A Series of Unfortunate Events Characters
by Daniel Handler

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Series of Unfortunate Events Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As books written largely to entertain, the series does not offer particularly profound characters or complex themes. Most of the characters are caricatures, created to propel the plot or to entertain. Only the Baudelaire orphans come close to being fully human and somewhat believable. On the whole, characters simply allow the author to have fun. For example, the villain Count Olaf is an antagonist right out of a melodrama; he has no redeeming qualities. On top of pursuing the orphans relentlessly, Count Olaf has no eyebrows, a dirty house, no taste in theater, and his disguises are always apparent. His awfulness is a continuing tale itself. The supporting characters, most of whom are dim-witted adults, are likewise flat but amusing. For example, the orphans encounter the honest and concerned Hector in The Vile Village, but he is too shy and humble to speak up for the children. Hal, the head of the Library of Records in The Hostile Hospital, is well-meaning but he cannot see very well and he thinks the worst of the Baudelaires. Only children seem to have a clue; the Quagmire orphans turn out to be good friends, for instance, but they vanish for a long time. The orphans must save themselves again and again, a wonderful childhood fantasy of control over one's life.

The Baudelaires are hardly realistic characters, but they are the most real and engaging characters, and they can carry the stories. Sunny, the baby, has four extremely sharp teeth which often turn out to be needed in various disasters; she likes to bite. She also seems to be developing an ironic sense of humor as the books continue. Sunny is a brave and capable toddler, as well. Klaus, a little over twelve when the series begins, wears glasses, likes to explore, and loves to read more than anything. Klaus is also brave and well mannered. Violet, at fourteen the oldest Baudelaire, has a knack for inventing. When she ties her long hair in a ribbon, she is thinking about some invention. Violet is courageous, and she feels responsible for taking care of her younger siblings. Lemony Snicket describes the Baudelaires as intelligent, charming, and resourceful, noting that they have "pleasant facial features." They are so good they might not be sympathetic except, of course, so many awful things happen to them.

The Baudelaires, fortunately, are not perfect. They get mad at one another on occasion; they feel sad, worried, and disappointed often; and they learn to do things that are not nice in order to save themselves. They try to discover the mystery of their parents' death and their own place in life, too. If there is a theme in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," it might be sibling love. The one continuing stronghold in the orphans' lives is their love and concern for one another. They never leave each other in a lurch, going to extremes to rescue one another, and they always communicate and work well together. They admire the strengths of each sibling, and they are bound by memories of a happy life before their house burned down. Love for one's brothers and sisters is the one enduring, positive aspect of life in these stories.

As previously noted, no good adult role models emerge from "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Another theme, then, could be the foolishness of adult society, characterized by greed, deceit, cowardice, and pretense. Adults are certainly the objects of the author's satire. The adults fail to listen to the children, assuming that the orphans do not understand or are bad children, but they seldom seem to understand the situation themselves. Handler makes no attempt to portray a basically safe adult world in which the good guys win and everything turns out happy and just at the end. Handler's dark world is created for laughs, of course, but criticism of the adult world is also explicit. Children may see the truth better than adults.