires? Lemony Snicket, you sneaky weasel. Let me drop any lingering childhood expectations for my own. (I assume that the moral compass is optional IRL.)
Rather than any pious, sickly morality lessons, the Series acts as a reminder to be adults but also to be children. I nearly wrote that this might pass over the heads of a younger audience, but I checked myself; have I learned nothing from the Baudelaires? As someone who is technically an adult, am I the falsity-ridden enemy now, despite my best intentions? But as Snicket tells us, we can never know “the whole story,” because any question leads to another, leads to another, leads…