If I was to have a motto or a personal philosophy, as Snicket points out is “like having a pet marmoset”, mine would be “Read! and then re-read!”
Reading is one of the most important thing one can do in their lives, for a variety of reasons that I will not explain now. But if you are reading this blog, I assume you also support this claim because 1) you are currently reading, and 2) you are currently reading a blog about reading. And as Snicket reminds us again and again the benefits of reading: “Well-read people are less likely to be evil.”
But, re-reading is where the fun starts. Although one does not experience the rush that comes with reading something for the first time, and the obsession that surrounds a new book, re-reading is an experience that one cannot miss. Re-reading allows one to go deeper than just the surface of the plot, it enables you to get to know secondary characters, and the reader brings their new experiences and opinions to the text.
Since reading A Series of Unfortunate Events my life has unsurprisingly changed a great deal. I first read the books when I was about 10 – since then I have grown up, gone to high school, studied English Literature at university, become a teacher, and read a heck of a lot. So now, when I read the series, I am noticing literary references everywhere – I feel like I am uncovering all the secrets Snicket has hidden within the pages of his books. It is clear now that A Series of Unfortunate Events are gateway books to hard literature.
Literary references are not the only references Snicket makes, there are a plethora of allusions to mythology, film, art, television, politics, religion, and other culture. However, I am not as adept to picking those up, although I did laugh one of the Monty Python references: “If you don’t give me a bunch of strawberries right now, I’m going to attack you with this large pointed stick.” So, although there are many secrets that these books hold, I am focusing on the literary secrets – like any good V.F.D member, I have recorded these literary references in my Commonplace Book, and translated them from print to pixel for all to enjoy.
Of course there will be spoilers.
The dedication at the beginning of The Bad Beginning, and every other novel in the series, is to a mysterious woman named Beatrice, who Lemony Snicket loved/loves. Beatrice, we come to find, perished in a fire. The name Beatrice is an allusion to Dante’s unrequited love Beatrice Portinari, who died at the age of 24 in 1290. Like Snicket, Dante wrote many poems about Beatrice and she appears in The Divine Comedy. The Name Beatrice is also a reference to the Charles Baudelaire poem La Beatrice, a depressing poem in itself beginning: In a burnt, ashen land, where no herb grew,/I to the winds my cries of anguish threw;/And in my thoughts, in that sad place apart,/Pricked gently with the poignard o’er my heart.
The Bad Beginning
The surname of the three children – Baudelaire, is a reference to French poet Charles Baudelaire, who I’ve already mentioned. A well as being a somewhat melancholy person, his most noted works, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) is a cycle of poems musing on death, loss, and sadness, among other things. A fitting name for the Baudelaire orphans who experience just these things.
Violet, the name of the oldest Baudelaire, is a reference to a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: At the violet hour, when the eyes and back./Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits./Like a taxi throbbing waiting,. This line fittingly appears in III The Fire Sermon, a reference to the fire that began the troubles of the orphans and seems to continually haunt them. The origin of Violet’s name is overtly stated in The Grim Grotto.
Mr. Poe, the name of the incompetent banker who is in charge of the Baudelaire’s affairs shares his name with poet Edgar Allen Poe. Both Poes were known to always have a cough. The sons of Mr. Poe are also called Edgar and Albert possibly alluding to poet Edgar Albert Guest (who is also mentioned and heavily mocked in The Grim Grotto)
Briny Beach, where all the troubles begin is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass: “O Oysters, come and walk with us!”/The Walrus did beseech./”A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,/Along the briny beach. This poem is again mentioned in The Grim Grotto.
On the way to Count Olaf’s house is a road named Doldrums Drive, a reference to the The Doldrums in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a place that is colorless and boring.
The eye that is tattooed on Olaf’s ankle that the children feel is always watching them can be interpreted as a reference to The Eye of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This eye allows the dark lord Sauron to watch anyone who is wearing the one ring. You do not want to be found my either eyes.
The Reptile Room
One of the snakes in Uncle Monty’s collection, The Virginian Wolfsnake is a reference to author Virginia Woolf. The herpetologist warns the Baudelaire’s to “never, under any circumstances, let the Virginian Wolfsnake near a typewriter.”
There are two references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in this novel: Stephano, Olaf’s alias, is the name of a drunken butler in the play, who also hatches an evil plan; and the boat Uncle Monty plans to sail to Peru on is named ‘The Prospero’, a character who was abandoned in a boat by his brother.
In his letter to his editor, Snicket instructs him to go to Cafe Kafka, named after the Austro-Hunagarian writer Franz Kafka who’s work is permeated with themes that this series shares, namely alienation, terrifying quests, and conflict. Kafka also wrote a short story entitled “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”), lends it’s name to the Baudelaire’s guardian in the next book, Aunt Josephine.
The Wide Window
The dock that the book opens on is named Damocles Dock, after the allegory The Sword of Damocles, a tale that warns readers of the fickleness of happiness and power. In the story Damocles has a sword constantly hanging over his head, and causing perpetual fear and dread. This is a reflection of the disposition of the Baudelaire’s new guardian, Aunt Josephine, who is scared of absolutely everything.
Captain Sham’s proof of his identity, a business card, is a reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Algernon keeps one of Ernest’s cards “as a proof that your name is Ernest”.
Hurricane Herman is an allusion to author Herman Melville who spent some years at sea, no doubt encountering many storms.
The Miserable Mill
The optometrist cum hypnotist Dr. Georgiana Orwell is named after author George Orwell. Orwell’s novel 1984 boasts the power Big Brother, who is always watching the citizens of Airstrip One, mirroring the eye symbol that the Baudelaires feel is watching them. Georgiana Orwell’s practice of hypnosis also echos 1984 and it’s totalitarian regime – the idea of control over all aspects of life.
The hypnosis code word “Bloomsbury!” that Klaus mentions is a reference to The Bloomsbury Group – a group of writers, artists, and intellectuals who lived near Bloomsbury in the early 20th Century. Noatble members include Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
After Phil’s leg injury, he is sent to Ahab Memorial Hospital, and allusion to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, who also is missing a leg due to an accident.
The Austere Academy
The illustration on the cover of The Austere Academy references Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, another tale detailing the woes of orphans.
The namesake of the Baudelaire’s new school, Prufrock Preparatory School, is T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, a lamentable poem. Prufrock has a heightened awareness of mortality, echoed in the school’s motto: Memento Mori (Remember You Will Die).
Isadora Quagmire is a poet and writes primarily in couplets. Upon learning this Sunny declares “Sappho!” the name of a Greek poet born on the island of Lesbos.
The Ersatz Elevator
The names of the Baudelaire’s new guardians, Jerome and Esmé Squalor, are both references to J.D. Salinger. Jerome is Salinger’s given name, and one of his short stories is titled For Esmé – with Love and Squalor.
The children visit The Verne Invention Museum and the Akhmatova Bookstore, allusions to sci-fi writer Jules Verne and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
One of the items included in the In Auction is Lot 49, a collection of stamps. This is a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a novel that discusses the postal delivery service.
The Vile Village
This whole novel appears to be a tribute to Gothic writer Edgar Allen Poe: Crows play a significant part in this novel, a reference to The Raven and his other Gothic imagery. The Nevermore Tree also takes it’s name from The Raven, fittingly because it is in this tree that the V.F.D crows roost in every night. Olaf’s alias Detective Dupin refers to character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective that appears in many of Poe’s short stories.
A phone call from Mr. Fagin to Mr. Poe is a reference to the seedy character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ironically, Snicket’s Fagin refuses to take the orphans because of their reputation as troublemakers; Dickins’ Fagin makes his living off orphan troublemakers.
Ophelia is the name of a town that appears on the ‘It takes a Village to raise a Child’ brochure. This town shares it’s name with tragic Shakespearean heroine Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend. Ophelia, like the Baudelaire’s was miserable, and she ended up drowning herself.
The poet Ogden Nash comes up in a conversation about the mysterious couplets that are somehow being delivered to the orphans.
Hector quotes “one of the Baudelaire’s favourite books” when he says “Curiouser and curiouser”. This book is Alice in Wonderland.
The Hostile Hospital
The Baudelaire’s meet many patients at Heimlich Hospital, their names are all sourced from the literary canon:
Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) is the source for the name Bernard Rieux. Both characters suffer from a “nasty, hacking cough”.
Cynthia Vane’s name comes from The Vane Sisters by Vladimir Nabokov. This short story is notorious for it’s use of an unreliable narrator, possibly bringing into question the reliability of Lemony Snicket.
Jonah Mapple, a patient suffering with seasickness, is a reference to Father Mapple form Moby Dick.
The name Charley Anderson comes from The U.S.A Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
Clarissa Dalloway “who did not have anything wrong with her but was staring out the window”, is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The “staring out the window” may be a reference to Woolf’s depression.
Emma Bovary shares her name with the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. This patient has food poisoning, a reference to the arsenic Emma Bovary consumed, leading to her death.
Haruki Murakami is the name of a Japanese author, known for writing characters who are lonely and have faced emotional hardship.
Mikhail Bulgakov is a Russian playwright and author.
Snicket tells the reader of a friend named Mr. Sirin, referencing a pseudonym of Nabokov’s.
Sunny refers Olaf’s associate who looks neither like a man or a woman as “Orlando”, an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a poet who changes sex throughout the book.
The journalist who writes lies about the Baudelaire children, Geraldine Julienne, may be a reference to journalist Rita Skeeter from the Harry Potter Series. Skeeter first appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, first published only a year before The Hostile Hospital in 2000.
The Carnivorous Carnival
The Hunchback named Hugo is an obvious reference to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Colette the contortionist is named for scandalous French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
The coffee stained map of the Mortmain Mountains uncles “Platt Pass”, alluding to American poet Sylvia Platt who’s life can be seen as a series of unfortunate events, ultimately leading to her suicide.
Following the tragedy that takes place in the lion’s pit, Snicket directly quotes Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Humanity must perforce prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep,” followed by a translation for the less erudite: “How sad it is that people end up hurting one another as if they were ferocious sea monsters.” The tragic events in King Lear (and all Shakespeare’s tragedies) mirror those in this series.
Madame Lulu, owner of a comprehensive (but now lost forever!) archival library reals to the orphans that her real name is Olivia. This name alludes to Olivia Primrose is a character in The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, who is always trying to please others, reminiscent of Lulu’s motto: Give people what they want. Olivia is also a woman who falls in love with the wrong man, much like Madame Lulu’s love for Olaf. As we know, Snicket loves T.S. Eliot who also references Goldsmith’s Olivia in The Wasteland, Olivia sings the line “when lovely women stoops to folly”, it is this line that Eliot uses for line 253 of his complex and meandering poem.
The Slippery Slope
The tenth novel in this series opens with a musing on the poem – Robert Frost’s The Road Less Traveled. Klaus describes this poem as “neither happy nor unhappy”, which is also an apt description of the Baudelaire’s tale. Of course, Snicket puts his own Melancholy spin on his interpretation of the poem: “A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called “The Road Less Traveled”, describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is dead.”
The bears trained as soldiers who used to reside in the Mortmain Mountains is a reference to Dino Buzzati’s The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily.
When attempting to open the Vernacularly Fastened Door, leading to the V.F.D. Headquarters, the final clue is the central theme to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Klaus recalls reading this novel on his mother’s lap and rightly declares the novel’s central theme to be: a rural life of moral simplicity despite it’s monotony, is the preferable narrative to a daring life of impulsive passions, which only leads to tragedy.
Klaus is quoting Nietzsche when the children are facing a moral conundrum: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you. This quotes describes the difficulty the children face throughout the series when they have to go against what is right and noble in order to survive.
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is centered around the main characters waiting endlessly for a man named Godot, and not knowing when he will show up. This is fittingly alluded to when Sunny says “Godot”, translated by Snicket as “we don’t know where to go, and we don’t know how to get there.”
The motto written on the archway leading to the V.F.D. library reads: The World is Quiet Here. This line is taken from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s The Garden of Proserpine: Here, where the world is quiet. This poem is also mentioned again in the final passages of the book: the last quatrain of the eleventh stanza of his poem “The Garden of Proserpine” perfectly describes what the children found as this chapter in their story drew to an end, and the next one began. The first half of the quatrain reads – That no life lives forever;/That dead men rise up never; – and indeed, the grown men in the Baudelaire’s lives who were dead, such as Jacques Snicket, or the children’s father, were never going to rise up. And the second half of the quatrain reads, – That even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea – This part is a bit trickier, because some poems are a bit like secret codes, in that you study them carefully in order to discover their meaning… “the weariest river” refers to the Stricken Stream, which indeed seemed weary from carrying away all of the ashes from the destruction of the V.F.D. headquarters, and that “winds somewhere safe to sea” refers to the last safe place where all the volunteers… could gather.
The Grim Grotto
The Baudelaire orphans board a submarine named The Queequeg, named after a character in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The author’s portrait also appears on the front of the crew’s uniforms. In contrast to this, the uniforms of Olaf’s submarines sports the portrait of Edgar Guest, who Snicket describes as “a writer of limited skill, who wrote awkward, tedious poetry on hopelessly sentimental topics”. Klaus also mentions that Guest is his least favourite poet.
Sontag Shore is a reference to writer Susan Sontag.
The Queequeg’s secret library contains poetry books by Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Simic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Franz Wright, Daphne Gottleib, T.S. Eliot, and Lewis Carroll.
Quigley Quagmire’s telegram is sent using the Verse Fluctuation Declaration, a “way to communicate by substituting words in poems”. The two poems he uses are T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Lewis Carol’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. Violet admits that she’s “always found Lewis Carroll too whimsical” for her taste, while Klaus finds Eliot “too opaque” and he “scarcely understood a word”.
The Grim Grotto in it’s entirety is reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which the giant sea monster can be likened to Olaf’s Octopus Submarine, and the other “unknown” question mark can be seen as the mysterious “thing” at the bottom of the ocean in Verne’s novel
The Penultimate Peril
In this novel the Baudelaire’s find themselves at “the last safe place”, The Hotel Denouement. The hotel is named after the literary term denouement: not the last event of the heroes’ lives or the last trouble that befalls them. It is often the second to last event, or the penultimate peril. This is also, of course, what this book is titled, and what this book is – the denouement of the Baudelaire’s series of unfortunate events.
Kit Snicket, who picks the Baudelaire’s up from Briny Beach has copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Lewis Carol’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. We know these books were used to send of secret code to the Baudelaire’s in the previous book.
The hotel is organised according to The Dewey Decimal System: If you wanted to find a book on German poetry, you would begin in the section of the library marked 800, which contains books on literature and rhetoric. Similarity, the eighth story of this hotel is reserved for rhetorical guests. Within the 800 section of the library, you’d find books on German poetry, labelled 831, and if you were to take the elevator up to the eighth story and walk into room 831, you’d find a gathering of German poets.
The names of the identical brothers, Frank and Ernest, reference Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. They are also a play on words concerning honesty: “You be frank and I’ll be earnest”. In light of this, the Baudelaire’s spend a huge part of the book trying to figure which one they should trust. Who is honest 0 Frank or Ernest?
The Baudelaire’s split up and experience three different stories, they liken this to the John Godfrey Saxe poem about six blind men all having a different impression of an elephant. The Poem is called The Blind Men and the Elephant.
Snicket quotes Richard Wrights’ Native Son when pondering the actions of the Baudelaire’s and what effect they’ll have: Richard Wright, an American novelist of the realist school, asks a famous unfathomable question in his best-known novel, Native Son. “Who knows when some slight shock,” he asks, “disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?” It is a difficult question to read, almost as if it is in some sort of code, but after much research I have been able to make some sense of its mysterious words. “Social order,” for instance, is a phrase which may refer to the systems people use to organize their lives, such as the Dewey Decimal System, or the blindfolded procedures of the High Court. And “thirsty aspiration” is a phrase which may refer to things people want, such as the Baudelaire fortune, or the sugar bowl, or a safe place that lonely and exhausted orphans can call home. So when Mr. Wright asks his question, he might be wondering if a small event, such as a stone dropping into a pond, can cause ripples in the systems of the world, and tremble the things that people want, until all this rippling and trembling brings down something enormous, such as a building.
The Baudelaires, of course, did not have a copy of Native Son on the wooden boat that served as their new home, but as they gazed across the water at the Hotel Denouement, they were asking themselves a question not unlike Mr. Wright’s. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny wondered about all the things, large and small, that they had done.
The final novel in this series, The End, echoes Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, all castaway stories, like this one. Many of the names of the islanders are taken from castaway narratives such as Friday, Robinson, Finn, Alonso, Ariel, Miranda, Caliban, Omeros, and Calypso.
Moby Dick pops up again, in the name of the dishonest colony leader, Ishmael. His repeated request “Call me Ish” is a play on the original, “You may call me Ishmael”.
The coconut cordial is a reference to two things, first, it is described as “the opiate of the people”, alluding to Karl Marx: Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Secondly, the constant consumption of the cordial draws links to The Lotus Eaters in The Odyssey, who’s eating habits keep them docile.
Although not exactly literature, and I have skipped religious allusions that are scattered throughout the other books, it is impossible to ignore the Biblical allusions in The End. Inside the trunk of an ernormous tree contains a book that is full of secrets, information, history, and answers. Of course, this can be seen as The Tree of Good and Evil in Genesis. The snake offers the children an apple to eat from the tree, echoing Eve’s temptation. However, unlike Eve, the apple and the knowledge saves them.
On her deathbed, Kit Snicket fittingly recites Francis William Bourdillon’s The Night has a Thousand Eyes:
The night has a thousand eyes, / And the day but one; / Yet the light of the bright world dies / With the dying sun. / The mind has a thousand eyes, / And the heart but one: / Yet the light of a whole life dies / When love is done.
The only book in the series to have a fourteenth chapter, The End’s final (and fourteenth) chapter begins with a Charles Baudelaire extract from Le Voyage: Ô mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre! / Ce pays nous ennuie, Ô mort! Appareillons! / Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre. / Nos cœurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!
O Death, old captain, it is time! Let us lift the anchor! / This country wearies us, O Death! Let us set sail! / Though the sea and the sky are black as ink, / Our hearts which you know well are filled with rays of light!”
Charles Baudelaire bookends this series, as this extract, and the revelation of Beatrice brings the series to a close, just as The Bad Beginning began with a note to Beatrice and of course, the Baudelaire’s surname.
As I said in my introduction, I made notes of these literary references as I read. However, I also turned to this site in my research.
Cover images from tumblr
Header and footer image by me!