With the TV adaptation’s release just two days from now, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post covers book three, The Wide Window.
“Book the third” of A Series of Unfortunate Events finds the Baudelaire orphans arriving at the house of their new guardian, Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine’s house is perched on the edge of a cliff (all but the foyer of the house is held up solely by stilts) above Lake Lachrymose, a lake filled with man-eating leeches. As always, Count Olaf shows up in disguise and concocts a plan to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance. The book is full of Handler’s dark, gothic creativity, and the plot twists and turns in unpredictable and riveting ways. As I write this, I’ve already reread through book six of Unfortunate Events, and The Wide Window is probably my favorite of the early books.
That Leaves You with a Rattle
In my previous posts I’ve talked about how each of the main characters is somewhat defined by their particular skills—Violet invents, Klaus reads, and Sunny bites—and about how the story can sometimes feel contrived because of the way the orphans end up being presented with situations that require their specific skills. The Wide Window manages to subvert this trend to great effect. When the Baudelaires come to their new home, their Aunt Josephine presents each of them with a present. Violet is given a doll, Klaus a train set, and Sunny a rattle. The fact that the items are so incongruous with the orphans’ skills and interests subverts the reader’s expectations, and this subversion really accentuates the awkwardness of the situation. It’s a smack of reality after the perfect (at least before Count Olaf showed up) life that they had with their previous guardian. But the subversion continues.
Once Aunt Josephine has left the Baudelaires alone, they decide to trade gifts so they each have something which suits them better. Violet gives Sunny the doll, because the plastic is hard enough for her to bite on, and Klaus gives Violet the train, so that she can take it apart and tinker with it. However, that leaves Klaus with the rattle. These books so heavily rely upon a rule-of-three rhythm—often describing first how Violet reacts to something, then how Klaus reacts, then how Sunny reacts, or having Klaus, then Sunny, then Violet say a line of dialogue—that this incongruity really stands out. It’s like striking the wrong note in a three-note chord, and unharmonious chords suit the tone and mood of this series fantastically.
Which Here Means
It’s no great revelation to say that these books focus on language. Daniel Handler ostentatiously—”a word which here means, ‘really, really'”—examines, mocks, and plays with language, most often in the way that I just quoted (The Miserable Mill 93). Handler does this throughout all of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but The Wide Window is a good book to broach the topic with, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. First I’ll address the more series-wide examination of language: “which here means.”
A lot of people have noted the use of high-level vocabulary words in these books, and the narrator’s frequent stops to define words. It was one of the things that drew me to the books as a kid. It’s a defining characteristic of the series. What I’ve realized rereading them is that Handler doesn’t just define the words. Sometimes, he will simply introduce a word and provide the dictionary definition—which is terrific—but more often, his lexicological diversions (a phrase which here means I didn’t want to re-use the word “definition”) do more. This can really be surmised from the fact that, when the narrator stops to explain a term, the phrase used is “which here means,” and not “which means.” Rather than explaining the denotation of a word, he is explaining the very specific connotation of the word as it is being used in the book. Typically, it’s an opportunity to expand on the description which the word or phrase is a part of. For example:
“He had a grin on his face, but his smile had slipped a notch, a phrase which here means ‘grown less confident as he waited to see if Aunt Josephine realized he was really Count Olaf in disguise.'” (The Wide Window 47)
“Slipped a notch” does not literally mean “grown less confident as he waited to see if Aunt Josephine realized he was really Count Olaf in disguise,” but in this sentence it does, and this is a clever way to all at once introduce an idiomatic phrase, define it, and continue providing the reader with information. No matter how large your vocabulary is, the “which here means”s of these books will still further your understanding of the story, characters, and settings.
The WHMs also draw attention to the nature, and use, of language. Many times, it presents language as a way to gloss over harsh realities with euphemism, as in The Bad Beginning when the narrator describes how, “most of the Baudelaire orphans’ friends had fallen by the wayside, an expression which here means, ‘they stopped calling, writing, and stopping by to see any of the Baudelaires, making them very lonely'” (34)—or in The Miserable Mill when “grotesque” and “unnerving” are redefined with more immediate terms, as “twisted, tangled, stained, and gory” (97). At times, the narrator bemoans the inability of language to really communicate emotions: “The word ‘dreadful,’ even when used three times in a row, did not seem like a dreadful enough word to describe what had happened.” (The Miserable Mill 178) At times, language is portrayed as absolutely meaningless, with the feeling behind the words being what matters, as the narrator explains the phrase, “‘There, there,’ which is a phrase some people murmur to comfort other people despite the fact that it doesn’t really mean anything.” (The Wide Window 80)
And it’s this deeper examination of language, more than just defining words, more than just providing witty, connotative definitions, that makes The Wide Window a good platform from which to discuss this topic.
Niku Isn’t a Word
One of Aunt Josephine’s quirks is that she is obsessed with grammar, and stops to correct characters even at the most inappropriate times. She is also obsessed with safety, and meticulously explains to the orphans all the dangers of the house. Just as she is obsessed with rules to ensure safety (don’t turn on the oven, put cans by your door so you can hear if burglars come in, only use the phone in case of emergency) she is obsessed with the rules of grammar. Josephine’s character demonstrates how a person’s use of language reflects their psyche.
Aunt Josephine’s obsession with grammar also sets up an interesting conflict between language as a method of communication, based on strict rules and strictly prescribed meanings for words, and language as a medium through which to creatively express emotion. Aunt Josephine embodies the first, and Sunny embodies the second. Sunny Baudelaire is a baby, and she speaks almost exclusively in gibberish. Despite this, her siblings are usually able to understand her through her emotion and demeanor, and the context of the situation. Even though the orphans are able to understand Sunny and translate for her, Aunt Josephine insists on correcting her, and saying things like “‘Irm’ is not grammatically correct,” (29) or “No, no, Sunny … ‘Niku’ isn’t a word.” (42) Beyond the comic absurdity of correcting a toddler’s grammar, the contrast between these two uses of language (and the narrator’s apparent preference for Sunny’s use) is intriguing. Even Aunt Josephine is unable to adhere to prescribed grammar when she is overcome by emotion, as she describes the death of her husband, and trails off saying, “and—and … … I apologize children. It is not grammatically correct to end a sentence with the word ‘and,’ but I get so upset when I think about Ike that I cannot talk about his death.” (32-33)
I could talk even more about what’s going on with grammar and meaning and communication, but I think I’ve exhausted the topic for now, and there will be time to dig into it later. For now, I’ll reiterate: the book is my favorite of the first six for the inventive, eerie world-building, the more naturalistic and less contrived presentation of characters, the linguistic acrobatics, and the explosive and twist-laden plot.
“Mr. Poe was kindhearted, but it is not enough in this world to be kindhearted, particularly if you are responsible for keeping children out of danger.” (2-3)
–The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket