I really like Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour categories. Today I’m taking a closer look at why the new Nancy cartoons by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes work so well for so many. In short, why are these minimalist snapshots funny?
The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”
(I haven’t read How To Read Nancy, but I’d like to.)
Some points from the book and from enthusiasts:
To dismiss ‘Nancy’ as a simple strip about a simple slot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely. ‘Nancy’ appears to be simple only at a simple glance.
Every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.
In comics, all action is composition.
In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.
Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.
There’s an emotional sort of flatness of the stories
The gags aren’t side-splittingly funny but they are always visually satisfying.
The following strip is considered classic Bushmiller at his peak:
Notice how Nancy is a trickster, observing a situation then getting her own back, with extra on top. (Her opponent uses a water pistol; she is about to make use of an infinite stream of hose water.) The Battle is kept off the strip because we know exactly what’s going to happen.
SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.
This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.
Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob. I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.
It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)
How I Got My Shrunken Head by R.L. Stine is classic Goosebumps #10. This is a chosen one story about a white boy transported to an island in South East Asia.
If I’d read this back in the 1990s I wouldn’t have even know the word ‘microcephaly’ but the world has since had an outbreak of Zika, so the humour of the pile of shrunken heads feels a little closer to reality than it did back then, even though microcephaly was first identified in humans in 1952. This is a story that plays with mismatched size. It’s basically a Skull Island story. This describes the fictional island that appeared in King Kong. It’s also a Jurassic Park story, in which the main character/s go to an island where everything is a completely different scale. Actually, let’s go right back and call this a Gulliver’s Travels trope, or further back again, starting with The Odyssey as ur-story.
Stine has said that once he gets his outline done, it takes 8 days to write a Goosebumps book. You don’t pump them out at that speed by mucking around with theme and symbolism and setting the scene. Nope, these books are all about plot.
At the start of the story the main character, Mark, is insulated in his safe and happy home. The closest he has come to adventure in the jungle is playing a computer game. But all that is about to change, because his true worth as a saviour is about to be challenged.
Since this is a chosen one story, all this boy wants at the beginning of his adventure is to live a nice life in the suburbs, playing computer games with his friends. But the arrival of Aunt Benna’s evil workmate changes all of that, because he is whisked away to a jungle on an island where he must save the day. Once he reads his aunt’s diary and realises the gravity of the situation, he doubles down on his desire to save his aunt and the surrounding environment.
When Aunt Benna’s workmate Carolyn shows up at the door holding a shrunken head as a gift, we all know this woman is trouble. (All except the boy’s mother, of course, because mothers are bound by society’s rules to be polite and also oblivious.)
As in Welcome To Camp Nightmare, this web of opponents comprises:
Benign human conflict (with Mark’s younger sister who is a nuisance)
Dangerous human conflict with an adult (Carolyn, who basically kidnaps him)
Monsters in the new environs (first we have the oversized rabbit, then the ants the size of grasshoppers etc.)
The natural environment (e.g. the jungle, the quick sand)
There is also a fake-ally opponent in Kareen.
Mark realises his made-up magic word works. He call yell “Kah-lee-ah!” and this has an effect on the massive ants. Unfortunately for him, the magic word doesn’t work for everything. (That’s a writing rule — writers can’t rely upon magic to get their main characters out of trouble because that would be boring.)
Mark is still a chosen one, though, so we know there will be a series of things that will help him. Next he manages to get the shrunken head to get him out of the vines which have tightened around his body.
Once captured, the aunt turns out to be pretty useless even though she’s an adult and a well-known scientist, so it’s up to her young nephew to cooperate with her and save them both.
Dr Hawlings carries a ‘large silvery pistol’ in this story as well — will this turn out to be a real gun, with bullets? Actually, Stine only uses the gun as a scare tactic — the real threat is having their heads shrunken in a big vat of boiling water. The rule of Chekhov’s gun doesn’t apply in this case.
Mark learns to be a bit more grateful for his annoying younger sister when the scratch she put on his magical shrunken head turns out to help him find it from a massive pile of shrunken heads.
The aunt takes the magical powers away from the boy but this turns into a ‘never-ending story’ when he realises the little head he took home as a souvenir can talk. So now he’s stuck with a talking head and the reader can imagine a subsequent adventure about that.
“The Juniper Tree” is a short ghost story by American writer Lorrie Moore, published in the collection Bark (2014). Or is it a ghost story? I interpret this story as a metaphor for the death of middle-aged friendship, and the mourning process one goes through when deciding to let a friend go.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE JUNIPER TREE
LITERAL INTERPRETATION: A friend dies of cancer in hospital. Our narrator meant to visit but never did. Two other friends rope her into a visit to the dead woman’s house. They see her ghost and everything is quite uncomfortable as the narrator is out of the loop. Our narrator remembers the last time she saw her dead friend in good health — they had a minor clash over a man. The dead friend slaps a pie in her own face to lighten the situation but our narrator is not amused. She decides she needs to go to more conferences to meet new friends.
ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: This is a story about the end of a friendship. The first cracks appeared when the two women found themselves dating the same man (not at the same time — it’s a small dating pool in this town). A frank remark about the man’s infidelity lengthens the crack. When our narrator says a premature goodbye after dinner, they are no longer firm friends. Narrator realises she does not want friends who do wacky things like throw a pie in their face for shits and giggles. (I see this as a failed attempt on the part of the dying friend, to lighten the mood.) Narrator deals with the end of the friendship by imagining the friend has actually died. Inspired by the ghostly image of her white-faced (merengue covered) former friend, the ‘dead’ woman morphs into a ghost. Narrator never really put a firm end to the friendship. She meant to keep nurturing it, but made excuses and now she hasn’t visited her in hospital and next thing she’s dead. This scene with the ghost is the narrator’s conscience reminding her that friends are actually few and far between and friendships need nurturing. She imagines visiting this dead friend with two other former friends — each with their own major flaws — one is missing an arm, the other is mentally ill. These are external manifestations of psychological problems which our narrator has decided not to bother with, consequently cutting them loose. By the end of the story our narrator has said her goodbyes to these former friends, psychologically preparing herself to move on to new ones.
The title is therefore ironic. The Juniper tree symbolises rejuvenation, healing and longevity, yet this is a story about death.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE JUNIPER TREE FAIRY TALE
“The Juniper Tree” is also one of the darker fairy tales collected by the Grimms, which includes murder, guilt transferred onto a loved daughter and accidental cannibalism. Does that have anything to do with this? While the plots are different, the stories share certain images and emotions:
Whiteness. The fairy tale is white noir, with the white of the snow. Moore’s short story has the white of a meringue and therefore the ghostly white face of the dead.
The fairy tale features a decapitated boy, whose head stays on with the help of a scarf. Moore uses this imagery.
Both stories feature jealously. The fairytale is about a second wife whereas Moore’s story is about a subsequent girlfriend.
In the fairy tale the second wife hates the first born son because he will inherit all her husband’s wealth, according to the customs of the day. (Dealing with primogeniture is a common reason for female ‘evil’ in fairy tales.) In Moore’s story, we see the narrator give birth to some misdirected hatred as she begins to come to terms with her boyfriend’s philandering, expecting fidelity. (This is common in contemporary tales.)
Both stories include a woman hearing voices that are not her own.
Both stories end with grief and sorrow disappearing. Both are stories of catharsis.
Both tales are about dark feelings. If we indulge in these dark emotions, bad things will happen. In Moore’s short story we have a woman who is likely to end up lonely.
Both stories feature singers, and the singers trade. In the fairytale, typical fairytale treasures are traded, whereas in Moore’s story we have friends being traded.
Structurally, both stories have two distinct parts. The fairytale seems to begin an entirely new narrative arc once the bird flies away. Moore’s story features two main scenes: The encounter with the ghost and the final supper before the friend dies.
Lorrie Moore has said in interviews that short story collections based around a theme feel contrived, so I extrapolate that a modern short story hewing too closely to a fairytale would seem similarly contrived to this writer. Moore’s ‘retelling’ of “The Juniper Tree” is therefore an excellent case study for short story writers who are interested in taking flashes of imagery from a classic; we are free to use as little as we like.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948) is an excellent example of a short story which contains so much you might as well have read a novel. What can writers learn from this story?
STORY WORLD OF THE LOTTERY
Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. As I re-read this in 2017, I’m thinking of what’s going on right now in Australian politics as citizens vote whether or not to afford marriage equality to all.
SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION
The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.
— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
This is a ‘storybook village’, replete with a square, a post office, a bank. I’m not sure readers of 1948 would have seen this village as particularly cosy. Certainly by 2017 any village with all of those amenities still in operation feels like an island of convenience. We are told the population of this village is about 300 people. I live in a village of 3000 people, so I am confident everyone here knows everyone else. It is clear Jackson wants this village to feel cosy… at first.
Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.
The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers
(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)
SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX
The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.
The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner. The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?
Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.
This outcome, says Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOTTERY
“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”
“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.
Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.
The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.
The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.
Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:
The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
“They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
“Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.
They will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.
The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.
This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:
Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
“It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
“How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.
There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
The village has no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.
Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.
When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.
The Lottery is a cultural influence on more modern works such as Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.
As for story structure, The Last Spin by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.
Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.
Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman.
The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).
The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.
When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.
Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.
These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.
Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.
“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.
As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.
Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.
Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:
When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.
CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose
ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour
SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.
Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant. After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.
Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.
Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.
In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.
A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.
The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)
The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.
The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.
This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.
“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.
A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.
Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.
We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.
Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.
This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.
Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.
Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”
The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.
When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.
A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.
Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.
Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?
The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.
When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.
It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.