With the TV adaptation just around the corner, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post regards book two, The Reptile Room, and it does contain spoilers for that book. As Lemony Snicket would say, if you don’t want plot information given away, “you are free to put this [review] back on the shelf and seek something lighter.”
And Speaking of Spoilers …
In this book, the Baudelaire orphans go to live with another distant relative, “Uncle” Monty, who studies snakes. Right as the orphans arrive, Uncle Monty is planning a scientific expedition to Peru, and he wants the orphans to come along. Eventually Count Olaf shows up disguised as Monty’s assistant, and schemes to steal their children’s inheritance once again—a scheme made easier by the death of Uncle Monty.
What’s interesting about this book is that it reveals the death of Uncle Monty as early as page 28—and not in some hint or euphemism, the narrator explicitly states, “It is Uncle Monty, unfortunately, who will be dead.” Mentioning this so far up front is important because it lets the readers know that, even though the main characters are having a good time in their new home, misfortune will strike again.
It also softens the blow of Uncle Monty’s death. The death of the caretaker is more disturbing than anything in the first book, because the children actually see his corpse (compare this to Harry Potter, wherein there’re no corpses until book four, more than halfway through the series.) It’s also more shocking to the reader than anything in The Bad Beginning, because unlike the parents who die in the first book, we actually get a chance to see Dr. Montgomery and get to know him before he dies. So knowing that it’s going to happen ahead of time takes some of the edge off the murder. It’s important to do that because this is only the second book of the series, and the first book where the guardian isn’t Count Olaf—the reader can’t have very clear expectations of how “unfortunate” these books will get, so the death of Uncle Monty establishes the tone, and severity of misfortune, for the entire series.
Somebody Has to Slice an Enormous Length of Rope into Small, Workable Pieces
I mentioned in my previous post how the three main characters, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, can sometimes feel like video game characters because of how much they are defined by their special skills—Violet invents things, Klaus knows a lot because he reads a lot, and Sunny bites things with her sharp teeth. I feel like this is better in this book—there’s more time spent developing who the Baudelaires are when they’re not inventing, reading, or biting. In the final chapters of the book, we see Violet as a leader, rallying her siblings to action when they’re too distraught to know what to do. We see Klaus getting angry with the adults for not listening to him.
However, while the characters feel less one-dimensional, the contrived video-game-ness of their special skills manifests itself in a different way—the preparations needed for the expedition to Peru. As Uncle Monty explains to them, “I am way behind on preparations for the expedition. Somebody has to make sure all the snake traps are working. Somebody has to read up on the terrain of Peru so we can navigate through the jungle without any trouble. And somebody has to slice an enormous length of rope into small, workable pieces.” (15)
Huh, what a coincidence that your preparations only entail three specific tasks, and each one corresponds perfectly to the particular skill of each of the orphans. How crazy.
This would be a serious problem, if the book were all about an expedition to Peru. But it’s not, and this is just fluff world-building stuff, and the fact that the preparations fit the Baudelaires perfectly actually fits with the place this book serves in the series.
I think the presentation of the tasks could’ve been better, and masked the contrivance more, but here’s what I’m getting at: this home is a fantasy. It’s a dream home. We can imagine that the orphans’ own home was something like this before the fire, with each of them having their own room, specially decorated and furnished to suit their own interests. This book serves to show us what exactly the orphans are grieving for in all these books, in a concrete, demonstrative way. It’s an opportunity to see them genuinely, unreservedly happy. While there are brief, fleeting moments of happiness throughout the series, this book dwells on it the most, and provides a touchstone around which to orient all of the misery in the rest of the series.
The book also, in the opening chapters before Olaf arrives, explores the fact that, even living in this ideal home with a guardian who is thrilled to be taking care of them, the Baudelaires still miss their parents, and wish they “still lived in [their] real home.” (38) This casts an interesting light on the whole series—the fact that the Baudelaires can never go back to their “real home,” regardless of whether they are fortunate or unfortunate. I’ll probably talk about this more later, but I thought it worth noting now.
The fact that the book starts out so happy also means it has a different story structure than The Bad Beginning. While the first story starts out at the lowest point for the main characters, this one starts out at it’s highest point. The low point comes when Uncle Monty is killed, and Count Olaf has the orphans in his car, headed for the ship bound for Peru. The orphans spend the remainder of the book trying to thwart Count Olaf, and succeed. This is the structure used for most of the books of the series—at least the early ones. Orphans get into trouble, orphans get out of trouble. It’s a common enough story structure—one which, I would say, has a happy ending. It’s certainly not a tragic ending, with the lowest point being the end of the story. So why are these books known for not having happy endings?
For a start, the endings aren’t totally happy. At the end of The Reptile Room, Uncle Monty is dead, and Count Olaf escapes. But this is how serial fiction goes. You foil the bad guy’s plan, but you don’t catch the bad guy because there needs to be a plot for the next book. Harry Potter works the same way. Each book (pretty much), Harry foils Voldemort’s plan, though he doesn’t fully kill him—and sometimes, good guys die along the way. Would anyone argue that those books don’t have happy endings?
So I would says that these books do indeed have happy endings, in that the main characters succeed in achieving their goal. That doesn’t mean they aren’t sad. What Unfortunate Events does well is present endings that are gratingly devoid of any feeling of progress toward a better future. The reason Chapter Thirteen of The Reptile Room doesn’t feel like a happy ending is the fact that they don’t get to keep the viper.
At the time that I’m writing this, I’ve already read the first four books, and I think this book, easily, has the saddest ending of the four. After Count Olaf has escaped, the orphans fall asleep from exhaustion, and wake up to find that a team of movers is loading Uncle Monty’s snake collection onto a truck to be given away to “other scientists, zoos, and retirement homes. Those [they] can’t find homes for [they]’ll have to put to sleep.” (184) This is sad enough—it’s a symbolic death scene for Uncle Monty, as the movers dismantle his life’s work. To make it sadder, among the snakes is the Incredibly Deadly Viper, an ironically named snake that actually wouldn’t hurt a fly, and had become Sunny’s playmate upon the orphans’ arrival. In a different kind of book series, the movers might have relented to the orphans’ request to keep just one snake, the viper. But this is A Series of Unfortunate Events, and, realistically enough, the movers tell them, “First off, no … That guy Poe said all the snakes now belong to us. And second off, if you think I’m going to let small children near the Incredibly Deadly Viper, think again.” (185)
This motif of being denied even the smallest bit of happiness at the end is repeated in other books (see the children not being adopted by Justice Strauss in The Bad Beginning), and it’s this quality, this rebuke of traditional children’s literature, that smacks of real life, and intrigued me as a kid.
The book is great. Uncle Monty is delightfully likable and self-absorbed at the same time, Count Olaf is more menacing than ever, and the writing is as always witty and engaging. There’s some sloppy plotting, where at times Count Olaf is prepared to physically harm the orphans and at others he claims he can’t hurt them until he gets a hold of their fortune, but after Uncle Monty’s death, when the Baudelaires are really in crisis mode, the plotting is tight and gripping.
“He felt, sometimes, as if he had spent half his life explaining things to Mr. Poe.” (150)
–The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket