The Ersatz Elevator

by Lemony Snicket
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Last Updated on November 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

The Unreliability of Adults

Throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire children are put in grave danger because of grossly inadequate caretakers. While the books use humor in giving the caregivers exaggeratedly horrible flaws, they nevertheless highlight a real social problem: adults who put their own needs ahead of those of the children in their care. In The Ersatz Elevator in particular, there is no shortage of such flawed parent figures.

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The narrative starts out, as always, with the incompetent and self-absorbed Mr. Poe, who wants nothing more than to dump the children on another set of caretakers as quickly as possible so he doesn't have to worry about them. Although the children are frightened at having to climb sixty-six dark staircases to their new penthouse home, he leaves them to it, as his helicopter is waiting. In a frightening, if comic, parody of what sometimes happens in real life, his criminal incompetence in protecting the Baudelaire children has been rewarded with a position that gives him power over even more orphans: he brags he has been made the bank's Vice President in Charge of Orphan Affairs.

The children's troubles don't end with Mr. Poe's disappearance. Although their new guardian, Jerome Squalor, has kind intentions towards them, his weakness and cowardice endanger them. He represents the adult who takes the easy way out and sides with the stronger adults in his presence rather than standing up for the vulnerable children who need his care. As he states to the children,

I don't have your courage.

This makes him an "ersatz guardian"—that is, a false one—because he only provides them with a few words: "good luck."

Jerome's wife, Esme Squalor, is even worse. A caricature of a greedy capitalist (she is the city's "sixth most important" financial advisor), Esme cares only about herself and her money. She is obsessed with what is "in" fashion and "out" of fashion, subjecting the people around her, including the children, to every type of discomfort as long as they are "in" style. She cares nothing for the children as human beings, only wanting their fortune—even though she is already vastly wealthy. She says to the children, "I want to steal from you," and she merely "cackles" when they ask her why she is treating them so cruelly.

Count Olaf, the stupid, evil, and oafish—yet criminally cunning—antagonist, who has been hunting the children through the series in quest of their money, also makes a reappearance. He is Esme's partner in crime. With caretakers like this, focused solely on themselves, the children are constantly endangered: a fate shared by the surviving two Quagmire triplets, who are kidnapped and locked in a rusty cage by Olaf and Esme, who want their fortune. This book, like the others in the series, is a reminder to adults to put the needs of children first.

The Importance of Maintaining a Moral Compass and Facing Obstacles Together

The Baudelaire children survive by having a strong sense of what is good, by supporting one another, and by being resourceful. In contrast to most of the adults in their lives—who are morally bankrupt, self absorbed, or weak, if not all three—the Baudelaire children are ethical and consider the consequences of their actions. They exhibit a morality that is sadly absent in their caretakers. In this book, they show their courage in climbing down the dark ersatz elevator shaft and in pursuing saving the Quagmires rather than running away. Sunny shows both her care for her siblings and her courage when she climbs up the elevator shaft using her teeth to find the rope that will save them. Unlike the adults, the children care more about others than about their own needs. They are unfailingly courteous, kind, and compassionate. They work together, pooling their skills to combat the evil circumstances that conspire against them.

Children's Unique Wisdom

Both the Baudelaire and the Quagmire children's ethical goodness, it is implied throughout the series, arises out of their relative youth and innocence. They have not yet been corrupted by the world as the adults around them have. They are wealthy but not greedy, and they have positive self images but are not self-absorbed. Some of their innate goodness—always a contrast to the adults—appears in their decision to be grateful to live in the Dark Street penthouse, even though they are forced to wear the unwanted "presents" of oversized but "in" pin-striped suits. As Klaus says,

Getting a lousy present isn't really worth complaining over—not when our friends are in such terrible danger. We're really lucky to be here at all.

The children's sensitivity also appears in their distress at the loss of nature—a vulnerable nature that they connect to their own lives—when "light" becomes "in" again and the children watch the Dark Street trees come down: "it seemed a shame to tear them down" and leave "stumps" like "thumbtacks," the children think.

The Baudelaires' superior clarity of vision is symbolized through their ability to quickly see through the disguises of the evil Count Olaf. While the adults are too corrupt to see him for what he is, the children are unimpeded. In this book, while it takes a literal stripping of his boots and monocles to expose Count Olaf to the adults, the children recognize him immediately:

he did not fool them one bit no matter what he was wearing.

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