Setting is very important in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," almost the other major character, especially given the mock gothic quality of the stories. Like Count Olaf, the setting in each book is antagonistic to the poor Baudelaires. For example, Prufrock Preparatory School, the setting of Book Five The Austere Academy, is a dark, depressing boarding school with buildings shaped like gravestones, a brown lawn, a school motto of "Momento Mori" ("Remember you will die"), and a shack for the children's dormitory. The shack is really bad, moreover, with only hay bales for furniture, infested with hundreds of small crabs, and the ceiling dripping with some nasty fungus. Needless to say, the school is inhabited by horrible teachers and a harsh vice-principal named Nero, final exams are pointless, and students have to go to school on weekends, too. The weird details the author adds make this perhaps the worst boarding school of all time, worse than Jane Eyre or David Copperfield ever had to endure. Still, the Baudelaires manage to overcome their circumstances.
Setting reinforces plot in this series, and hyperbole is as much part of the portrayal of setting as it is the plot. Each book could be titled, "How bad is it?" In The Miserable Mill, for instance, the unlucky orphans have to work and live in the Lucky Smells Lumbermill in the dull town of Paltryville. The dormitory here has no windows, although someone tried to draw windows on the gray cement walls with a ballpoint pen, it smells damp, the food is damp, fellow employees are covered in sawdust, and the orphans all have to sleep in one bunk. The foreman is cruel, the work long and dangerous, and the outlook hopeless. The nasty Count Olaf shows up, of course, and the situation becomes truly desperate.
Other wretched settings include a dark city apartment to which the orphans have to walk up countless flights of stairs, a wobbly house on stilts that leans over Lake Lachrymose, a town in the middle of nowhere overrun by crows, and a half-finished hospital with no shelter from the elements. Darkness, creepiness, and discomfort characterize all the settings of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The settings, from a brooding boarding school to a huge confusing hospital, are child-unfriendly. Furthermore, the time of the settings is strangely unspecific. Events happen in contemporary times with cars and computers. Yet, the stories almost seem to be happening in the nineteenth century, too; no one watches television or has cellular phones, and no one makes reference to any aspect of current pop culture. The children even walk a great deal to get from one place to another. The gothic gloom also makes the time of the settings uncertain. All the settings are described in compelling ways, however, and nothing completely defeats the long-suffering orphans. To read about these settings is like attending a carnival with frightening rides and hair-raising side shows—awful, but fun.
On one level, this series is merely a group of crazy, suspenseful adventure stories with young protagonists. On another level, Daniel Handler demonstrates himself to be a twisted, self-aware twenty-first century Dickens, as concerned about the process of storytelling as the story itself. Given that second level, perhaps the most important aspect of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is its literary qualities. The author is clearly playing with language and literary conventions. Irony and satire are typical throughout the narratives, the narrator—Lemony Snicket—is highly unreliable, the reader cannot help but notice all kinds of word play, wildly imaginative descriptions remind the readers that the stories are literature, and the books even bring attention to themselves as books. With this series, perhaps young adult literature goes postmodern.
"A Series of Unfortunate Events" overflows with irony. The first irony is, of course, the narrator's continuing warnings not to read the books at all because the stories are so grim....
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