An Unpleasant Sort of Paper by E. C. 2010

The assignment: Choose a moment of idealism or a moment of cynicism in the text (A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket)   Explain, carefully, how the book creates that moment, creates an attitude in the reader towards the plot, the characters, or the whole concept of the book.  In other words, I want you to discuss how the book creates attitudes in the reader towards itself.  Note:  I know this is a rather abstract assignment, and I’d like you to interpret it in a way that makes sense to you (but still answers the question of course!) In no more than 2 pages, argue your case.

An Unpleasant Sort of Paper

This is not the kind of paper that will leave you with a pleasant warm sensation of happiness. It is a rather heavy piece that may in fact induce an insurmountable burden to be carried upon your shoulders; indeed it may even make you think. If you would prefer to read something of a less formidable nature than I suggest you stop now. Move on to the next paper. You may find it’s mindless chatter more to your liking.

Cynicism drips molten drops of heartbreak when the Baudelaire children find a moment of intense hope at the very end of the book. As though the children have not been through enough, as though the loss of their parents was not enough suffering, as though being shackled to Count Olaf was not enough misery! No! We must give them hope, and for a moment all their dreams light up their faces, their fears fall like discarded scraps to the floor. We the readers are bamboozled into this hope. We believe that perhaps there is after all a chance for these poor orphans when Justice Strauss declares:

“ You, Count Olaf, will go to jail, and the three children will live with me.” (p. 155)

It is the public discovery of Count Olaf’s flagrant deception and cruelty in combination with Justice Strauss’s declaration that gives us hope. Yet, even with this hope we the readers are hesitant to believe. Yes, we hope. But we do not trust this hope. We have witnessed too many tragedies; we have been disappointed too many times. The author has made sure that we don’t trust this possibility of happiness, he tells us repeatedly that this is not a happy story and that these poor orphans cannot win. In fact, he tells us that the children are magnets for misfortune.

Moments after Justice Strauss’s heartfelt invitation we are told yet again by the author that this will not end happily for the orphans, he invites the reader to stop reading! He implores them to imagine a happy ending for Violet, Klaus and little Sunny. This is trickery! Reverse psychology! We cannot stop reading, we cannot pretend that everything is okay, and this is the magic of the book. Despite knowing that the outcome will somehow be tragic we are compelled to keep reading. There is a sort of self-deprecating charm to the book that beseeches the reader to persevere, the book is saying I am not worthy but I would like some company for the ride. We, the good readers, oblige.

[i] Page 155. A Series of Unfortunate Events; The Bad Beginning. Lemony Snicket. 1999 Harper Collins

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