Because their desperately perilous circumstances force them to behave in ways they would have never previously imagined, the children begin to wonder if they are losing their moral compass.
Patrick T. Reardon: Who dies in The End?
Daniel Handler: All of us die in the end. Surely the Chicago Tribune knows that.
-- "The end is near for Lemony Snicket", Chicago Tribune, 8 October 2006
The wildly popular A Series of Unfortunate Events series contains disquietingly exciting plot points, a continuous stream of clever word plays, ubiquitous literary allusions, scathing social commentary and endlessly entertaining cultural references. It also delves into serious issues of moral choice and Good vs. Evil, but because the author couches these weighty ethical matters in extremely witty prose, the books never feel quite as depressing as their dark narratives (and their narrator) would imply.
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, the very "unfortunate" protagonists, are siblings who are suddenly orphaned in Book One and then rapidly thrust into one miserable situation after another -- circumstances which take place in locales with names such as "Café Salmonella", "Squalor Penthouse", "Rarely Ridden Road", and "Heimlich Hospital". The source of their ceaseless affliction is the thoroughly evil but hilariously narcissistic Count Olaf, who tirelessly seeks custody of the children so that he can assume their sizeable fortune. At first, the orphans try to obtain Olaf-deflecting assistance from nearby adults but quickly discover that all grown-ups within their reach are evil, myopic, cowardly, or soon-murdered.
Instead of depending on others to help them, the exceptionally resourceful Baudelaire kids come to rely on their own abilities and talents, and it is the display of these formidable skills which could almost make the title of the series Brainiacs Rule! While taking a short break from imploring his readers to drop his sad tale in order to find something less depressing to read, Snicket refers to his story in a more positive light by calling it an "instructive tale to benefit young minds". Nowhere is this "instructive" element more evident than when Violet, a budding mechanical engineer, invents a remarkably complex disaster-escaping device -- at least one per book. The profoundly well-read Klaus comes in a close second for impressive intellectual abilities, being possessed of a photographic memory and prodigious research skills. And infant Sunny owns a few teeth of Olympian sharpness, which (hilariously) come in quite handy in each predicament.
The story's most focused and ubiquitous instruction, however, stems from the author's obvious love of language. Daniel Handler, (the real name of the author, who sometimes refers to himself as Lemony Snicket's "handler"), wrote several adults novels before initiating his children's series. His obvious predicament: what to do with the language complexities that he loved but which would most likely create roadblocks in the thought processes of a child? Answer: let the complexities remain but constantly define them within the context of the story. A very typical example of his within-the-text definition is found in the following explanation of the word "nefarious": "Within days of the orphans' arrival at a new place, Count Olaf and his nefarious assistants -- the word "nefarious" here means "Baudelaire-hating" -- are usually on the scene."
Not only does Snicket / Handler offer one-time definitions, but like an excellent teacher, he brings up the word or phrase again and again within a multitude of different contexts. One amusing example of this is found in his attempt to define the literary device "deus ex machina". After delineating the term several times throughout Book Seven, the Baudelaires, cornered by a mob that is clamoring to burn them at the stake, are desperately in need of such an escape. Suddenly, infant Sunny looks up into the sky and shouts "Machina!" as she sees a hot air balloon which attempts to rescue her and her siblings.
In addition to expanding children's vocabularies, attracting them to the benefits of intellectual accomplishment ("reading poetry, even if you are only reading to find a secret message within its words, can often give one the feeling of power"), portraying sloppy personal hygiene as practiced only by evil criminals (Count Olaf: "I wear the same outfit for weeks at a time, except when I'm in disguise"), and teaching them meaningful social etiquette ("to force your dreadful singing voice on somebody, or even a crowd of people, is one of the world's most wicked crimes"), the series also delves into some deep philosophical issues, such as the meaning and consequences of that good and evil debate. The children, who always try to do the right thing, are rewarded by being doggedly pursued, first by the unstoppable Count Olaf, and later, by the authorities. Because their desperately perilous circumstances force them to behave in ways they would have never previously imagined, the children begin to wonder if they are losing their moral compass. As Book 12 closes and 13 opens (out last month, with illustrations by Brett Helquist), the children are literally in the same boat with Count Olaf. Are they also in the same boat ethically?
The questions raised by the series are quite timely: are the children guilty of misdeeds if they do something iniquitous to prevent themselves from harm? And are evil deeds truly evil if they are performed for the greater good? These are heavy matters which burden the Baudelaire siblings but serve as stimulating thought for young readers. Virtue must be, as the Baudelaires eventually discover, its own reward.
It is not the whole story of course, but it is enough. Under the circumstances, it is the best for which you could hope.
-- The End
Moral ambiguities are one thing: literary ambiguities are quite another. In Book Six, the Baudelaires begin to realize that some of their "unfortunate events" contain mysterious links, which are also somehow connected to their dead parents. Clues begin to trickle towards the orphans until their yearning for answers becomes a rushing torrent, which has the reader nearly screaming for a satisfying denouement.
But at the end of Book 12, Hotel Denouement is burnt to the ground. This is a signal to the good guys in the story that the hotel is no longer a "safe place" and to the readers -- those who understand literary terms -- that The End will not present a tidy finish to the series.
Handler, who has a way with children because, as he says, "I don't talk to them any differently than I do to adults", has chosen a very realistic ending to his series. In real life, plot points don't wrap up neatly, bad things happen, mysteries remain unsolved and hopes are disappointed; in a sense, perhaps, this ending fits a 21st century readership perfectly.
But because the series is hardly realistic -- real teenagers don't escape from jail by inventing a bread-as-sponge device which is able to knock bricks loose and real infants don't hold their own in a sword fight armed with only their teeth -- a fanciful ending with all plot points satisfactorily wrapped would hardly have been inappropriate. And if Handler never intended to tie up his loose ends, why did he deliberately create such an intense longing for a satisfactory finale -- both in the hearts of his protagonists and in the souls of his faithful readers -- only to have this expectation swallowed by a giant question mark representing "the great unknown"? Readers of Unfortunate Events were indeed hoping for much more.
Not meaning to look a gift horse in the mouth, a phrase which here means (sort of) that although the series has an ending that is about as exciting as the stupefying coconut cordial found in Book 13, an author who not only entertains young readers but also exposes them to the glories of language, culture, social protocol, and the infinite possibilities within themselves should be highly commended. Snicket's work here is arguably the most seriously hilarious instruction currently in print. Perhaps this is indeed all one could hope for.