A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. In today’s post I review the fifth, The Austere Academy.
The Austere Academy is a departure from the first four books. Instead of having a guardian, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live in Prufrock Preparatory, a boarding school. The closest thing they have to a guardian is Vice Principal Nero, a cruel, pompous man who is a terrible violinist, and who enforces strict rules with harsh punishments in the school. While the book has almost all the trappings of the previous four (Count Olaf in disguise, scheme to steal the Baudelaire fortune, horrible circumstances) it also introduces two new characters that will continue to be important in the following books—Isadora and Duncan Quagmire. Isadora and Duncan are siblings, two of three triplets, whose third sibling and parents have died in a fire. They make a unique addition to the series, first in that they are kids, and second in that they actually befriend and help the Baudelaires.
This book gives me a great opportunity to discuss something I’ve been wanting to write about throughout this series—psychological realism. I had trouble posturing what I wanted to say about it, but this book provides a great example of what I mean, and the kind of straightforward simplistic psychology that children’s lit usually engages in. First, what I mean by psychological realism:
Students are forbidden from entering the administrative building, with the punishment being having to eat their next meal without silverware. However, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire have to walk to the administrative building to tell Nero about their suspicions about Count Olaf. On the way there, Klaus starts snickering.
“I just realized something,” Klaus said. “We’re going to the administrative building without an appointment. We’ll have to eat our meals without silverware.”
“There’s nothing funny about that!” Violet said. “What if they serve oatmeal for breakfast? We’ll have to scoop it up with our hands.”
“Oot,” Sunny said, which meant “Trust me, it’s not that difficult,” and at that the Baudelaire sisters joined their brother in laughter. …
“Or fried eggs!” Violet said. “What if they serve runny fried eggs?”
“Or pancakes, covered in syrup!” Klaus said.
“Soup!” Sunny shrieked, and they all broke out in laughter again. (85)
The reason this sequence is great is that, for most of the book, the emotions of the Baudelaires are static. They will react to some change in circumstances or piece of news, positive or negative, and then remain in that emotional track until another such event. So, the most straightforward way to plot this would be as follows: Orphans go to talk to Nero—Orphans are apprehensive—Orphans arrive and begin to talk to Nero—Orphans are determined/frustrated—Orphans are turned away—Orphans are disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the books move quick so there’s necessarily little time for twists in the tracks. Still, Daniel Handler finds places to put in these little moments where the orphans break from their emotional track, not because of some external development, but because of their own internal psyche. The above sequence gives the reader a window into the minds of Klaus, Violet, and Sunny, to show how they’re coping with these horrible situations by laughing at them.
Another terrific example of this is in The Reptile Room. After their Uncle Monty has died, and Mr. Poe, Count Olaf, and Dr. Lucafont are arguing over carpool arrangements for the kids, the orphans are in a determined track, with their focus entirely on trying to convince Mr. Poe and the doctor that Uncle Monty was murdered—and then: “‘That’s Uncle Monty’s food!’ Klaus cried out suddenly, his face contorted in anger. He pointed at Dr. Lucafont, who had taken a can out of the cupboard. ‘Stop eating his food!'” (119) This sudden outburst of fury doesn’t come because Lucafont eating Monty’s food is crucial to the advancement of the plot, and Klaus must stop him in order to save himself and his sisters—it comes because Klaus is horrified to see a complete stranger invading the private space of his beloved guardian, who’s been dead for less than a day.
These little emotional wrinkles are what tethers these books to some kind of reality. In the face of absurdly bleak circumstances, places and people so horrible as to be alienating, these moments of human reality give the reader a direct link to the characters.
Speaking of unreality, it’s finally time that I talk about the whole all-the-adults-are-either-dumb-or-evil thing.
One of the unavoidable quirks of these books, and children’s lit/YA in general, is the ineptitude of adults, with the only competent grown-ups being the villains. There are mechanical reasons for this—it allows the children to have more agency, and forces them into taking the action that the adults are too foolish or scared to take. But I think dismissing this phenomenon as just wish fulfillment for kids negates the experience of children. There’s something that rings true to children about incompetent or villainous adults, and it’s certainly something that rang true for me reading this series when I was young. This book, which is about a school, provides an excellent entry point for this. Before I really break this down, I have to explain Mr. Remora and Mrs. Bass (no relation.)
Mr. Remora is Violet’s teacher. His classes consist of him telling dull, typically short stories, such as “One day I went to the store to purchase a carton of milk … When I got home, I poured the milk into a glass and drank it. Then I watched television. The end.” (57) His students have to take notes on these stories, and every now and then there will be a quiz with questions like, “In my story about the weasel, what was its favorite color?” (192)
Mrs. Bass is Klaus’s teacher. She is obsessed with the metric system, and her class consists entirely of her placing objects on students’ desks, shouting “Measure!” and writing down measurements on the blackboard as students call out the width, depth, and breadth of their objects. Later, Klaus has to memorize all these measurements for a big test.
Obviously, this is an absurd school. Handler is portraying a kind of Dickensian exaggeration of a boarding school, taken twenty steps further—and while on the face of it these classes are absolutely ridiculous, they both have some core structure that points to real-world hardships that kids face in education, and that young readers can relate to. Take Mr. Remora’s class. He teaches stories without any context, and rather than asking students why these stories happened, or if they can extrapolate what might happen next, or how a few disparate stories might parallel one another, he forces them to memorize very specific facts, like the weasel’s favorite color, or “the name of the chef” (191). He’s like a history teacher that is only concerned with students memorizing names, dates, and places, rather than helping them understand the contributing factors to an event, or the relevance of one part of history to another.
And Mrs. Remora is like a science teacher who is only focused on the math and formulas, and never allows for any hands-on experiments. Rather than having her students interact with the objects or observe them in any other way than their spacial characteristics, she forces them to observe only the measurements, the numbers, and not the object itself.
Another element of the school which is a bizarre exaggeration of the real world is Nero’s rules and his over-the-top punishments—if you enter the administrative building without an appointment, your cafeteria silverware is taken away all day. If you are late to a meal, your cups and glasses are taken away, “and your beverages will be served to you in large puddles.” (24) And if you miss one of Nero’s violin recitals, “you have to buy [Nero] a large bag of candy and watch [Nero] eat it.” (25) These rules and their humiliating punishments are more throwbacks to old-school schools with dunce caps and sitting in the corner, though there are still some current day analogs. For instance, dress code. In my high school the punishment for breaking dress code was not any kind of detention or school service, but rather being made to wear the “ugly shirt”—an enormous gray Leon High School t-shirt big enough to appropriately cover any student. (Ironically, if someone broke dress code by wearing pants or a skirt that was too short, the ugly shirt would of course go past them, making it look like the person was wearing no pants at all, and just a shirt.)
The point of this book that resonates most clearly with real experience, which is the purest distillation of veracity, is the fact that Nero, this monstrous, arrogant, stringent administrator, is not the principal, but the vice principal. What is it about vice principals?
I’ll probably talk more about this issue later, as the theme of self-reliance and the failure of authorities is present throughout the series.
The Austere Academy is another instance of a creative, entertainingly grim world developed within the Unfortunate Events formula. I’d say it’s skippable for anyone reading, or rereading, the whole series, but still an enjoyable installment. While it does introduce the Quagmires, they’re pretty flat characters. The reader doesn’t spend enough time with them to understand their dynamic, the nature of their grief over the loss of family members, or the application of their specific skills. They don’t detract from the book, but I didn’t feel that they added much, beyond a greater sounding board for the Baudelaires. Essentially, if you read this book, read it for Mr. Remora, Mrs. Bass, Nero, and the ever-present dark wit of Daniel Handler.
“… ‘if we’re lucky’ is not a phrase that she, or either of her siblings, used very often … the children were not lucky, and so wouldn’t use the phrase ‘if we’re lucky’ any more than they would use the phrase ‘if we’re stalks of celery,’ because neither phrase was appropriate.” (126-127)
—The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket