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. Today I’m discussing the seventh book, The Vile Village. This post will contain spoilers for book seven and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “you may prefer to do some other solemn and sacred thing, such as reading another [review] instead.”
The Vile Village is a turning point in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It falls in the exact middle of the thirteen-part series, and narratively speaking, it has one foot in the first half of the series and one foot in the second half. Just like all the previous books, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with a new guardian—in this case, an entire village standing in as a guardian, the Village of Fowl Devotees. VFD is governed by the Council of Elders, a group of old townspeople who have generated thousands of rules that must be strictly obeyed. And, the same as the last five books, Count Olaf shows up in disguise to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance. The book ratchets up the stakes and the tension of all the previous books, in addition to having all the usual dark creativity, verbal gymnastics, and intriguing mysteries.
So, what separates this book from all the books of the first half?
Half and Half
Before I answer that question, I should first explain what I mean by “first half” and “second half.” This is a deeply ingrained framework in my head for understanding A Series of Unfortunate Events. The first half is books 1-6, and kind of book 7. The second half is books 8-13, and kind of book 7. The reason that book 7 doesn’t fall firmly into either category isn’t just because of the imperfect math—it’s because it shares characteristics with both halves. So hopefully I can take this opportunity both to highlight the transitional nature of The Vile Village and delineate the characteristics of the first and second half.
The Vile Village is part of the first half because it is fundamentally formulaic. Of course, the books of the second half have recurring motifs, and they still all have thirteen chapters, but in terms of story structure they are not nearly as formulaic as books 1-7. All of the first half books follow the formula of:
- Baudelaires arrive at new location with new guardian
- Count Olaf shows up (add “in disguise” for books 2-7)
- Baudelaires work to uncover Count Olaf and his scheme to steal their inheritance
- Baudelaires succeed in uncovering Count Olaf
- Count Olaf escapes
- Baudelaires are forced to leave their current location (although this part can occur earlier.)
All of the above bullet points occur in The Vile Village, however the overall story structure—the shape of the narrative arc—is still distinct from the first six books, and more similar to the following six.
For the most part, the story structure of the first half is Baudelaires get into trouble, Baudelaires get out of trouble. Their fortunes at the end of the book are no better or worse than those at the end, and the circumstances at the end of one book don’t necessarily lead to the circumstances at the beginning of another. A few of them could be read out of order. With the books of the second half, for the most part, the structure is the same—Baudelaires getting in and out of trouble—but by the end of the book, while they may have escaped the worst of it, they are in a worse situation than they were at the beginning—and The Vile Village probably shows the most drastic decline in fortunes of any of them. At the start of the book they are orphans and they live in a horrible village, but they’re at least provided food and shelter. At the end of the book they are on the lamb after being accused of murder with no one to take care of them but themselves. It’s a big change from the first half, where things return to the status quo. At the end of The Vile Village, there’s no going back.
I mentioned earlier in this series of posts that, looked at structurally, in terms of protagonists accomplishing their goals, these books have happy endings—the second half of the series, starting with book 7, really starts to challenge that idea.
Alright everyone, buckle up, things are about to get literary!
The Vile Village does a great job of ramping up the scope of the series, as well as the stakes. Even before the threat of execution comes up, right from the outset it does this with the premise: the Baudelaires aren’t going to be dealing with just one horrible guardians, or two, or an academy or a lumber mill, no. They’re going to be dealing with an entire town, a whole community of people who are horrible. And, in the same way that Handler has used past guardians to draw out the worst in teachers (see The Austere Academy) or in the grinding ennui of manual labor (see The Miserable Mill), he uses the Village of Fowl Devotees to portray the worst in society.
The major fixation of the book is mobs. VFD is a community that follows, to the letter, a litany of arbitrary rules, from Rule #141, which “states that all prisoners receive bread and water,” (178) to Rule #4,561 which “states that citizens are not allowed to use their mouths for recreation” (62) to Rule #961 which “states that the Council of Elders’ hot fudge sundaes cannot have more than fifteen pieces of nuts each.” (100) These rules are an exaggerated rendering of societal mores, and, appropriately, they are passed down from the eldest members of the society—the council of elders. Although some of the rules make sense, such as Rule #201, “no murdering” (165), others are either completely inane (see Rule #961), authoritarian in nature (“Rule #108 clearly states that the V.F.D. library cannot contain any books that break any of the other rules” ) or bent to the whims of what is fashionable in society—in this case, crows (“Rule #19, … clearly states that the only pens that are acceptable within the city limits are ones made from the feathers of crows.” )
And on that note, let’s talk about the crows. The villagers are all, as the name of their village suggests, devoted to crows. Many of their rules, which carry severe punishments, revolve around placating, or not harming, the enormous murder of crows which lives in VFD. They have a massive crow-shaped fountain. The elders all wear hats with crow statues on them. The crows are a point of obsession for the villagers, which could be a stand in for anything—religion, patriotism, pop culture—it’s a rendering of how a mob of people can fanaticize over one particular thing, taken to an extreme.
The crows are also a direct reflection of the townspeople. They move almost completely as one whole unit:
“One of the largest crows, sitting on top of the mailbox, was the first to fly up in the air, and with a rustle of wings he—or she; it was hard to tell from so far away—began to fly in a large circle over the children’s heads. Then a crow from one of Town Hall’s windowsills flew up to join the first crow, and then one from a nearby bush, and then three from the street, and then hundreds of crows began to rise up at once and circle in the air, and it was as if an enormous shadow was being lifted from the town.” (45)
This is exactly the way the people of VFD act when they are in a crowd—one or two individuals will shout some sentiment or advocate a certain action, and then everyone will fall in line. The Baudelaires themselves intend to exploit this single-handedly when they plan to “scatter ourselves throughout the crowd and shout things like, ‘I believe him!’ and ‘Hear, hear!'” (141) It would probably work, but when the Baudelaires reach the villagers, it’s too late.
Live Forever in the Air
In addition to portraying a mockery of society and all its pressures and mob psychology, The Vile Village portrays two types of escape from society—Hector’s, and the children’s. Hector’s plan to escape this oppressive village is to create a self-sustaining hot air mobile home. From the outset, it seems like total and complete fantasy—and to hear Hector describe it, it has a hint of Lennie tending rabbits or Gatsby’s green light in it: “Once it’s completed, I’ll be able to fly away from V.F.D. and the Council of Elders and everything else that makes me skittish, and live forever in the air.” (60) Hector’s escape is a complete and total retreat from civilization. Hector is so afraid of the world that he would rather reject it entirely than learn to deal with it.
And learning to deal with it is the second escape—the escape the Baudelaires make. Hector’s self-sustaining hot air mobile home actually comes to fruition, but the orphans are unable to climb aboard in time as it takes off. Fittingly enough, when Hector is asked to lower the vehicle so the Baudelaires can climb on, he replies, “I can’t, … It’s not designed to return to the ground.” (244) So the Baudelaires manage to run away while the villagers are distracted by an injured crow. They choose (although it’s not much of a choice) to continue to coexist with society, although no longer obeying it’s rules. Rather than rejecting all the horrible things and the confusing impenetrable secrets they faced in these seven books in favor of some escapist fantasy, they stop attempting to climb aboard when they realize they won’t make it, and they return to the ground. I’m pretty sure there’s an echo of this decision later in the series, but I’ll go into that when I get to it. Regardless, this is really the turning point of the series—there are two paths, and the Baudelaires are forced onto the one that leads into the second half.
With this book and the previous one, I’m pretty sure we’ve reached a point in the series where I’m just going to say, it’s great you should read it! for every single book. Really, the book does a masterful job of taking the series out of it’s comfort zone and propelling it into the next six books, where the stakes really are life or death, and there’s no expectation that things will wrap up neatly at the end of each book. It’s great you should read it!
“‘Why does anyone have a lot of rules?’ Hector said with a shrug. ‘So they can boss people around, I guess.'” (56)
—The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket