I think a good thing about Lemony Snicket’s repetitiveness in A Series of Unfortunate Events is the ability to start this series at almost any point. I never start any series in order. I began Harry Potter on the Chamber of Secrets. I know, I know, bad CJ. But if it weren’t for The Miserable Mill, I wouldn’t be writing this article, nor would I love the adventures of the Baudelaires with such fervor. Ah, the (probably really grotesque) memories.
Book 4: The Miserable Mill
We start off The Miserable Mill with Mr. Poe generally being terrible to the children. Like, I’m not kidding. He just received a promotion at the bank he seems to spend his life at, and doesn’t seem to care about where he’s actually dropping off the Baudelaires, at this point. Like, are you too busy for a goddamn background check every once in a while Mr. Poe?? Worst. Supervisor. Ever.
And as soon as entering the unfortunate town of Paltryville, the Baudelaires encounter a building that looks like it has a Very Familiar Decal indeed- i.e., like an eye. Although they don’t enter it, the omens do not look well.
Aaaaaaaaand we’re delving into child labor in this novel right away. Seriously, Mr. Poe, where the fuck did you send these kids?
To hell, apparently. The type of hell where you work all day to get paid in coupons, but no money to use them, and 5 minute breaks to chew gum. A casserole for dinner. I couldn’t help but laugh at just how utterly ridiculous Lemony Snicket’s worlds can be.
The children are pulled away after the first half of their shift to meet their guardian, a chronic smoker with an unpronounceable name. He only goes by Sir, which gave me flashbacks to The Color Purple. Affirming that their conditions are in fact no mistake, the Baudelaires are only comforted by the mention of a library. Charles, the repulsive man’s kindly assistant, leads the children there. Now, usually the solace that a library provides to these children is unmatched, as it is the only constant in their chaotic lives (besides their guardians dying, and Count Olaf). However, this library has no such effect, as it is occupied by only three donated books. Fantastic.
So while the Baudelaires return to their indentured servitude, they notice something missing: Count Olaf. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of missing him too- he usually comes in right after the exposition in his usual, nefarious fashion. But Mr. Snicket decided to change it up a bit, in both this aspect and what seems to be quite the increase on macabre torture.
In what seems to be some adverse affect of constantly being stalked (or perhaps expected caution), the Baudelaires actively look for Count Olaf in their coworkers, their foreman, and even their guardian (who cannot be him, as he is much shorter). Until one day, the cruel Foreman Flacutono trips Klaus and breaks his glasses, making him visit the optometrist in the very symbolic eye shaped building next door.
And Klaus endures the longest optometry appointment in the world, apparently. But when he comes back to the dormitories, he’s not quite…Klaus. He’s not quite anything, in fact. The next day, he forgets his shoes, only responds with “Yes, sir” to anything Violet says, and breaks another coworker’s leg via operating heavy machinery.
All in a normal day’s work.
And of course, a pattern appears in the form of Klaus breaking his glasses again. After Klaus’ exceedingly strange behavior after the first optometry trip, Violet and Sunny obviously go with him, not wanting to leave him alone.
Which is where they meet Georgina Orwell- which just makes me giggle every time. Of course she seems nice in the beginning, but then the Baudelaires are introduced to “Shirley”, who of course is Count Olaf, arriving rather late in the game. Klaus is again treated and sent to the Lumbermill acting stranger than before, and Violet determines that he is being hypnotized.
So of course, we might be wondering where Count Olaf’s plan leads. The answer arrives in the form of a letter from Sir, stating if the Baudelaires cause one more accident, they will be given to Shirley, which I’m sure is illegal somehow. Seriously, what is with the legal system in these parts?
Either way, since Klaus is clearly hypnotized, it is up to Violet to stop the plans that are definitely in place. However, Violet won’t be able to invent her way out of this one. She takes up Klaus’ usual role, and stays up all night researching hypnotist. Turns out the library was adequate enough after all, as Orwell donated a book of her own making. But something interrupts Violet’s studying, as the mill comes to life…in the middle of the night.
She and Sunny rush over to discover poor Charles strapped to a log. Klaus, of course, is hypnotized and does not know he was commanded to slice Charles in half with one of the mill’s saws. Of course, we discover that Flacutono is supervising, and ultimately in on Shirley’s scheme. When the sisters try to stop it by using Klaus’ command word, who else would show up to interfere but Shirley and Dr. Orwell. Violet takes on Shirley and Sunny gets Dr. Orwell while struggling to figure out the inordinately difficult word to break the trance.
Eventually, Klaus is freed from the hypnotic grip, but still has to save Charles. He takes on Violet’s role as the inventor and creates a fishing rod out to pull Charles out of the way in the nick of time. Imagine 10 year old me reading this and having her mind blown as this type of suspense builds, unaware that this is clearly a standard Baudelaire occurrence.
However, if there was something Mr. Snicket must keep in his novels, it’s tragedy. After saving Charles, and Sir booming in to the Lumbermill to investigate the noise, an accident happens. It involves Dr. Orwell, caught by surprise, and a *well* placed saw. One of Olaf’s future associates is not looking too good at all. And although it is a villain that dies instead of a companion, it is still equally gruesome.
After capturing both Shirley and the Foreman for conspiring to steal the fortune, the children go through the tedious task of again revealing Olaf’s identity. He gets away with Flacutono (revealed as the bald troupe member), and the Baudelaires are fired from Lucky Smells. To be honest, I’d consider that very fortunate.
Incredible Sunny Moment: Sword fighting Dr. Orwell with her teeth, having no choice but to use her greatest gift. Is Sunny really a tiny superhero instead, or is it me?
Side note: It seems like there was a tiny bit of queer-baiting throughout The Miserable Mill, in the form of Sir/Charles and Georgina’s flirting (?) towards “Shirley”. It doesn’t seem evident that Olaf revealed himself to her at any time.
Book 5: The Austere Academy
If us modern day people were to spend a semester at Prufrock Prep, our reactions might be along the lines of, “what the hell am I doing here?” This question would be asked for many reasons:
- Various punishments for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as your hands tied behind your back or no silverware at mealtimes
- Possibly being forced to run laps for numerous hours
- Having to listen to 6 hour violin recitals (or alternatively, buy the violinist a bag of candy)
- Being anywhere near people who say the word “cakesniffers”.
- Also being anywhere near this guy:
This is vice principal Nero, who of course implemented all of these odd punishments. Really, he’s not so much evil as thoroughly annoying, and also quite the narcissist. Although he accepted the Baudelaires into Prufrock Prep, they are forced to stay in the “Orphan Shack” so subtly dubbed by Carmelita Spats. Additionally, while Violet and Klaus are in classes, Sunny would be employed as Nero’s administrative assistant. Yes, you read correctly- employed. I mean, at least it beats a lumbermill.
These and more awaited the children at Prufrock Prep. The only consolations for the Baudelaire children were the food-leaps and bounds better than Lucky Smells Lumbermill-and the Quagmire triplets. In addition to losing their parents via fire, their triplet Quigley perished as well. Of course, the orphans all become fast friends, and the most kindred of spirits. Isadora and Duncan Quagmire are also the only people who treat the Baudelaires with respect at Prufrock, which has really been absent since the death of Uncle Monty.
And they are the only ones to believe that Coach Genghis (Khan?) is really Count Olaf when he inevitably appears. He arrives quite early in comparison to Lucky Smells, but his plan here is just as drawn out, even more so honestly. Upon discovering the Baudelaires, Count Olaf subjects them to Special Orphan Running Exercises, or S.O.R.E. And that’s…all they do, really. He makes them run until morning, which is an impossible amount (I think about 10 hours).
But day in and day out the Baudelaires do so, and although it is a teacher sanctioned assignment, Nero punishes the children for running all of those laps with the bags of candy stated above. The grand total came to 29 bags, and 3 very exhausted Baudelaires.
While the teachers taught terribly boring subjects like measurements and…creative writing? Allegorical studies?…the classes became more difficult because of Olaf’s consistent S.O.R.E. training. So much so in fact, that the children are threatened with expulsion and “private tutoring” by Coach Genghis if they continue to let their exhaustion get the best of them. An extra difficult examination is scheduled for them the next day that would decide their fates. Of course this causes panic as they would have no time to study if they attended S.O.R.E, but a blessing comes in the form of the Quagmires. They volunteer to run in the Baudelaires’ places, so that they can study through the night, and Sunny can fulfill her secretarial duties.
While the plan itself is executed well, one tiny detail gave them away- Sunny’s disguise as a bag of flour, who Olaf shamelessly kicked after they left her there. The Baudelaires passed the tests they were given, but were caught regardless, and expelled to Nero’s glee.
Mr. Poe comes just in time to hear about the children being expelled and to once again see Count Olaf’s disguise revealed. Even though he’s just about as useless as a jar of mustard (Snicket’s words, not mine), the man has impeccable timing.
And this is where the Baudelaires first hear of an acronym that will shape the next 8 books- V.F.D. Unfortunately, it is not amongst fortuitous circumstances. The Quagmires are yelling at them through the car that Olaf’s associates force them into, and ultimately Olaf gets away with some of the very few allies that the Baudelaires have.
Honestly, The Austeure Academy is one of the milder installments, seeing that the Quagmires get kidnapped instead of killed. In fact, nobody dies as per Snicket’s usual tropes, not even the person that Count Olaf usually dispatches to take their place. Instead we are given a mystery to follow, one that may be quite haunting indeed.
And the Incredible Sunny Moment goes to: Dealing with Nero in the first place, and handling a full time job. What a responsible arc.
Book 6: The Ersatz Elevator
It is apparent at this point that Snicket likes to make the Baudelaires the perpetual victims in this series. While they obviously suffer some easier fates than their guardians, their pain goes on for as long as the series does. Now, I say this because of the types of victims the Baudelaires tend to become, which is more often than not victims of circumstance. But they’re also victims of bad timing, and false hope. Well, through the course of The Ersatz Elevator, the Baudelaires once again become victims…
After being expelled from Prufrock Prep, the Baudelaires return to their city, as Mr. Poe has found some guardians in town. It seems that Mr. Poe is really just here to make sure that the children get to their next dismal destination on time. The man is so “busy” that he can’t go up the stairs with the Baudelaires to the penthouse of 667 Dark Avenue to meet with their new guardians. Although, to be fair, Mr. Poe is on the search for the Quagmire triplets after he departs.
Sixty six flights of steps later (because elevators are “out”), we are introduced to a couple that unfortunately proves that opposites attract- Esme and Jerome Squalor. And we learn that while Jerome is caring and pretty normal, Esme is…pretentious, as well as obsessed with fashion trends. So obsessed in fact, that it is the reason that the Baudelaires are there- apparently orphans are “in”. Jerome apparently wanted to adopt the children earlier, due to knowing their parents, but alas, the “in” crowd would not let them..until now.
As opposed to The Miserable Mill, Olaf makes his appearance known almost immediately, in the form of Gunther. He is an auctioneer and the “innest” person in town, with a foreign accent. I don’t think that I’ve covered the amount of gaslighting that happens in these novels, but it’s sickeningly apparent recently due to Olaf taking on foreign characters. No matter if the adult in question is the nicest adult ever, the children are not believed no matter what they say about Count Olaf. And while true, these children pick their battles- telling Mr. Poe each time, not telling Nero- I wonder why absolutely nobody has heard of a disguise other than Olaf and his troupe. In terms of revealing Count Olaf to Jerome, he goes as far as to say the children are xenophobic, quoted verbatim in the novels. So now the Baudelaires have to fight outward prejudice to reveal the person trying to stalk and kill them.
Either way, something is strange when the doorman does not permit the Baudelaires and Jerome to enter their penthouse after a dinner at Cafe Salmonella, even though Esme admits that Gunther has left. This continues into the next morning, and it seems that Gunther has just disappeared, making Olaf’s plans even more devious. So the next day, while the adults are away, the Baudelaires search for their stalker.
It is Klaus that reveals the first clue to this odd plan: there’s two sets of elevators, but while one goes up, the other one heads down. Of course, being in the Penthouse, it’s odd that one would go up in the first place. After pressing the ‘up’ button, the door reveals an empty elevator shaft. Completely empty, as in no elevator even present. Obviously, this prompts the Baudelaires to become adventurous, and through Violet’s handiwork, they find their way down and end up finding the Quagmire triplets trapped in a cage.
After a brief, adorable reunion, Violet decides that they must find a way out for their friends, and does so in the form of fire tongs. Time is of the essence, as the Quagmires are expected to be sold in the upcoming “In Auction”, orchestrated by Gunther and Esme. They use one of the Squalors’ many kitchens to heat these tongs to white hot, and take the three hour trek down once again (even Sunny), only to discover that the Quagmires were already taken.
After their failed mission, they decide to tell Esme about all of this, since Jerome does not listen. And to their surprise, their normally nonchalant and cold guardian actually hears them, and agrees to take them to Veblen Hall to stop the auction…that is until she PUSHES THEM DOWN AN ELEVATOR SHAFT. Turns out, Olaf was her acting teacher and they are in cahoots. Of course, the one time a guardian believes them in time, it’s all premeditated.
Thankfully, the children are caught by a net, but I believe that if the Baudelaires weren’t needed for their fortunes, Esme would still have no problem doing that. After wallowing in their sorrows for a minute, the Incredible Sunny Moment comes to save them. Sunny uses her teeth to scale the walls of the elevator shaft, and retrieve the rope they originally used to get to the Quagmires. But instead of going up, they go down, and into a hallway that leads them through the entire city…and opens in the middle of their incinerated home, which put them on this journey in the first place.
Even though they have absolutely no time to think about it, this discovery haunts the Baudelaires throughout the rest of the novel. They try to save the Quagmires but are fooled by a literal and figurative red herring at the auction, with Lot #50 (labeled V.F.D.) revealed as some Very Fancy Doilies. Although no Quagmires are in sight, the doilies do help reveal Gunther as Count Olaf after he slips on them. Unfortunately, they run after the villains to no avail, as Esme and Olaf speed out of sight thanks to their accomplices.
To close this out, I think this second trio was a huge middle finger to everyone saying that his first three was so repetitive, with no payoff. Admittedly I would’ve been restless, but by The Miserable Mill I would’ve probably been entranced with the series all over again, and if I remember correctly, it only gets wilder and more mysterious from here.
Thanks for reading with me guys 🙂
Images Courtesy of Harper Collins