With the TV adaptation released as of this very Friday the thirteenth, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post brings us up to fourth book in the series, and the last book adapted in the Netflix show—The Miserable Mill. This post contains spoilers for the first four books of ASOUE, so as Lemony Snicket would say, “if you prefer [reviews] that [don’t give away plot information], please feel free to make another selection.”
The fourth installment of Unfortunate Events tells of the Baudelaire orphans’ stay at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill. Instead of living in a house, the Baudelaires have to live in a bunkhouse for the mill’s employees. Their new guardian offers them a “good deal”—in exchange for his providing them food, housing, and protection from Count Olaf, they will work in his mill. The orphans really have no choice in whether or not to take the deal, and they are forced to work in terrible conditions. While they uphold their end of the deal, their guardian is unable to protect them from Count Olaf, who once again returns in disguise and attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance.
The writing of the book is as superbly dark, imaginative, and humorous as the previous three, but there’s less interesting character work, and less intriguing plotting. The new characters introduced in the book are one-note, and the Baudelaires themselves are inactive throughout most of the book. For the majority of the story, things happen to the orphans, rather than them taking initiative and trying to outsmart Olaf, or uncover his plot, the way they usually do. This isn’t actually a problem, as I’ll explain later, but it does make the book a slower read than most of Snicket’s books.
Even Count Olaf is less interesting. In The Bad Beginning his plan is to disguise a real wedding as a fake wedding, and get Violet to marry him, granting him access to the Baudelaire fortune. In the second book he plots to pose as their new guardian and take them on a scientific expedition to Peru, where, presumably, he’ll be able to manipulate the law more easily. In the third book his plan is to intimidate their guardian into faking her death, and writing in her will that the Baudelaires be adopted by Olaf. This one is the least inventive of the three (what is Olaf even going to do once he’s adopted them? Wouldn’t he just be back to where he was in book one?), but what’s even less inventive is repeating this in the fourth book. It seems like adopting the orphans has become Olaf’s primary goal, rather than a means to an end, and the way he goes about it is a little lazy. I’ll probably talk more about this in a later post, as it is a problem that recurs, but for now I’ll move on.
Wuz— Qui— Bek— Duy— Sho— Gek—
The guardian of the children in this book is a man with an unpronounceable name, who goes by “Sir.” His most prominent characteristic is that his face is obscured by a cloud of cigar smoke, throughout the entire book. It’s an amusing, slightly off-putting description of a character, but it’s also a model for what’s to come in the series. The series is filled with mysteries that are introduced and hinted at, but never solved, questions that are never answered—or at least never clarified 100%. Who is Beatrice? What is VFD? Who are the Snickets? It might be natural for a reader to expect that these questions will be perfectly resolved by the end of Unfortunate Events, since the plot of each book centers on resolving a mystery—the mystery of Count Olaf’s scheme for that particular book.
Having that expectation would make for an unenjoyable read, so Sir is a way to introduce the readers to the idea of a mystery that will only ever be a mystery—an enigma that is meant to be unknown and disturbing, rather than a piece of the plot. What does he look like? What is his name? Mr. Poe even teases the reader multiple times by attempting to pronounce the name and giving up halfway through—the way the author provides only very small hints about the larger mysteries of the book, but never fully spells things out.
I mentioned that the Baudelaires are inactive in this book, but I didn’t mean it as a criticism. This book functions differently than the others, and their inactivity actually serves the themes of this book and makes sense. They don’t take action for so long because Count Olaf doesn’t make a real appearance until more than halfway through the book. In The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, Olaf arrives by the end of chapter three. In The Miserable Mill, he doesn’t appear until chapter nine—although the orphans do immediately discover a building in the shape of Count Olaf’s eye tattoo. For more than half of the book, they don’t have anything to do but work in the mill, and dread the moment when Olaf will come back.
So while the first three books deal with the unfortunate event of personal tragedy (the loss of their parents, of Uncle Monty, of Aunt Josephine), this book portrays the crushing ennui of endless, grinding repetition, with no hope of things getting better. And what better work place to set this in than a mill: a mechanism that goes round and round, crushing, grinding, or breaking something down into smaller parts. The book has an Orwellian feel (mostly because of the huge eye and the doctor who is literally named Dr. Orwell), with the constant weight of Olaf’s lurking presence pressing down on the Baudelaires. There’s also a greek-mythic element to it, in the way the workers are treated. They get one meal of dinner each day, as well as a lunch break during which they are given gum. They are paid with coupons. Gum: you can chew it endlessly, but you will never be full. Coupons: you can get thousands of dollars worth of savings, but you can never buy anything if you don’t have any money to begin with.
While I still think there was room for the orphans to be active and do interesting things, I appreciate the departure that this book takes from all the others. No other book takes so long to get the plot going, and it really lets the depressing reality of the situation sink in.
Although the book isn’t one of my favorites, it was still an enjoyable read, and the structure of the story is unique in the series. It’s a skippable book, whether you’re rereading the series or going through for the first time, but if you read it there’s plenty to get out of it, and plenty of quips and humorous digressions to entertain you.
“The word ‘dreadful,’ even when used three times in a row, did not seem like a dreadful enough word to describe what had happened.” (178)
–The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket