The Great Juvenile Gothic: A Series of Unfortunate Events and its Relation to Children’s Gothic Fiction

by Emily Drouillard

The tridecalogy A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the most gothic children’s’ book series in print and was a part of the growth of the genre of gothic literature for children. The first novel in the series, The Bad Beginning, was published in 1999, when the movement toward more macabre children’s works was gaining strength. The book is full of both gothic plot and reference, making it a prime example of the ways in which the usually adult-driven literary thirst crossed over to become one also felt by the young. The novels, thanks to their popularity, are in part responsible for the domination of the current children’s literature market by gothic tales.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, penned by Daniel Handler through the pen name (and essentially character) Lemony Snicket, is gothic even in the way it was written. Similarly to how Horace Wapole used a false identity to introduce The Castle of Otranto, Handler uses the pseudonym Snicket to allow himself to explore a style that was not the most popular and previous seen as taboo in some ways[1]. Although it was never particularly dormant, and classic works with gothic elements such as Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden were popular, the modern gothic as literature for children has only in the last twentieth and early twenty-first centuries become a mainstream trend and eventual constant in book shops.

The tales in the series revolve around the three Baudelaire orphans who, after losing their parents in a house fire, and sent to live with their sinister relative Count Olaf, who has only taken them in so as to attempt to steal their large fortune. This eventually backfires and the children are sent to live with a new and equally bizarre relative in each book of the series. Count Olaf remains in vicious pursuit of the money, bringing conflict into each volume. The orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, each have a unique talent that helps get the children out of predicaments and put off Olaf’s nefarious attempts each time. Handler as Snicket provides a hilarious yet equally gloomy narration throughout each tale.

In the initial volume, it becomes clear that Handler is writing it not only a gothic novel, but also a novel as homage to the gothic itself. He carefully fills the archetypes of gothic characters, although taking liberties are necessary. The three siblings are introduced immediately as the heroes of the tale, although it can be argued that the eldest, Violet, is also used in part to portray the role of the virginal maiden. As a young virginal girl with a mysterious past and a large hidden fortune, it is no surprise Count Olaf attempts to marry her in the end of the tale and she appears, until her cleverness is later revealed, to be helpless at the altar. Violet fulfills her role as hero throughout the book by utilizing her skills as an inventor to get out of crises. Handler makes her the hero to her own maiden when Violet signs the marriage certificate with the wrong hang, annulling the marriage and saving the fortune and lives of the children.

Klaus, another hero, is highly intelligent and remembers everything he has ever read, making him quite useful as well. He pores over the law library of Justice Strauss, a woman that lives near the Count and acts the part of the older foolish woman, allowing him to figure out Count Olaf’s plan to steal the fortune. Sunny, the literal baby of the family, speaks in garbled syllables and although young is still a hero thanks to her ferocious bite. Together, the siblings make a strong heroic force.

Although Justice Strauss is the true foolish woman trope, it should not be overlooked the general ignorance that is afforded to adults in the novels. The children are thrust into their roles as heroes as a result of the incompetency of those in the only positions to help. Mr. Poe, the banker in charge of the fortune and responsible for taking the kids from relative to relative, is utterly oblivious to the conflicts the children face until there are over. Mr. Poe should be considered the true foolish old woman of the tale. He acts not in the clear best interest of the children but rather blindly follows the law, as a sort of Hippolita that allows the more cunning villain to walk all over him. Poe’s name is conscious nod to Edgar Allen Poe, with his sons being named Edgar and Albert, possible allusions to either the gothic author or ironically the poet Edgar Albert Guest who is directly discussed later in the series.

Unlike the classic adult gothic, Handler keeps his narrator, Snicket, out of the central plot of each tale but still as a semi-involved character, researching the “true” story of their tragedy. Snicket is most similar to the trope of the stupid servant, providing humor, clarification, asking many questions – though rarely stupid and often thought-provoking – and advancing the plot through narration. Similarly to the great Dante, Snicket speaks often of a love lost – she married another and then died – named Beatrice. Beatrice, later revealed to be the mother of the Baudelaire children, is also fittingly an allusion to the poem La Beatrice by the poet Charles Baudelaire[2].

A usual facet of the gothic novel, the corrupt clergy member, is absent, as is the church and outright religious iconography in general. Usually the source of much mystery and supernatural influence, the religious and especially Catholic influence found in works such as Dracula plays a large role in the gothic novel. Catholicism was often used by English writers to influence the setting and its architecture and to bring a sense of fear or discomfort to generally Protestant readers that would see such influences as negative, connection tracing back to the days of the Inquisition. Modern gothic literature for children, such as the Harry Potter series still is full of Christian symbols and ideas. The Unfortunate universe as depicted in the novels is curiously lacking any sort of religious aspect, be it through mention of church or a higher power, or through the shaping of plot or use of symbols. Rather, Handler fills his novels with literary influence. Character after character that emerges has a new and exciting name that with a varying degree of sleuthing almost always is related to literature in some way[3]. Handler places references to Vonnegut’s famous character Trout in the library of two characters whose names are inspired by a Vonnegut poem. His liberal use of references, alliteration and glorification of Klaus’s intelligence in the realm of the written word further this ode to literature. Characters depicted as ‘good’ are often well educated and well read, often with a cavernous library in their possession while those seen as the ‘bad guys’ are painted as uneducated brutes. Even the clearly clever Count Olaf is seen as being under-read.

Without the presence of religion in the novels, the archetype of the weak and sometimes evil priest or clergy member becomes a sort of anomaly. Handler decides to discard the Catholicism that is often being criticized in gothic literature and replace it with what he sees as an evil to be combated, being uneducated and unread. The clergy is something that is often turned to in times of need and, such as in the extraordinarily gothic Tim Burton film Corpse Bride, betrays those seeking help. This role is filled in the books by the archetype of the ignorant adult. Each novel contains at least one, usually two when the bumbling Mr. Poe is taken into account. Poe is the original, being too busy and wrapped up in banking to truly listen to the children and attempt to help them until it is too late. This trope is played out in nearly every book, with Mr. Poe never quite being quick enough to make the connections until Olaf has already fled. Poe is weak but clearly not evil, but the evil part of the character type is not absent. Similarly to in Corpse Bride, in a later book the children seek guidance and support about Count Olaf from their seemingly wonderful guardian Esmé Squalor who proceeds to trap them in an elevator shaft and reveals her affair with the count. The ignorant adult, free from the constraints of the Church and its locations, is free to appear in every book regardless of setting, providing an interesting degree of importance to an archetype that holds less importance in other gothic works.

The setting of the tales, though constantly changing throughout the series, is stagnant in the first novel. The location is never specifically revealed, but the children, before the fire, lived in an “enormous mansion at the heart of a dirt and busy city” where they were allowed to take a “rickety trolley”[4] to Briny Beach, their location at the start of the novel. Klaus even states that the beach “only seems scary … because of all the mist.”[5] In the film adaption of the firs three novels, it should be noted, that although many liberties with the plot were taken, the representation of the characters and settings is well aligned with illustrator Brett Helquist’s drawings in the novel. The city used to film the movie was Boston, Massachusetts, a city known for its gothic revival architecture[6].

When the children are sent to live with Count Olaf, his home is described in the most negative of ways. In one paragraph, it is described as dilapidated, stained with grime, sagging like a crooked tooth, with a tall and dirty tower that was slanted (Snicket, 20)[7]. The description of such an unsightly place recalls images of Poe’s House of Usher. Olaf himself, the villain throughout the entire series, is described similarly with dark and negatively connoted adjectives. His face, seen both through description and illustration, possesses the same severity and ability to frighten as the face of the Dracula inspired Neferatu. In classic gothic form, the decay of the central location in the first book is an ominous reminder of what darkness and fear exists inside for the children. Throughout the novels, the most negative aspects of physical appearances are often highlighted, and things are described as dingily as possible. This gothic aura stays with the children as they move from location to location in each edition.

The setting, through its general anonymity in terms of nation or specific time besides certain Victorian elements, is also gothic through means of mystery. Various hints arise to confuse the readers about where and when the children are, such as illustrations and descriptions of antiquated décor and technology, while at the same time, introducing modernity that prohibits the characters from being pinpointed. Through the series conflicting technologies that in reality make no sense coexisting appear, such as a telegraph machine being the only form of communication at one point, despite the existence of computers, televisions and telephones being proven. This mystery helps create an even deeper gothic atmosphere while still maintaining the degree of dissonance between the story and real life for the reader.

The gothic novels of the past, the classics meant for adults, were popular because they used the supernatural to kept a level of separation between the horror and the reader, allowing it to be enjoyed and the deeper issues the author wanted to unearth to be done so stealthily. As explored in the introduction to the anthology of essays The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders, the tales of supernatural and things that frighten are usually most popular with children, so it makes sense that eventually the gothic as a form of literature for children would reach great popularity. The purpose of the gothic for children, as with most subsets of literary genres specified for children, holds some inner purpose that is more constrained in its goals than that of the adult novel. Books for children in general serve a variety of purposes, but their common goal is usually to teach, whether to educate about a topic or instill certain values or life lessons. The supernatural, or in the case of Handler’s series, the sinister and the ridiculous, can be manipulated especially well to serve this purpose.

The rise of the gothic as a standard in current children’s literature that began in the 1990s and 2000s was, according to Julie Cross, due in part to Handler. In her essay on humor and its relation to children’s gothic fiction, she writes “Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events has, in a large way, contributed to the increase in popularity of the genre, spawning many imitators.” [8] Ironically, the conception of children’s literature was in response to the popularity of the adult gothic romance[9]. It took a few hundred years for the transition of the morally sound books meant for children into the gothic novels and comics of today to be completed. Tales meant to scare children into behaving well have been told for centuries so it is logical that eventually this tactic would infiltrate the literature being read by the children themselves. Handler grasped this concept and infused his humor throughout it, creating juxtaposition between the dark and the light that allowed the books to be universally popular and well received. His success spawned not only imitators as noted but also brought to light contemporaries such as J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. The genre of children’s literature today would seem incomplete without gothic works.

Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket wrote a series of books that would go on to influence the movement of an entire genre. His A Series of Unfortunate Events is very consciously gothic, with each of the thirteen books in the series filled with gothic influence from the use and expansion upon classic archetypes to the small dingy details of the setting. His novels, through their popularity, helped to bring the genre of children’s gothic fiction further into the mainstream than it ever was before and helped secure the gothic as an essential faction of children’s literature.

Works Cited and Referenced

“Architectural Style Guide.” . Boston Preservation Alliance, n.d. Web. 5 May 2014.

Baudelaire, Charles. “La Béatrice (Beatrice).” La Béatrice (Beatrice) by Charles Baudelaire. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2014.

Jackson, Anna, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Snicket, Lemony. The Bad Beginning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. Print.

Snicket, Lemony, and Brett Helquist. A Series of Unfortunate Events Books 1-13. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. Print.

[1] Jackson

[2] Baudelaire

[3] Benfer

[4] Snicket page 2

[5] Snicket page 6

[6] “Architectural Style Guide”

[7] Snicket page 20

[8] Jackson

[9] Jackson page 1