Observations on A Series of Unfortunate Events, a Glorious Upending of the Monomyth
Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth template has been the inspiration of many a great stories which have impacted popular culture in phenomenal ways. The stages it lays out are intricate and interesting, and more importantly, so adaptable that it has become rooted in our psyche. Even unintentionally, we often find ourselves following it partially or completely when fleshing out our own stories, novels, screenplays, plays, etc.
I happen to find that the most riveting books and movies I have ever read and seen are those whose creators have deliberately chosen to throw these conventions away, manipulating the expectations viewers and readers have grown accustomed to. Stories where one does not know what to expect, or what the characters’ motivations and intentions are, and more importantly, stories that you cannot box in categories and stereotypes, are far more interesting than those that play with archetypes and common movie/writing tropes.
I first read A Series of Unfortunate Events by Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket as a teenager, just a few years after watching the polarizing movie adaptation (which I had loved, incidentally). I had had plenty of occasions to read it as a child, but next to Harry Potter, alas, they stood no chance. In retrospect, I envy those who got the opportunity to discover the series as children, because it would have given me that exquisite feeling of re-exploring an older favorite with brand new understanding.
But more importantly, it would have given me a taste for truly singular, out-of-the-box narration and storytelling—perhaps it would even have influenced the way I write today. Despite this missed connection, the story has managed to have as great an impact on my life as those books I read as a child (which include Harry Potter and His Dark Materials), and helped transform the way I deal with grief. Much of this has to do with its genre-bending narrative structure which, deliberately or not, makes a rather solid case against the Hero’s Journey. ASOUE leans into the conventions offered by the Monomyth with such ease that readers are, at first, tricked into thinking it embraces them.
One only need look at select stages of Campbell’s blueprint for it to become apparent that this story does not follow the formula. Before delving into this, the first thing to keep in mind is that this tale could be looked at by individual book (13 stories constituting a series), or as a whole (one big story cut in 13 parts). Considering that the entire Harry Potter books are analyzed against the Monomyth, (as well as the Lord of The Rings series etc.), ASOUE will also be looked at both ways, but primarily as one very long story.
Lemony Snicket’s tale follows three young children, Violet Baudelaire, Klaus Baudelaire and Sunny Baudelaire who are respectively 14, 12 and a baby when the story begins. Violet is fascinated by mechanics and engineering, Klaus is a bibliophile and an enthusiast of fun facts and general knowledge while Sunny’s predilection for biting things, at the beginning of the series, gradually transforms itself into a remarkable talent for fine cuisine.
The story commences in The Bad Beginning with the Baudelaire children being told by their parents’ friend and banker (and serial disappointment), Mr. Poe, that their parents have just died in a fire that also destroyed their home. Mr. Poe takes the children in temporarily while he searches for their closest living relative: it so happens that this person is Count Olaf who lives nearby. With a tentative sense of optimism that rapidly declines as the series progresses, the orphans go live with the latter; it quickly becomes apparent that this man is not the benevolent parent figure he purports to be. In fact, it is safe to say that Count Olaf, a fan-favorite in popular culture is the main antagonist of the series (but not the only one, because Snicket will gradually begin to nuance the protagonist/antagonist notion as the story progresses). He is not only a talentless actor, but also a greedy and murderous man who, along with his troupe (who double as his criminal acolytes) aims to seize the sizable fortune of the Baudelaires.
A rapid run-through of the events of the story: the reader is made to understand rather quickly that he is responsible for the deaths of their parents, and that he plans to murder them as well, as soon as he gets his hands on their money (which he cannot touch until the eldest, Violet, turns 18). When the children realize the predicament they are in (which does nothing to alleviate the grief they are already trying to deal with), they try to warn Mr. Poe, but he does not take them seriously. As anyone who is familiar with the story know, it won’t be the last time. Other well-meaning adult figures appear throughout the story, such as their next-door neighbor Justice Strauss, but she proves to be just as ineffectual in her obliviousness. In the end, using their respective talents and the emotional strength they provide for one another, the children manage to expose the villains before everyone (Mr. Poe, Justice Strauss, etc.), but the adults once again prove their uselessness when Count Olaf and his team manage to escape. Needless to say, a pretty despondent end to the novel.
The children are once again left in the care of Mr. Poe, who now has to find another of their closest relatives. Throughout the following 6 novels, (The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, the Miserable Mill, the Austere Academy, the Ersatz Elevator, the Vile Village), the stories follow the same formula: the children are brought to a new relative who is almost always peculiar, sometimes in a good way, but more often than not, in a detestable manner. The children begin to get accustomed to their new life, but before long, Count Olaf and his acolytes have tracked them down and, under a disguise, managed to fool their guardian. He then elaborates a plan (which only the children are aware of because they usually recognize him right away) to get ahold of their money, and almost always, this involves the murder of their guardian. By the time Mr. Poe and the frustratingly useless authorities have managed to catch on, it is too late, and Count Olaf and co. have managed to flee.
This is not to say that the plot does not advance: rather, it brings in new, critical information with each book, and begins to breach the subject of the secret organization at the core of the story. This is what makes this series so interesting: unlike other book series which linearly echo the Hero’s Journey, which is a progression that is easy to detect (Call to Adventure, Meeting with the Goddess etc.), ASOUE lowers the guard of the readers by seemingly abiding by a formulaic and cyclical (albeit riotously entertaining) scenario. But this is purely intentional, because just when the readers have lessened their vigilance and become comfortable with this system, Lemony Snicket shatters it completely and upends the template.
Up until The Vile Village, the children have been portrayed as the innocent protagonists who are trying to find a place to call home, accept their new lives as orphans, and run away from Count Olaf and his cronies. But in The Vile Village, which is (not coincidentally) one of the three central, and thus pivotal novels of the series, the children meet, for a very brief moment, a character named Jacques Snicket who represents a great change both in tone and in plot direction. Jacques Snicket is revealed to be the brother of the narrator Lemony Snicket, and is accused of being the fugitive Count Olaf in disguise. Heedless of his protestations of innocence, the villagers in the novel sentence him to be burned alive the following day. Before the Baudelaires can help him escape, however, they find out that he was killed during the night in his jail cell, and the children are accused of the crime. The book ends on a rather horrifying note, as the Baudelaires witness, for the first time, how truly dangerous Count Olaf is.
This is significant because one of the most defining characteristics of Count Olaf is his sometimes accidental hilarity. He is often self-deprecating, pathetic, and incompetent, all this exacerbated by his painfully oblivious nature. Although this contributes to making him more interesting than the one-note, purely evil villains in popular culture, it is also a line Handler surely had to tread carefully. A villain who is consistently hilarious may not always be taken seriously; this surely explains the divisive reception to Jim Carrey and Neil Patrick Harris’ respective interpretations of the antagonist, one leaning into the more sinister aspects of the character while the other made him hilarious—who did which is open to interpretation. But this is a topic for another day.
Back to the story. The Baudelaires must flee, because in a cruel twist of fate, they are now the criminals, and Count Olaf and his entourage are exonerated by having made everyone believe that they are dead. The end of The Vile Village truly comes as a change of pace: the children now have no guardian to go home to, and cannot rely on Mr. Poe who might turn them in. What is more, Count Olaf can now do as he pleases with them, because as far as everyone is concerned, he does not exist anymore.
From this point on, what Lemony Snicket shows in this second part of the series is a complete undoing of every trope, and the upending of every notion he has been building up to. The following books of the series reveal not only the “bigger picture” (the VFD organization that their parents, the villains of the story and all their guardians belonged to in some way, and the schism that divided them all), but also the real intentions of the author. He brilliantly plays with motifs that books following the Monomyth have made readers accustomed to: the notion of protagonists and antagonists becomes decidedly blurred. There is no messiah-like character who must defeat villainy and return a sacred object to its place of origin, or else protect it from evil.
By observing character clichés, this becomes even more evident. From the moment that the children are accused of being villains, it’s as if they begin to — inadvertently at first and more consciously later — embrace the characteristics that ensue. To save their own lives and in order to get what they want, they begin to disguise themselves, lie about their identities, manipulate people and use tricks that are not so dissimilar to what Count Olaf and his acolytes did to them in the first installments of the series. More than once, to escape situations or in self-defense, they harm and cause the deaths of wicked characters (albeit unintentionally) and wreak havoc and destruction: The Hostile Hospital (book 8) The Penultimate Peril (the 12th) and The End (the last of the series) end with buildings being destroyed in fire and calamity, and people evacuating their homes and running from their lives. I saw chilling parallels to the way the orphans’ own story started.
In The Slippery Slope (book 10), and The Hostile Hospital, the children respectively plot to make the odious Esmé Squallor fall into a trap that may or may not cause her death, and trick the innocent librarian Hal into giving them access to important information. In The Carnivorous Carnival (book 9) and The Penultimate Peril (book 12), two characters die in tragic circumstances. It is not long before the Baudelaire children (and the readers) begin to question their innocence and integrity, and they cannot hide behind the “ends justify the means” argument, because the same could be said about the villains they encounter.
In fact, every one of those characters reveal themselves to be more than they appear: in The Slippery Slope, two of Count Olaf’s underlings, the White-Faced Women decide to leave his gang after divulging that they lost a sibling to a house fire similar to those that Count Olaf has been perpetrating. They have become tired of this life of crime. Similarly, in The Carnivorous Carnival, Madame Lulu, one of Count Olaf’s great allies and admirers confesses to the children that she never meant to do harm, but found herself on the path of wrongdoing under the conviction that in order to navigate life painlessly, she had to please people at all cost.
The readers discover in The Grim Grotto (book 11) that one of the most fearsome henchmen of Count Olaf, the Hook-Handed Man, is the long-lost brother of Klaus’ love interest Fiona. He was swayed by the immoral side after years of low self-esteem, but thaws at the prospect of reuniting with his only remaining family. Count Olaf himself is shown to have moments of vulnerability when the reader realizes he is nothing more than a victim of a failed system and years of abandonment; in his dying moments, he delivers the baby of the woman he loves, Kit Snicket, and it’s particularly revealing that after years of killing people, the last thing he does is save a life.
In the same way, Daniel Handler shows how seemingly virtuous people are capable of doing great harm, the Baudelaires being the prime example of this, as above-mentioned. Additionally, one of their first guardians, Aunt Josephine abandons the children in exchange for her own safety; in The Ersatz Elevator, the unassertive husband of Esmé Squallor, Jerome Squallor, is unable to stand up for the children and protect them as he should; in The Carnivorous Carnival, the “freaks” Collette, Kevin and Hugo decide to join Count Olaf and his troupe, tired after a lifetime of abuse from their fellow human beings, and in The Grim Grotto, Fiona, the timid but smart love interest of Klaus chooses to follow in her brother’s footsteps after her own uncle abandons her in her darkest hour. Perhaps the most chilling examples are the very parents of the Baudelaires, who led a life their children were unaware of, and who may have committed unspeakable crimes, including murdering the parents of Count Olaf.
Nothing is as it seems, and there is more to people than their villainous or virtuous tendencies, and when compared to the characters often depicted in the Hero’s Journey, it becomes clear that it cannot apply. It does not apply all the more for another reason: Daniel Handler has written this series as a story-within-a-story, which blurs the traditional notion of the protagonist in many ways. Lemony Snicket, who is recounting the story of the Baudelaires may, in fact, be the main character whose life went in shambles because of the VFD organization and the schism that occurred there; he is a mysterious figure whose intricacy is only heightened by the fact that he is apparently running from the law, rarely reveals anything about himself, and knows much about the Baudelaires and all the characters of the story.
In fact, he seems to be looking for the orphans who may hold answers to questions he so desperately seeks, and every novel begins with a quatrain addressed to a mysterious Beatrice whom he loved and lost. He sometimes hints at great events to come, has insight into the fate of the main characters, and keen-eyed readers notice that his life story appears to greatly mirror theirs. Throughout the series, the readers witness his family and friends getting killed and his mounting desperation at ever finding the answers he needs.
At first, it’s as if the stories of the Baudelaires and of the Quagmire triplets (who appear in The Austere Academy and befriend the Baudelaires on the basis of a comparably tragic backstory) are only a repetition of his own. But this is a notion that will be challenged later on. Unlike stories that follow the Monomyth template, in Handler’s universe, there is no character who carries the responsibility of the world in their shoulders. There is no prophecy, there is no “chosen one”. What happened to the Baudelaires and the Quagmires was nothing historically momentous or special: it happened to Snicket’s family, to Count Olaf’s family, to the families of many, if not all, the VFD members, and it is made clear in a depressing statement in The Penultimate Peril that it will keep happening to others.
What Lemony Snicket is, in fact, telling us is a history of people being made orphans, good people being swayed to the “wrong” side, bad people being capable of good, and people coming together and splitting apart after terrible rifts: “At the opposite end of the city, a long, black automobile took a woman away from a man she loved, and in another city, miles and miles from the Baudelaires, four children played at the beach, unaware that they were about to receive some very dreadful news, and in yet another city, neither the one where the Baudelaires lived nor the one I just mentioned, someone else learned something and there was some sort of fuss, or so I have been led to believe. With each Wrong! of the clock, as the afternoon slipped into evening, countless things happened, not only in the immense and perplexing world of the Hotel Denouement, but also in the immense and perplexing world that lay outside its brick walls, but the Baudelaire orphans did not think of any of these things” (chapter 7).
This is a powerful moment for the readers, and also for Snicket and the Baudelaires, even if they are unaware of it: it is when one realizes that their story is not unique, because they are just one element in an organism that is much more complex, and so much bigger than them and their personal demons. Unlike in Harry Potter or Star Wars where the private family tragedy takes centre stage and becomes the main drive behind their actions and the shaping of their moral fiber or lack thereof, here, Snicket dismisses the situation of the orphans as being anything exceptional: all over the world, others are losing their families and being thrown into terrible circumstances. The notion of the “hero” is so fluid that it does not apply anymore: the Baudelaires are only the “protagonists” of this story because Lemony Snicket chose to focus his attention on them, but he could very well have told his own, or the Quagmires’, or even Count Olaf’s.
Another stage of the Hero’s Journey that Snicket capsizes is the Call to Adventure, in that there is none. This story does not start as a traditional journey where the protagonists leave a boring or predictable situation behind for something more exciting, all the while frightening. In most stories, an all-knowing and/or friendly character reveals to them that they are more than what they believe, and they leave their lives behind; here, there is no such person. Rather, it’s a raging house fire that takes everything from them. They are forced out of a happy and stable situation by a horrible misfortune and spend a good part of the story, up until The Vile Village, running from things rather than to adventure and enduring situations rather than instigating or propelling them forward.
This is not a long process of Refusal of Call, as it might be easy to believe; unlike Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins, the Baudelaires do not refuse their situation because they think they are not special or good enough. They reject the situation for the simple fact that they don’t even understand what happened to them nor why, and what will ensue in the future. These are not fearless heroes looking for thrills, these are lost children wanting a place to call home. In the Hero’s Journey template, the main character is bestowed a certain responsibility that they end up embracing, and make choices and actions in order to be able to do so. The Baudelaires only use their skills as survival tools, and they otherwise have virtually no power; when they manage to act, their efforts prove to be discouragingly futile.
The Supernatural Aid is meant to help the heroes and make their journey appear less abstract. Once again, we could consider this story by each individual book, in which case that person changes: in The Reptile Room, for example, it’s boisterous Uncle Monty, in The Ersatz Elevator, it’s Jerome Squallor, and in The Penultimate Peril, it’s the writer’s sister, Kit Snicket. If we look at it as one long story, however, that person is more likely Mr. Poe, but this character is as entertaining as he is criminally useless. He does nothing that the Supernatural Aid is supposed to, and not merely out of reluctance: he does not seem to even comprehend his role in the children’s lives. Mr. Poe has the authority, and as the friend of their late parents, should be a surrogate parental figure for the Baudelaire orphans, but he manages to actually make matters infinitely worse for them, and not only by his inactivity. This is something that could be applied to every characters who represent the Supernatural Aids throughout the books: they are ineffectual, oblivious and sometimes cowardly. When they are not, they are inscrutable and/or unable to help (like the ambiguous Captain Widdershins in The Grim Grotto, or the always harried Kit Snicket).
The Boon is another area where the Monomyth does not apply: in most stories, the protagonists know what this object is, and why, in the grander scope of things, they are looking for it. Sometimes it is clear from the start (the ring in LOTR and The Hobbit, the Subtle Knife or the Golden Compass in His Dark Materials), and sometimes, the existence of the boon is discovered a bit later, or was revealed to have been there all along (the Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter). In either case, it is something the characters must be prepared for emotionally, mentally and physically.
In this story however, no one knows there is anything to look for in the first place, and there is no mention of anything until the 8th installment, The Hostile Hospital when the infamous sugar bowl is first alluded to. The orphans know nothing about this sugar bowl, why it is so important (because everything seems to be tied to this highly valuable object), what it does, whom it belonged to, or where it even is. It is perhaps one of the most elusive artifacts in popular culture, and to this day, it remains a mystery, because it has never been found nor explained. The only certain fact is that it exists (even if the reader starts to seriously doubt it after a while), and that it is so important that it will shift the balance of things in VFD. It’s the ultimate relic. Yet, the fact that no characters ever sees it, and the readers never find out where it ends up defeats the whole purpose of the boon.
This, because it never ends up affecting the fate of the characters, nor does it become instrumental in defeating anyone (unlike the aforementioned Hallows and Horcruxes). People die trying to get their hands on it, but no one does. For all the reasons listed above, this completely breaks convention: it almost appears that Handler, is pulling our legs, because we have been so accustomed to these relics and artifacts that serve an earth-shattering purpose. The sugar bowl is either a red herring to distract us from the more subtle goings-on of this complex tale (and arguably, it does), or it’s a way of making evident how much we have relied on these tropes, by leaning into the absurd. Why must character development be tied to these objects, when it can be tied to much more interesting things like interactions with other characters, or uncomfortable things like grief and murderous impulses?
The last stages of the Return (Refusal of Return, Magic Flight, Rescue From Without, Crossing the Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, Freedom to Live) are perhaps where the gap between Daniel Handler’s story and the Monomyth becomes even more apparent. If Lemony Snicket is the main character, then none of this applies, because his story is far from finished when the novel ends. In the case where it’s the Baudelaires, it applies even less: at the end of The Penultimate Peril, the children set the Hotel Dénouement on fire and escape with Count Olaf, because they have nowhere else to go. Most of the side characters may have died in the fire, the “villain” has not been defeated, the boon is lost, and it is unclear where the protagonists stand in terms of morals and integrity. Nothing is certain, and this completely defeats the purpose of the Hero’s Journey’s last stages, namely that of closure and certainty; this is exacerbated by the 13th and last book of the series.
By The End, perhaps the most peculiar installment of the series, the circumstances have shifted. As mentioned before, the first part of the series (books 1 through 7) sees the children locked in cyclical games of cat and mouse with Count Olaf and his cronies. The second part (books 8 through 12) brings a shift in the narrative as the situations are flipped and nuanced: in addition, the children find themselves in a race against all the other members of VFD to help shift the balance of power. But after the 12th book, the Baudelaires have been stripped of everything and everyone they had, and thus embark (or rather flee) towards the absolute unknown. In many ways, the 13th book is an anomaly: firstly, the title (the only one that is not an alliteration), indicates finality and closure, when in reality, it opens up more questions and plot layers than the others did before.
The Baudelaires arrive on a remote and seemingly idyllic island, which contrasts with the noise and chaos of the previous books. There, they fall upon a society which seems governed by harmony and peace, but is in fact permeated with mutiny, secrets and torment: this, the island dwellers overlook either willingly, or because most of them are too inebriated to care. This is the place, the Baudelaires find out, where everything started for VFD.
They also find out that their parents lived on this very same island many years ago, before Violet was even born, and also discover things about the Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly fungus that is used as a powerful weapon throughout the series. More importantly, the book introduces the surprisingly dishonorable character Ishmael, a slippery and dangerous man who facilitates the island. This said “facilitation” is just a charade, as the man is more akin to a dictator, in reality. In a masterful twist, Ishmael suddenly becomes a fearsome antagonist, if not the most important one in the series, despite only appearing in the very last book. This, because Ishmael’s villainy started before the orphans were even born: they learn that he was the greatest adversary to the Baudelaires’ parents, and to many in the complex history of the VFD members.
There are many loose ends in this last book, more so than closed chapters: the birth of Kit Snicket’s daughter Beatrice at the end, delivered by Count Olaf himself, shows this quite clearly. Her tale begins as the story comes to a close; she commences in the same position as the Baudelaires and their parents before them: an orphan, and yet another victim of a schism. Daniel Handler ends things the way stories modeled on the Monomyth do not: the children leave the island on a raft with little Beatrice, having fulfilled nothing but hide and try to gather their own wits. Lemony Snicket himself reveals that it is unclear whether the orphans survived or not, and their ending is completely open to interpretation. If Ishmael is the main villain, he has not been defeated; in fact, he runs away with the rest of the islanders, deserting the Baudelaires, and their fate is uncertain. If Count Olaf is the villain, he does not die defeated at their hands, and by the time he does (wounded by a harpoon gun by Ishmael), he has accomplished a good deed and has started, for quite a while now, to look like less of a villain than a damaged and broken man.
All this, then, says many a relevant thing about Daniel Handler’s plot: firstly, that there is no central “good” or “bad” characters, and that they are revealed in very unconventional moments: Count Olaf is seen for who he is from the very beginning of the series while the slippery Ishmael only appears at the very end. Many of the characters shift positions and intentions halfway through the story, and sometimes multiple times.
The narrative structure is not linear: there is no long crescendo and exhilarating climax, followed by a conclusion. There are multiple climaxes throughout the story, and each one shifts the plot in completely unpredictable tangents, namely: the first confrontation with Count Olaf at the very beginning of the series which foreshadows the endless chase the two parties will be locked into in the future; the kidnap of the Quagmires by Count Olaf and his acolytes in The Austere Academy which signifies the loss of their innocence, along with their last allies; the death of Jacques Snicket in The Vile Village and the Baudelaire children’s escape and subsequent life as criminals; the burning of the hospital in The Hostile Hospital after which the children decide to follow the villains in disguise and truly begin their transition into more ambiguous protagonists; The Penultimate Peril where they accidentally kill an innocent man and escape from civilization in the company of Count Olaf; and finally, in The End, where they confront their parents’ past and learn more about who they are.
Daniel Handler’s manipulation of this classic template can be explained in many ways: it may have been intentional, in that he was trying to create a complex, multi-layered, and especially unconventional story (which is not to say that those fashioned on the Monomyth have not created absolute brilliance). It is also possible that the genre and tone of his series (gothic, absurdist fiction, with a blend of dark humor) naturally lends itself to subversion and originality. In either case, this is a story which has managed to prove that it is possible to stray from convention, and create a glorious story all the same.