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Readers who have read the previous
12 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket will
approach The End with considerable anticipation. We want to know what
becomes of the Baudelaire children, whether they discover their parents who
were thought to have died in a fire, whether they escape the clutches of Count
Olaf, whether they get to meet again with the Quagmire triplets, and what VFD
stands for. Maybe most of all, we want to know whether author Lemony Snicket
will carry through on his prediction that we regret reading these books. Is
the future of the children really as bleak as he said it would be? It turns
out that things could be worse, but part of their maturing is that they have to
relinquish some of their hopes.
The End takes many of the
traits of the previous books in the series and brings them to a crescendo. We
get a whole new cast of characters whose names have cultural allusions. On an
island, they meet a girl named Friday. The most powerful man on the island is
called Ishmael, and other people on the island are Mrs. Caliban, Erewhon, Dr.
Kurtz, Ms. Marlow, and Rabbi Bligh. Some references seem very obscure: one character
is called Omeros, and an Internet search reveals that this is the name of a
book length poem by Derek Walcott from 1990, the name of a biotech corporation
and the name of a beach in Australia. The exclamations of little Sunny often
sound meaningless, but a little research shows that they are often sly references
to something real. She says "negihama" in a discussion about
seafood, and it turns out to be a yellowtail and scallion Japanese roll. She
says "fustianed" when Count Olaf says he is no worse than another
character, and she is using the word "fustian" to refer to bombastic
speech. When someone talks about a terrible possibility, she says
"yomhashoah," referring to the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom
HaShoah. There are not references that most young readers will get, but the
more enthusiastic ones may be inclined to do some research so they can be in on
As with the other books in the
series, Snicket draws attention to doublespeak and nonsense. Many of the
characters request others to do what they want, adding "I'm not going to
force you." It becomes clear that nevertheless, these are forms of
coercion. Even better, characters often repeat "It depends on how you
look at it," and this is revealed as a way of squirming out of an honest
admission. Snicket's attention to the duplicitous use of language is
From an ethical point of view, the
book carries forward one of its most satisfying themes, the moral compromises
and corruption of the children. They started out as victims, but in their
efforts to escape Count Olaf, they have stolen, lied, destroyed valuable
property, made deals with people of suspect moral character, and they have
caused the death of one of their own friends, albeit accidentally. In this
final episode of their story, they have become so desperate to survive that
they contemplate forging an alliance with Count Olaf and plotting against
someone whose motives could be perfectly benevolent. At points, it is no
longer clear that they are on the side of good at all, because they have become
so embroiled in lies and intrigue. Ultimately, they pull back from this abyss,
but it is clear how simple it would be for them to cross the line to become
just as bad as one of the villains in their saga.
Death is a persistent theme through
the whole series, and in this last work, two major characters die. These
deaths are both treated seriously and compassionately, and this is a wonderful
aspect of Snicket's writing. Without giving too much away, when a character
who has harmed another, and death faces them both, there is a strange moment of
tenderness and honesty between the two, and then one recites a poem by Francis
William Bourdillon. This is certainly unusual for a children's book.
Another sophisticated aspect of the
book is its readiness to consider what it means to be the end of a story.
Plainly, life goes on for at least some of the characters, even after the last
page, just as it existed before the start of the story. So inevitably to
declare some point in their lives "the end" is arbitrary. As Sunny
says, they are always "in media res." The storyteller has to
draw a line around a complex reality to make the story possible. This also
leaves open the door for Snicket to carry on the story of the Baudelaire
children even after The End.
Snicket probably has done as much
he could with this series of books about the Baudelaires. At several points in
the series he risked becoming stale, yet he managed to keep it fresh and
entertaining. It is hard to think of a comparable work in children's fiction
in recent decades -- the Harry Potter series is hardly a serious rival for
linguistic inventiveness, moral depth and sly social commentary.
The unabridged audiobook read by
Tim Curry is nicely produced and, as ever, performed with conviction and
enthusiasm. The little songs by The Gothic Archies are as pleasing as ever.
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.