Tomorrow, the third and last season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will premiere. I plan to binge it starting the minute I wake up and weep until the moment I fall asleep. Based on the thirteen book series of the same name by Daniel Handler, (using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Netflix series has been a beautiful adaptation that wonderfully captures the quirky and rich tone of the books.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, or ASOUE as I will refer to it from here on out, is technically considered children’s literature, and indeed I read it for the first time as a child. But, as with the best books, with every reread (I think I’m on number 5) the series becomes richer, and I truly believe it is for adults as much as it is for children.
In the summer of 2018, I began to reread the last few books of the series to prepare for the new season. About this time, Ricky Jones, minister at RiverOaks Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, began a series on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. As I was listening to these sermons and reading these books, I came to a realization: ASOUE embodies the lessons of Ecclesiastes, and it does so better than any other book I’ve read.
So with that claim, I’d like to show you how this children’s series teaches the book of Ecclesiastes, and why you should read it to your children and/or to yourself.
What Are These Unfortunate Events?
ASOUE follows the lives of the three Baudelaire children: Violet, 14 years old and a gifted inventor, Klaus, 12, who is an avid reader and researcher, and Sunny, a baby (although “baby” is a loose term in this universe) who has sharp teeth useful for biting things and later becomes a chef. The series is a mishmash of all sorts of genre, but “gothic absurdism” is probably the best term for it. The TV show has been described as Wes Anderson meets Tim Burton, which is certainly a start, but that is not enough to fully encapsulate the stylism (and heart) of the series.
In the first book, The Bad Beginning, the children are orphaned by a terrible fire that also destroys their home. They are sent to live with a relative they didn’t know existed, Count Olaf. They find that Olaf is an evil man who only adopted them in order to steal their fortune, and was the one who murdered their parents for that sole reason. In the first book alone, he slaps Klaus, locks Sunny in a cage and suspends her on top of a tower, and his plan to get the Baudelaire fortune is to try to marry Violet.
(On a side note, I can’t believe a publisher read this and thought, yes, this is a good investment. And then some movie and TV executives were like, yes, this is a good investment.)
If that sounds all very questionable, hold in your outrage and keep reading. We’re going to put a pin in that.
Anyway, the Baudelaires succeed in foiling Olaf’s plan and reveal him to the authorities, but Olaf escapes capture. After this, the next six books appear to follow a formula. The Baudelaires are taken to another relative’s home, the relative either seems mean and incompetent or is kind and then quickly killed, and Count Olaf shows up in a disguise to try and take the Baudelaire fortune. He always manages to escape arrest because no adults believe the Baudelaires when they try to reveal Olaf under his disguise.
By the eighth book, the Baudelaires are on their own, on the run after being framed for murder, but Count Olaf still manages to find them wherever they go. As the series goes on, the Baudelaires find themselves doing more and more of the villainous things Count Olaf has done, like wear disguises, lie, and burn things down. They realize that maybe they were not as heroic as they thought and that anyone if pushed could commit evil deeds. The series ends at a point where the Baudelaires and Count Olaf are uncomfortably similar, have both committed the same evil deeds, and on the same (literal and figurative) boat. The heart of the story is the classic question of is there any such thing as purely good or bad people?
This is a coming of age narrative, as most children’s books are. Most children’s books tell children they are going to face hard times and will need to rely on love and friendship to overcome it. A powerful example of this is the Harry Potter series.*
But ASOUE, I believe, goes a step further by showing its protagonists doing really terrible things, which makes the story not about children overcoming evil with good, but about children coming to terms with the way evil is in all of us, and how that should shape our worldview and the way we deal with others. The series’s thesis, if you will, can be summed up in this quote that is repeated in several books:
“People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
The series, while sometimes fantastical, are grounded enough in reality that the villainy of the various characters feels very different from other children’s books. Harry Potter, for example, has its villains kill other characters through magic. The magic element creates some distance between the reader and the action because we know magic doesn’t exist in our world.
ASOUE is whimsical, subversive, and dead-pan in enough areas that the villainy displayed is not gratuitous or sensational, or even clearly recognized as the following things, but technically, ASOUE includes characters (both good and evil) kidnapping, physically abusing, abandoning, and attempting to perform non-consensual surgery on children. Characters also fake suicide, murder others, are shipwrecked, join cults, experience mob violence, and die giving birth.
At this point you may be saying, “Hold up. I am a good parent who doesn’t want my child to read about people, including the child protagonists, lying, stealing, and committing arson! And I don’t want a series that illustrates teachers, guardians, and other trusted authority figures doing all of those terrible things and other adults turning a blind eye.”
Put a pin in that too, we’ll return to that.
In ASOUE Lemony Snicket is the author and narrator. He is a character within the story, recording the events of the series. He constantly interrupts the story to say how he obtained this evidence, how he is related to different characters in the story, and offers advice to the reader. He is the Sarah Koenig of the fictional universe in ASOUE, recording the story of these children whose parents he knew. Sometimes his commentary is funny (“The children were not born yesterday… Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life”). But usually, his commentary is melancholy and used to reflect on the themes of the series (“The sad truth is that the truth is sad”). He acts like the narrator, the preacher, in Ecclesiastes.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, Briefly Explained.
In “The Bittersweet Symphony,” Pastor Ricky introduces Ecclesiastes by telling us what the author (most likely King Solomon) is trying to say. Ricky says,
“The author of Ecclesiastes… wants to explain life to us. He wants to tell us how to avoid the potholes he himself has fallen into. It’s a hard lesson, a hard message. Grown-up messages usually are… He has to show us the emptiness of every ambition. The ambition for knowledge, for wisdom… for success, for money, for power. He forces us to face the bitter folly of chasing after those things. He teaches us the very simple truth: enjoy the life you have, it’s a gift from God, and wait upon the judge to make things right.”
Ricky goes on to use an illustration of a man who takes his kids to a junkyard. The man pulls his kids aside and points out the cars that are all rusted and broken up, and says to them, “You see those rusted out, junk cars? Those all made someone really happy one day.” He keeps pointing out items and saying, “All those things you think are so important? They’re all going to end up here.”
In the last book, aptly titled The End, the Baudelaires wash up onto an island, and the people on the island repeat several times that “everything washes up on these shores.” The children find all sorts of items, both from their own lives and not, have washed up on the island into a literal junkpile. The book takes a lot of time to express both sadness and relief that everything ends up such. In the worldview of ASOUE, like Ecclesiastes, there is comfort in the fact that nothing is new under the sun, and everything will be equal in the end.
Ricky goes on to talk about why Christians often hate Ecclesiastes, and it’s because most books of the Bible are studied by going through them verse-by-verse, which is great for other books but terrible for Ecclesiastes. If you only look at verses two through four, you get:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”
Wow, what a bummer. Might as well stop writing right now, as what’s the point?
Similarly, reading the first few books of ASOUE, which appear to be really repetitive, might equally frustrate you. But once you read the whole series, like the entire book of Ecclesiastes, things start to come into focus.
The repetition is purposeful. Ricky says that Ecclesiastes teaches that “life is a circle. Ignore that to your frustration, or embrace it and find peace…. Those circles frustrate people who are trying to get somewhere.” But circles are comforting for those who understand them. Circles and patterns of life help us know we’re not alone.
The repetition of ASOUE, then, makes sense. Not just from a narrative standpoint but a thematic one. And yes, it is frustrating. When I was younger my dad read me dozens of books and series out loud before bed. He read the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but it was ASOUE that nearly broke him, because of the repetitive nature of the beginning of the series.
Yet this is used to great effect. In the series, after the first few repetitions, the Baudelaires learn that no one is going to save them from Count Olaf, so they begin to proactively work to protect themselves. After a few more repetitions, they realize they are becoming more like the flawed adults in their lives, and so they begin to forgive those adults and ask for forgiveness themselves. And by the end of the series, they finally are able to find it in themselves to admit that they know their parents aren’t coming back, and are able to give up waiting for them and instead focus on parenting a child whose mother has just died, becoming parents themselves.
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches that, in Ricky’s words, “Meaning cannot be found under the sun. If you’re trying to justify yourself through your job, by your money, by your pleasure, by your family, by your wisdom, you will fail… by helping the poor, overturning oppression, you will fail. Wrong will only be made right when everyone stands before the judgment, and on that day, you will have meaning. You’ll understand why you are here and what this life was for…. On that day we will be comforted… But until that day, remember the Lord.”
In ASOUE, all of the above justifications are embodied by different characters, and all of those characters end up dead, sad, and with many regrets. Olaf is clearly driven by greed, pleasure, and ambition. Justice Strauss tried to help the poor and overturn oppression. Even Kit Snicket tried to live a noble life, but her ideals of bravery and family and goodness did not lead to satisfaction because she put her faith in a human- therefore flawed- organization. Through these failings of others, the Baudelaires see all the ways they cannot define their life.
A shallow reading of ASOUE has caused some readers to come to the conclusion that this series, because of the multiple adult characters who fail to see a villain in disguise, is about adults being stupid and kids being smart.
That is not what this series is about.
It is made clear in each book that every adult who doesn’t help the Baudelaires or seems inept chooses to be so because of self-preservation, or it is inconvenient for them to intervene, or it doesn’t fit into their worldview. Many of the adults in the series are good and do try to help the Baudelaire, and many who fail them are later forgiven and do the right thing when given another shot. All of this is used to illustrate the series’s point that children see the world in black and white, and when they grow up, they realize how much more complicated it is, and that they will eventually be more like those people then they wanted to be.
In the climax of the series, Snicket summarizes this theme by saying, “Each story had its story, and each story’s story was unfathomable in the Baudelaire orphans short journey” (The Penultimate Peril). The series takes the, “you become your parents” saying quite literally. It is a not a ‘kids rule, adults drool’ tale. It is a tale about giving children the tool they need to have empathy and forgiveness for the adults who will let them down, and gently tells them that they will do the same to others.
The series, as a coming of age narrative, boils down to this:
Children, you are so bright and talented, and the world needs you. Your thoughts, your skills, and your experiences are all important and should be paid attention to.
As you grow up, you are going to see adults who are supposed to protect you, let you down. Many times, they don’t mean to. But as you grow into an adult yourself, you’ll realize that the world is very complicated. It is full of secrets and full of people not knowing what to do, and being forced to make very difficult choices. Everyone comes from different places and has limitations. You don’t know everyone’s story.
Join with people who, even when they make mistakes, never give up trying to learn more about other people and the world. Forgive everyone, because you need forgiveness, too. Sometimes you’ll do things you swore you’d never do, and that will help you realize that everyone needs a second chance. But sometimes people are never going to be healthy or safe to be around, and that’s when you need to cut them out of your life.
Everyone is full of good and evil inside of them. It is your job to try and bring out the best in others and yourself, and make the world a more peaceful place. That doesn’t mean hiding out in places where you feel secure. That means going out into the world, into the brokenness and danger, and loving it the best you can. Even if you never see it come on this earth, long for justice and peace. Sometimes your life will feel like a big mystery itself, and you will wish for answers. One day, you will get them. For now, love the life you have. It is a gift.
You may have noticed in that some similarities to Ecclesiastes. The mystery of our existence. The desire for a judgment day and comfort. Honesty about the state of the world.
Like Ecclesiastes, this is a very grown-up message, particularly for children, but I can’t think of a better one to impart (to people of all ages) in order to begin to sow the seeds of wisdom, empathy, resilience, and hope.
Nothing is Unproblematic
ASOUE is not a perfect allegory by any means. Daniel Handler is a self-described “secular humanist,” and that certainly comes through. The series is a cry for justice, but it ultimately comes to the conclusion that such a thing doesn’t actually exist, because humans can never be truly just, and the series offers no higher power.
The books bravely explore the depravity of man but offer no hope except that people can just try to be the best they can and sometimes that will end up being enough. The books advocate forgiveness, hospitality, and sometimes, absolute truth, but there are no reasons behind those things except that it’s the moral thing to do. The themes of generational sin and breaking from it are all framed through the lenses of characters realizing their own capacity for evil, but ultimately choosing to do good, assuring readers that you are ultimately in control of your ability to be righteous. The Bible instead teaches that humans are completely depraved and are slaves to sin, and are only freed from that when saved.
These contradictions are most present in The End, which borrows imagery from Genesis’s temptation in the garden in a way that reinterprets God and/or religion as a strict and abusive parent that only serves as the opium of the people, Karl Marx style. Yet in the same book the Christmas story- God coming from a holy and perfect place to dwell among sinners- is beautifully illustrated.
Oh, and of course, the previously mentioned violence, which is very tastefully handled and not nearly as shocking in the context of the books as it is me putting it in a list, but can still be very grim for the target audience (although most of those things can be found in the Bible, and often in the stories that frequent children’s church and VBS).
And finally, there have been multiple allegations of Handler making inappropriate comments to women, and there was the infamous watermelon “joke” he made while presenting an award to Jacqueline Woodson 2014. I’m not going to go further into it, but this history does, for me, put Handler firmly in the category of “creative person I greatly admire but would never actually want to meet in real life.”
Yet I don’t think any of that should dissuade you from reading ASOUE, and here’s why.
Everything Can Be Holy
Pastor Timothy Keller writes that,
“The Bible consistently teaches what theologians have come to call ‘common grace,’ a non-saving grace that is at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction. This gift of God’s grace to humanity, in general, demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike…. God also shows common grace by revealing knowledge of himself through human culture, for human culture is simply a wise recognition and cultivation of nature… All artistic expressions, skillful farming, scientific discoveries, medical and technological advances are expressions of God’s grace.”
Boiled down, common grace is the idea that every human, no matter what belief system he/she ascribes to, reflects the image of God and that all human civilizations carry truths about God and his creation. Christians have much to learn from the art, teachings, and stories of non-Christians. ASOUE then is worth reading because of the truths it carries. I have just illustrated some of the wisdom that can be found from its pages.
Of course, as with consuming any type of media, everyone must determine for themselves how discerning they must be. Some children are not ready for the dark turns the series can take. Some adults may not have a firm enough handle on their faith yet to consider the philosophical attacks the series poses on Christianity. Some children are not able to understand the bad actions of the characters within their larger meaning and consequences. These questions ought to be thoughtfully considered.
But for those who are now intrigued and feel confident that they can read the series, here is what I think will be gained.
The Concluding Case
I rank ASOUE alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings with books that, as an elementary/middle schooler, gave me the metaphors I needed to understand the world around me. These books helped me reconcile what I was experiencing in the world with the lessons I was learning in church. They showed me that the biblical lessons I was being taught contained answers that people, whether people in my life or these fictional characters, were looking for.
ASOUE, unlike Narnia, is not a straight allegory, and certainly not an intentionally Christian one at that, so when it asks questions, it doesn’t have an answer. In that way, the series is comforting to those of us who need to know its okay not to have answers, or need to be comfortable wrestling with doubt and pain. ASOUE is a lamentation for all sorts of things. In fact, at almost the very end of the last book, our main characters just sit together and cry, lamenting for all of the tragedies the series describes. It reads,
“There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, and not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face” (The End).
Beat that, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
I kid, I kid. But the resoluteness of ASOUE to face pain, hardships, and unknowns, and to not give superficial answers to children, strikes me as extremely admirable.
Now, as a young adult, not only does re-reading ASOUE give me a greater appreciation for Handler’s writing and the allusions and sophisticated jokes and puns that went over my head as a kid, but it also helps me in a different way. In this world of both overwhelming depressing news coverage and overwhelming distraction, it can be very hard to meditate on the role of pain in one’s life, and I find this series helping me do that very thing. I can also realize with greater clarity now that ASOUE isn’t complete.
If we take the four pillars of the gospel- creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, ASOUE only offers reasons for creation and fall. The whole series circles around a big question mark, a big question mark that we know is a savior, a redeemer. ASOUE, admirably, doesn’t lie about what that question mark is, but shrugs its shoulders and admits that it doesn’t know. To make up for not knowing, it offers some suggestions on how to make a better, more tolerable world, and how to do so in a kind and gentle manner that is beneficial to others. It certainly provides moralistic messages. However, that isn’t a sufficient answer. ASOUE’s version of morality is sophisticated and wise. But it is still vanity.
Let’s put it like this: ASOUE is the beginning of Ecclesiastes. It is the Ecclesiastes without the hope. And for a time, we need that. We need to acknowledge, reflect, and mourn on our own brokenness and that of the world. Revisiting that at any age is incredibly important as Christians. That’s why you should read this series.
Then after that, we need to find the rest of the story. And that’s where Jesus comes in.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
There are many, many more things I could say on this subject, and would be happy to drop everything and talk about it at literally any time! Come talk to me about the symbolism of the VFD eye, or how Sunny’s specialty of cooking furthers the theme of safe places. I’d love to discuss how underrated Daniel Handler is in his consistently good female representation, or how terrible Daniel Handler’s books for adults are compared to his ones for children. Or ask me about how I feel about the adaptational differences between the book and show (but do not ask me about the 2004 movie. We don’t talk about that one.)
*No intended disrespect to Harry Potter. I’m oversimplifying. He shares a lot in common with ASOUE.