The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 17, No 1 (2013)

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Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor


Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Sara Austin


Sara Austin recently received a Master of Arts degree in English from Kansas State University. She is currently working on representations of women’s bodies and the construction of national identity in Ramayana comic books. Her primary research interests include sexuality and gender, post-colonial literature, and power relationships in children’s texts.


Through the treatment of narrative voice,the metafictional elements of The End from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events disrupt the hierarchy established by an adult author speaking to a child reader. In her article “Challenging Authority: The Metafictional Story of Tracy Beaker,” Joanna Kirk comments that metafiction is often celebrated as destroying the safety and comfort of children’s texts, since it forces the child to confront the dichotomy of fiction as simultaneously real and unreal (Kirk 25). As Patricia Waugh notes in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction the recognition of the “real” author as a construction highlights for the reader how reality is “closer to the philosophical and mythic than was once assumed” creating a slippage between the real and the fictional (16). Narrative authority is particularly important in children’s literature since it can reinforce or disrupt this author/reader relationship (Kirk 36). Flouting the conventions of adult narrative authority, Lemony Snicket, the narrative voice in A Series of Unfortunate Events, is listed as author on the cover and title page, but the books are actually written by Daniel Handler. Other metafictional texts, such as Jacqueline Wilson’s The Story of Tracy Beaker, do not take the conceit as far as Handler’s. Although Tracy Beaker claims to be written by the title character, the cover and title page proclaim Wilson as the true adult author (Kirk 25). Handler’s books make no such concession, disrupting the reader’s ability to trust the text. In his article “The Critical Reader in Children’s Metafiction,” Joe Sutliff Sanders argues that the typical reader’s view that “books are safe, that they are to be trusted” creates too much reliance on textual authority and does not allow the child reader to express autonomy through critical reading (351). Handler’s text is so untrustworthy that the reader must think about every aspect of the reading and developing critical ability and autonomy.

The last book in the series, The End, explores moral relativism and the need for the Baudelaire children to make their own choices instead of relying on the guidance of others. These protagonists lose their parents in a fire and spend each book adjusting to a new home and a new (usually bad) guardian, being pursued by the evil Count Olaf, trying to convince their guardian of Olaf’s true identity, and finally overcoming the villain only to be removed from their new home so that the entire cycle can start over again someplace else. As the series progresses, newspaper stories and rumors depict the children as villains and the beginning of The End places the siblings in the same boat as Count Olaf both literally and figuratively. The children’s boat runs aground on an island whose facilitator forbids new technologies to the colonists living there in order to “protect” them, but he secretly uses these technologies himself. When the facilitator’s rules threaten the lives of the colonists, the Baudelaires disobey his authority and are cast out. To emphasize this theme of self-directed morality the “author” and narrator Snicket refuses to intervene in the storyline to make the Baudelaire’s situation more tolerable. Part of the conceit of the series relies on cyclical plot lines and the frustration of Gothic tropes. Snicket’s style in relating the horrible facts of the Baudelaire case mimics the didactic tales of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, providing a metafictional link between the series and the didactic tradition.

Metafiction and Didacticism as Opposing Techniques

Metafiction operates by breaking a reader’s state of suspended disbelief and emphasizing to the reader that a text is not real. In so doing metafiction disrupts Gerard Genette’s divisions of a narrative into telling, “narrating,” and events, “story” (156) by allowing the reader to see through the story into the process of narrating. The reader should be focused on the story and not the author’s process of narration. Techniques which draw attention to narration as an authorial construction disrupt both the flow of the story and the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Genette uses the term metalepsis to refer to these metafictional “transgressions” of “double temporality” when an author uses a lull in the major narrative action to digress, allowing a character in the book to narrate a story, and inviting the reader briefly to control the narration of the story (325). In these moments of metalepsis the reader is reminded that the temporality of the story and the temporality of the reader are not congruent except during the act of reading. Metalepsis highlights the fictional nature of the story by crossing the boundary between the narrative and the real. The End employs metalepsis by periodically interrupting the narrative sections of the text with asides to the reader, including anecdotes from Snicket’s “life” outside of the text. Handler’s use of metalepsis extends Genette’s definition because The End assumes Snicket exists extra-textually. These disruptions also illustrate what Patricia Waugh describes as “breaking the frame” (30). Waugh classifies frame breaks into “major” and “minor,” claiming that minor frame-breaks such as moralist editorializing by the author actually reinforce suspended disbelief (31). In a minor frame break the reader and author are placed on the same ontological level of the “real” while the characters occupy the lower level of “fictional.”

 Thus, Waugh claims a major frame break which places author, reader, and characters on the same ontological level is necessary for metafiction to disrupt the author/reader relationship and the reader’s sense of “reality” as absolute (31-33). Daniel Handler employs several major frame breaks, including Snicket’s mock-didactic style, the text’s many references to canonical books and other books in the series, the appearance of the books, the creation of Snicket as a fictional narrator, and the description of all stories as cyclical. These metafictional elements challenge the power dynamics inherent in the real/fictional, author/reader and child/adult binaries.  

A traditionally didactic text acts as an absolute authority and does not give children the agency to become critical readers. According to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, children require autonomy to learn (Ross et al 71). In order to build personal morality, children learn from their mistakes, as external authority cannot build an internal system of justice (72). Didactic literature rewards the good and punishes the bad actions of the child within the text, allowing adults to explain the correct moral choice and leaving the reader no agency. While the child in each story is allowed to make moral decisions, didacticism reinforces the absence of choice for the reader. Didacticism casts authority and home as pleasurable and safe, often utilizing repetition to emphasize comfort (Nodelman 85). A Series of Unfortunate Events co-opts this repetition and other characteristic literary elements, refocusing them into a new type of anti-didactic text, and encouraging child autonomy. The books suggest that children must be taught to manage the possible dangers of the world and so children’s literature should offer knowledge to help prepare readers (Bullen 202).

The End advocates education over attempts to protect children and acts as a performance of Handler’s desire to undermine didacticism: “A mock-didactic tone seems to come naturally to me, although I think it does serve as a parody—not just of Victorian children’s books, but of the sure-footed, long-winded, wrong-sighted tone that one hears so often from the mouths of adults” (Leopold 3). Critic Laurie Ousley explains that adults in The End withhold knowledge from the Baudelaires in an attempt to mitigate their agency, but the children interrupt the adults, taking back power (311). The Baudelaires attempt to maintain their sense of morality in a world which forces them to act as villains or sees them as villainous (Ousley 306). The narrative arc of the series ends with Olaf’s death and the Baudelaire’s realization that they can take care of themselves, a fulfillment of Piaget’s characteristics for developing morality. Because of the ambiguous morality and traumatic events in the book, Snicket pleads with readers, “Even if you have read the first twelve volumes of the Baudelaire’s story, it is not too late to stop peeling away the layers, to put this book back on the shelf to wither away while you read something less complicated and overwhelming” (1-2). Since a lack of experience, not cognition prevents children from understanding adult texts the series exposes its audience to “complicated and overwhelming” prose and literary allusions beyond their experience in order to foster growth (Cross 64).

Allusion and Parody

Allusions in The End function metafictionally to deconstruct the adult power manifested in canonical literature byintroducing the literature to children in an accessible context and then parodying that literature. Waugh describes one of the elements of “radical metafiction” as “intertextual overkill” which challenges both the authority of the author and of Art as a system (145). John Stephens and Robyn McCallum argue that texts which create autonomous readers and contain allusions to canonical works “offer . . . reading positions and strategies with which to question textual and social discourses” (141). Since The End contains such allusions, the disruption in textual agency can be extended outside of Handler’s specific text. Handler fills his books with literary references. The novels’ Victorian-style covers are both a nod to the series’ creative origins as an unfinished neo-Victorian adult novel, and an acknowledgement of the pointed didacticism of Victorian-era children’s books. Handler explains, “We wanted them to look like they came out of someone's dusty old library. We looked at dime novels and penny dreadfuls. The kind of stuff that carried literature in the Victorian era” (Fierman). While The End’s appearance alludes to traditional didactic texts, its internal metafiction disrupts the text/reader relationship by mocking the didacticism its appearance alludes to. Although orphans, who lose power through the loss of the family fortune and are only able to regain the money when proven virtuous, are a staple of Victorian literature for children (Pickering 88), Handler breaks the frame of Victorian imitation because his orphans reject the concept of absolute good and never regain their fortune.

The End parodies many of the Gothic tropes present in popular Victorian children’s fiction. Gloomy settings, overly emotional supporting characters and a villain bent on destroying the heroes are all Gothic elements that Snicket mocks. The Baudelaires constantly find themselves in dangerous and badly-lit situations. Snicket is an overemotional narrator bemoaning equally every hardship that befalls the Baudelaires, from the death of loved ones to bad smells. The villain, Count Olaf, likes dressing up in outfits and scaring children” but Handler makes “no apologies for how the villain behaves. If he were nicer, he wouldn't be a villain" (Benfer 2).

As gothic parody, the unbelievably bad luck of the Baudelaires allows readers to equate the violence they see in the characters’ lives with the violence in risk society, a sociological term for contemporary life focused on the future, modernity and all of its dangers. The Baudelaires’ ability to triumph over corrupt authority figures allows readers to gain a sense of agency while expressing their own fear and anger at a child’s helplessness in society (Cross 62). Gothic humor provides a particularly potent psychological release because it makes the serious funny (59). In an attempt to strengthen the comparison to Victorian didactic texts and Gothic romances, the books mirror the Horatio Alger and series novels of the 1910s and 20s that libraries derided as causing a decrease in children’s “mental effort in reading” and encouraging a “belief in Fate” (Ross et al 27-28). In giving the books the appearance of a penny dreadful, Handler both introduces readers to the first in a string of cultural allusions and draws a parallel between his books and those condemned works of years past. The appearance of the books mirrors Snicket’s warnings not to read them, casting the books as something forbidden, yet desirable, like the Tree of Knowledge.

Snicket’s Narrative Voice and Extra-Textual Persona

Apples in The End become a potent symbol of the necessity of knowledge in helping children cope with risk society. Snicket’s textual asides often include indirect allusions to the events of the story “you might want to remember something the Baudelaires’ mother told them long ago, and something she told me even longer ago. . . . munching on an apple” (38). In this passage, the apple Mrs. Baudelaire is eating alludes to the bitter apples in the text, which save her children’s lives and to the Biblical fruit from the Tree of Knowledge (Bullen 210; Ousley 313). Snicket describes events that contribute to the story arc of the text, but take place outside of the immediate narrative, presuming the characters are real people who have lives outside of the story. The “reality” of the characters is attested to by their interaction with the “real” author.

Despite Linda Hutcheon’s assertions that the products or referents of a fictional text can never be “real” (11), a major metafictional impact of The End is that Snicket becomes part of the real world, giving interviews, corresponding with fans and writing other books, including Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography. While Handler “thought it would be interesting to have the books take place in a world which is entirely governed by books,” the text has made Snicket real (Leopold 1). Snicket has taken on such a life of his own, that he explains his relationship to Handler thusly, “When circumstances prevented me from upholding certain promotional and rhetorical commitments, I found a writer who could more or less impersonate me, or at least impersonate impersonating me, impersonally” (Robinson). Since the false Snicket explains that Handler is impersonating him, Snicket is untrustworthy even in his extra-textual persona. Handler did not initially admit to authoring his books, and still does not to his Snicket fans. Evidence of this deception can be found on the books’ official website under the heading “The Afflicted Author.” Visitors read, “Due to the world-wide web of conspiracy which surrounds him, Mr. Snicket often communicates with the general public through his representative, Daniel Handler. Mr. Handler . . . is the author of three books for adults . . . none of which are anywhere near as dreadful as Mr. Snicket's.” Handler appears in Snicket’s place at book signings where “[the children] meet some guy named Daniel Handler who gives them a long, convoluted story about the many misfortunes that befell Lemony Snicket, preventing his arrival” (Benfer 1). Snicket’s existence outside of the text only furthers the metafictional impact of the stories and the texts’ claims about the interrelated quality of narrative. By creating Snicket, Handler completes the unending cycle of the story that his text describes. If stories have no beginning and no end, it makes sense that the author should exist only within the story. A fictional story necessitates a fictional narrator. The consequence of this fiction is to force readers into autonomy from narrative authority

The author inverts readers’ expectations, disrupting any ability to trust the book and forcing readers to rely on their own judgment, just as the Baudelaire children must decide for themselves what is morally correct. Phrases or words Snicket expects his readers not to know are explained practically such as: “reiterated . . . which here means ‘announced for the umpteenth time’” (5). Sometimes he “explains” perfectly clear phrases with more obscure ones. Phrases that are commonly understood are often obscured through circular narration, “Of course, it is quite possible to be in the dark in the dark, as well as to be not in the dark not in the dark” (190-191). Each chapter contains a discussion of language to help clarify literary devices and theory. Shorter examples are often integrated into the narrative, such as Snicket’s discussion of skimming in which he says, “You end up getting a strange view of the story” specifically if  “some authors insert confusing sentences in the middle of a book just to confuse anyone who might be skimming” (274-275). The next sentence in the book offers such an example: “Three very short men were carrying a large, flat piece of wood, painted to look like a living room” (275). Most authors do not insert nonsensical sentences into their text, but Snicket is an unreliable authority, and so the reader cannot trust his word any more than they might trust the text. While Snicket is untrustworthy in his description of what authors do, the text itself betrays readers. While the child reader welcomes the complicated text of A Series of Unfortunate Events because it treats him or her as an equal, the text occasionally becomes so complicated as to be indecipherable, potentially leading to both reader amusement and reader mistrust.

The childlike helplessness in moments of Snicket’s narrative voice is contrasted with extensive literary knowledge. Snicket’s narrative powerlessness deconstructs the powerful adult authorial persona. Elizabeth Bullen points out that Snicket loses agency as a narrator because he can witness events but is helpless to intervene (206). The End begins with Snicket’s passive fatalism about his ability to affect the narrative “I am sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes” (Snicket 2). Snicket’s narration employs and violates all of these tropes when he, in the form of both author and character, tells a story which he claims that both he and the reader are powerless to change. Snicket’s interjections throughout the text also mimic the editorializing of “Fielding, Trollope and George Eliot” that Waugh references as examples of minor frame breaks in order to allude to these authors and their process of narrating (31). Thus, some of Snicket’s asides reject authorial autonomy and power, but even this rejection is inconsistent.

Stories as cyclical

Snicket is the perfect narrative authority for Handler to illustrate how untrustworthy the construction of “author” truly is. Each element of the book is meticulously constructed to place a child reader in a position of autonomy. Repetition of format of the books and their narrative situations illustrate the novels’ self-conscious composition and reinforces Snicket’s assertion that all stories are cyclical. As Bruce Butt claims in “‘He’s behind you!’ Reflections on Repetition and Predictability in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” repetition is particularly successful in children’s literature (279). While Handler is borrowing a didactic trope, he is repurposing it to share “the joke” with his readers and avoid writing down to them (286). Butt contends that while the repetition is amusing, there is no narrative necessity for the length of the series; however, in the final pages of the article he claims, “I probably will make the effort to read the last one. . . . I want to know how Handler will break the formula” (282-284). By maintaining the integrity of his repetition, especially the use of the number thirteen and frustrating reader expectations, Handler invalidates Butt’s assertion that the number of books is unnecessary. The repetition of the books is punctuated by greater mysteries that the reader expects to have solved by the end of the series, such as what the letters VFD stand for, how the Baudelaire parents died, and why Count Olaf is a villain. The thirteenth book ends with the orphans going out into the world to face whatever horrors they may find. The pattern is not broken; the mysteries are not solved. The fourteenth chapter, the series’ only break in the thirteen-chapter format of the thirteen books, has only thirteen pages.

While frustrating to some readers, this lack of closure serves a purpose in complicating the hierarchy of textual authority over the reader. The ending lets children interpret the world for themselves, deciding their own ending (Kirk 36). This lack of closure also reflects what Snicket has been telling the reader all along, that children cannot know everything (Langbauer 514), and that there are many stories that are all connected. Snicket believes, “No story really has a beginning . . . no story really has an end, all the world’s stories are . . . jumbled . . . the whole story . . . depends on how you look at it. We might even say that the world is always in medias res” (288-289). Snicket demonstrates this with flashbacks throughout the text. When the Baudelaires find Ishmael, the island’s facilitator, he tells them a story from his youth in which the Baudelaires find so many similarities to their own lives that they interject names and places that fit their experience, but not his (214-217). On another occasion an argument occurs between Count Olaf and the island’s inhabitants in which the stories of six characters are mixed together through similar circumstances but different specifics (249-252).

In each case characters see elements of their own stories in the lives of others illustrating that this is not the only story and that readers should not expect absolute answers from texts or from life. The chapter ends with the Baudelaire children leaving the island in the same boat their parents built, taking with them Kit Snicket’s orphaned daughter Beatrice, named for the Baudelaire mother. Beatrice speaks the last word of the novel standing in a spot once occupied by the Baudelaire’s father. She reads the name of the boat, her name (13). Every novel in the series has a dedication to Beatrice, the Baudelaire mother and the narrator’s lost love. The narrative arc of the series reinforces Snicket’s assertion about the cyclical nature of stories.

 The metafictional conclusion to Snicket’s treatment of the unending nature of narrative is the additional chapter at the end of The End. At this point the story reveals that the diary kept by the Baudelaire parents, left over from their time on the island many years ago, is also titled A Series of Unfortunate Events. The last chapter begins with a quotation from this diary; “We are to be castaways once more. . . . We cannot truly shelter our children, here or anywhere else, and so it might be best for us and for the baby to immerse ourselves in the world. . . . if it is a girl we will name her Violet, and if it is a boy we will name him Lemony” (1-2).Handler puts into the mouths of the Baudelaire parents the idea he has been championing throughout the text: children cannot be absolutely protected and so they should be armed with knowledge against the evils of the world. Handler creates in The End a piece of performative metafiction, which operates both inside the fictional text and in the real world outside of the text, and repeatedly breaks the frame separating the fictional from the real, disrupting textual authority and breaking readers’ trust in the narrative. This dissonant reading experience constructs the child reader in a position of moral and cognitive authority that is transferrable to other texts.


Works Cited

Benfer, Amy. "The Mysterious Mr. Snicket." Salon.com. 17 Aug. 2000. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2000/08/17/snicket/index.html>.

Bullen, Elizabeth E. "Power of Darkness: Narrative and Biographical Reflexivity in a Series of Unfortunate Events." International Research in Children's Literature 1.2 (2008): 200-12. Print.

Butt, Bruce. "‘He's behind You!': Reflections on Repetition and Predictability in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." Children's Literature in Education 34.4 (2003): 277-86. Print.

Cross, Julie. "Frightening and Funny: Humor in Children's Gothic Fiction." The Gothic in Children's Literature: Haunting the Borders. By Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. New York: Routledge, 2008. 57-76. Print.

Fierman, Daniel. "Lemony Snicket Is the New Harry Potter." Entertainment Weekly's EW.com | Entertainment News | TV News | TV Shows | Movie, Music and DVD Reviews. 24 May 2002. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: an Essay in Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. "Metafictional Implications for Novelistic Reference." On Referring in Literature (1987): 1-13. Print.

Kirk, Joanna. "Challenging Authority: The Metafictional Story of Tracy Beaker." Journal of Children's Literature Studies 3.3 (2006): 25-38. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

Langbauer, Laurie. "The Ethics and Practice of Lemony Snicket: Adolescence and Generation X." PMLA 122.2 (2007): 502-21. Print.

Leopold, Todd. "Author Suggests You Read Something Else." CNN.com International – Breaking, World, Business, Sports, Entertainment and Video News. 08 Aug. 2002. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

Lemony Snicket. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.lemonysnicket.com/>. Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. New York: Longman, 1992. Print.

Ousley, Laurie. ""Well-read People Are Less Likely to Be Evil": Intellectual Development and Justice in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." To See the Wizard: Politics and the Literature of Children. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 297-314. Print.

Pickering, Samuel F. "The Foundling." Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, 1749- 1820. Athens: University of Georgia, 1993. 8-97. Print.

Robinson, Tasha. "A Few Words with Lemony Snicket | Books | Interview | The A.V. Club." The A.V. Club. 16 Nov. 2005. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

Ross, Hildy, Jacqueline Martin, Michal Perlman, Melissa Smith, Elizabeth Blackmore, and Jodie Hunter. "Autonomy and Authority in the Resolution of Sibling Disputes." New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 1996.73 (1996): 71-90. Print.

Sanders, Joe Sutliff. "The Critical Reader in Children’s Metafiction." The Lion and the Unicorn 33.3 (2009): 349-61. Print.

Snicket, Lemony and Brett Helquist. The End. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Stevens, John, and Robyn McCallum. "Discourses of Femininity and the Intertextual Construction of Feminist Reading Positions." Girls, Boys, Books, Toys; Gender in Children's Literature and Culture (1999): 130-41. Print.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. London: Routledge, 1984. Print.

 

Sara Austin


Volume 17, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, May/June 2013

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"Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End ofA Series of Unfortunate Events" © Sara Austin, 2013.

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680