Seminar paper by Rok Vahter
Unlike the name suggests, the Gothic has fairly little to do with the Gothic peoples. It is, in fact, a clearly modern phenomenon. First, the term attained a wider meaning in art history, mostly to refer to several revivalist movements in architecture. During the course of the 18th and 19th, but more prominently during the 20th and 21st centuries, it began to signify a certain bleak and melancholy aesthetic that has found its way into every nook and cranny of culture, popular or otherwise. Today it amply exerts its influence on pop music (Gothic rock/metal…), film (film noir, horror films, thrillers…), video games, and of course literature. Some works of Gothic fiction are today considered to be “classic” novels (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray…), although throughout its existence as a genre, there has been a corresponding low-brow current of Gothic fiction (i.e., pulp fiction). The so-called “penny dreadful” format was extremely popular in 19th century England, for example. In this paper, I will not pay much attention to this distinction in the reception of Gothic fiction. The fierce admiration or vehement denunciations of said texts in the literary community and beyond is, however, a clear sign of the ubiquity and importance of the genre. The debate on what exactly characterizes the Gothic is still very much ongoing and has sparked many new investigations of Gothic texts in the last few decades.
It should be clear enough that Gothic fiction cannot be just any literature with supernatural (occult) or macabre elements (many holy books might then be considered Gothic literature). I believe that the Gothic movement is best conceived as a cultural formation, meaning that it has its own specific material and historic character (Williams 2009). Most literary historians place the origin of the Gothic movement in the late 18th century. It gained significant popularity a century later because of tackling taboo topics and great societal changes in Victorian society, which saw the decline in traditional (agricultural) activity and the dawn of the mechanical age. The philosophy of positivism was fast becoming the dominant epistemology. Psychology became a science for the first time in human history, which had a great influence on Gothic fiction as well. The divided mind of schizophrenia is analyzed seriously for the first time, for example (this is reflected in such works as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein…). Generally, rational knowledge came crashing into religion and burgeoning capitalist social relations were undoing century-old customs and biographical patterns. The prevalence of the Gothic can be viewed, in my opinion, as a simultaneous reaction to the emerging positivist philosophy of science (including political economy) and the deterioration of values of old. Marx and Weber offer some of the most famous descriptions of this “disenchantment” of the world that marked the onset of modernity. The Gothic was thus both an escape from and a reckoning with the rationalizing and simultaneously alienating drive of capital accumulation. The genre survived and has re-flourished in the 20th and 21st centuries; a sizable amount of texts that we may consider a continuation or revival(s) of the specific Gothic tradition have emerged. Some of the new features of modern Gothic include satire and parody of the Gothic itself, gallows humor, cheerful nihilism, bathos and intertextuality.
Approximations to the notion of contemporary gothic were made initially by mapping out a “modern Gothic.” This term served to establish the existence of such a genre or mode in the 20th century and thus to challenge the historicist view that it should be connected exclusively to what has been referred to as “first wave” Gothic, roughly covering the period between the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) […] Ambiguity regarding the development of the Gothic mode in the 20th and 21st centuries has also arisen, at least partly, from its dispersion across different media, a further reflection of its transhistorical, self-referential, and formulaic nature. (Aldana Reyes 2015, 12)
Xavier Aldana Reyes recognizes two main approaches to the Gothic in present-day critical theory. The first “prioritizes certain aesthetic or thematic aspects and, in a materialist historicist vein, explores their potential for social commentary” (2015, 14). The aim of the second major approach is to: “[…]focus on the cultural need for the Gothic and understand specific texts as negotiations or projections of social and political anxieties often repressed by subjects or by the nation in which they live” (Aldana Reyes 2015, 15). In this paper I will combine both approaches in order to discuss A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series of 13 novels penned by Lemony Snicket, in terms of contemporary Gothic scholarship.
CHILDREN’S FICTION AND THE GOTHIC
Gothic literature for children has steadily become an entirely mainstream genre. A quick glance at the bestselling young adult fiction will confirm this. Think of the countless vampire-inspired sagas (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries...), the Harry Potter series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, A Series of Unfortunate Events and so on. Whether or not children should read about such ghoulish literature has been the subject of intense debates, though this has never deterred young audiences from selecting these works; in fact, the opposite likely holds. “Children, it seems, have always had a predilection for what we now categorize as the Gothic, for ghosts and goblins, hauntings and horrors, fear and the pretence of fear. As Townshend argues, this appetite was fed by their nurse-maids, in part because fear effectively secures docile behaviour, and in part because the nursemaids themselves enjoyed the titillation of a good horror story” (Jackson 2008).
This also goes to show that Gothic fiction for children has had a long history of successfully establishing a dual address; the texts appealing to both children and adults. In fact, some scholars argue that the origin of the Gothic is actually in children’s literature. If we think of the witches, monsters, and other specters haunting children’s stories as collected by the brothers Grimm, they are clearly Gothic in nature. It was only later that gory stories started to be viewed as inappropriate for children.
Perhaps the really strange development of the eighteenth century was the transformation of the Gothic narrative into an adult genre, when it had really belonged to children’s literature all along. […] Nonetheless, transformed it was, and the Gothic was soundly suppressed in children’s literature in favour of morally uplifting texts that suited the desires of adults to construct an innocent child […]. (Jackson 2008)
This ambiguous attitude towards Gothic literature for children is evident in the reception of A Series of Unfortunate Events as well. It provoked a considerable conservative critical (and parental) backlash (Olson 2011). Snicket was accused of exposing children to truths too difficult for them to comprehend, or at any rate trying to instill in them despair, nihilism, and “unfavorable” values. He has responded to such criticisms in interviews and even within the series itself. When accused of creating characters that do immoral things he curtly retorted: “I’m at a loss for how to construct a villain who isn’t doing villainous things. If Count Olaf were only doing things that no one would object to, then he really wouldn’t be much of a villain.”
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
In order to demonstrate that the series falls within the scope of Gothic literature I will first try to establish the link to formal and aesthetic aspects of the novels. “A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space – be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory […]” (Hogle 2002, 2).
Places such as these abound throughout the series. The main villain’s lair is a classic Gothic palace, featuring a gloomy exterior and unwelcoming interior, riddled with secret passages and towers that function as a place of imprisonment. The Baudelaires go on to live through a myriad of typical Gothic settings: a forbidding boarding school which reminds us of Jane Eyre, and other Gothic bildungsromans. The condition of the working class is addressed in the Miserable Mill, the installment which paints a bleak and desolate capitalist hell space where children are forced to work; this being a clear call-out to early capitalism in England. The children also endure strange scientific procedures in a dark mysterious hospital and laboratory. Apart from buildings, nature is likewise haunting and menacing: dreary swamps, a morose lake with dangerous flesh-eating leeches, sinister mountain ranges, and secluded and mysterious islands. Even the time and space which the series occupies can be said to meet this criterion. The setting is eerily ambiguous and gives off a vague Victorian/Edwardian England vibe. Smog and other signs of industrialization are mentioned throughout the series. There are, however, anachronistic references to computers, but since they are not used extensively, this only adds to the mystery of the universe the series inhabits. “Within this space or a combination of such spaces are hidden some secrets from the past that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically or otherwise at the main time of the story” (Hogle 2002, 2). This criterion is superbly met, as the central mystery of the series has to do with secret societies, mysterious fires, and an absurdist catalyst for what is literally a series of unfortunate events: an enigmatic sugar bowl that made one particular tea set incomplete. The most obvious formal element missing from the series is the supernatural. This is the so called Radcliffean tradition of the Gothic, where everything is eventually explained in naturalistic terms. But a different kind of “ghost” haunts the protagonists. The specter of Real Life. “The longevity and power of Gothic fiction unquestionably stem from the way it helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural, throughout the history of western culture since the eighteenth century” (Hogle 2002, 4). What sort of world do today’s children need to come to terms with? Sociologists have developed several distinct and partly overlapping theoretical frameworks to describe the predicament of the world roughly after World War Two. Some of the more prominent ones include: post-modernism (Lyotard), late capitalism (Jameson), second modernity/risk society (Beck, Giddens), liquid modernity (Bauman), and society of control (Deleuze). They all address the second big transformation in society after the brutal disenchantment of early modernity (the so-called big transformation). What were some main changes? The categories and social relationships have become even more vague and fluid than ever before. Globalization and capitalism have turned the entire world into a global village, where the flows of money, people, and ideas have become too quick for an average person (or societal institutions, even) to have a firm grasp on. In the old days of modernity life was fairly predictable relative to today. Economies were chained to the nation state and the disciplinary society controlled the body much more successfully than today. School, factory (possibly hospital, prison, and asylum) were the main ideological and repressive apparatuses of the state and they had an unrivaled control of ideology and power. Deleuze (1992) points out that in late modernity society struggles to be in control of itself, not so much disciplining the body, as trying to control variables (such as flows of money, migration, and environmental factors). The official era of power-knowledge controlled exclusively by the state has ended. Ideology has essentially transcended national, official, and “reputable” sources. The world has become more chaotic and less manageable. Identity, likewise, has become more fluid, more relaxed, but at the same time, more anxiety-inducing, as it is no longer as fixed as it was even 50 years ago. A child today is expected to make sense of the world and produce their own role in it: they can select their identity (religious, sexual, national etc.), educational, professional, and domestic path. None is there for them to simply assume it. It’s difficult and confusing to form a coherent identity, especially for a child, in a world that faces huge societal risks such as precarious employment, great economic inequality (the promise of meritocracy is dubious at best), and the rise of financial crises, fascist currents, and a looming global ecological catastrophe. Gothic fiction is very suitable to assuage such anxieties. “[…] we crave and/or need this Gothic experience […] for the Gothic dramatizes the essential loss in the 20th century of a coherent psyche and a social order to which we can pledge allegiance in good faith” (Aldana Reyes 2015, 15). Crises of the capitalist mode of production are a complex phenomenon where the contradictions of all the spheres of the capitalist mode of production culminate (Harvey 2010, 117). I first read the series when I was a teenager in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2008 the markets crashed and eventually caused the Great Recession. The world economy came tumbling down and young people’s lives everywhere were suddenly in jeopardy. The Adults let us all down. Shortly after the crash the Queen of England inquired the London School of Economics how come they did not see the crisis coming; it didn’t feel a lot different from a signature Snicket jab at clueless adults. I personally feel that A Series of Unfortunate Events is an excellent series to ready children for the contemporary world. This is expertly done by the way the Baudelaires are continuously let down by adults and institutions and it is not hard to see how this is very relatable to young readers. Notably, almost all adults in the series are either malicious or well-intentioned, but ultimately helpless against the status quo. Whenever they needed to make a difference they all resorted to parroting the regimes of truth they grew up with. For example, when it seemed that Violet Baudelaire had indeed married Count Olaf, everyone, from the benevolent Justice Strauss to the protective Mr. Poe, regretted that Olaf had tricked them all, but, nothing else at all could be done about the matter: the law is the law. Even obviously morally contemptible plans are merely regrettable, just as long as they are legal. This is a nice way to make children think about cultural production of social knowledge and power relations. Snicket teaches children another subtle lesson in Foucault: the newspaper Daily Punctilio (who wrongly accused the children of murder and continuously misreported what was really going on) is a clear example of how institutions, power, and knowledge are intertwined in the dominant media. In this way the series encourages children to challenge convention by preparing them for sad endings and ambiguous resolutions to contradictions and paradoxes of life. Again, sentiments like these are conveyed in a typical sardonic Snicket fashion, employing irony and sarcasm to warn the reader of what lies ahead: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle.”
The absence of happy endings is not just a trivial narrative decision. “The happy ending marks a restoration of order; indeed, as Pape shows, it often ‘reproduces a static social order’. It constructs a chain of cause and effect towards immediate or long-term happiness for the child protagonist, which in its didactic aspect supposes that particular actions, behaviours and attitudes will produce predictable and certain outcomes” (Bullen 2008, 6). If the story is denied a happy ending, a child encountering such a text has to face and overcome social obstacles and perhaps even demand a change that is opposite to the status quo. This is often done in the series, though not always through entirely bleak scenarios. One of the most important techniques the author of the series makes use of is humor. “Within children’s fiction, the comic Gothic can no longer be ignored, so prevalent has it become in the last 15 years or so. Indeed, the genre is gaining in popularity in these early years of the twenty-first century, arguably because of millennial anxieties adding to fin de siècle uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox” (Cross 2009, 61). Children reading the books are not only faced with the weird world of adults through hardship, but also through the dry wit that Snicket readily employs in the books. Numerous examples of wordplay and other amusing techniques are used. Blank pages represent darkness. Repeated pages represent déjà-vu. This kind of structural comedy is one of the most enjoyable parts of the series. The narrator often digresses from the story in order to humorously explain a certain vocabulary item that might confuse younger readers:
Like this book, the dictionary shows you that the word “nervous” means “worried about something” – you might feel nervous, for instance, if you were served prune ice cream for dessert, because you would be worried that it would taste awful — whereas the word “anxious” means “troubled by disturbing suspense,” which you might feel if you were served a live alligator for dessert, because you would be troubled by the disturbing suspense about whether you would eat your dessert or it would eat you. (Snicket 2001, 2)
The role of humor is not only to play into children’s desire to laugh and be amused. It is in fact one of the key coping mechanisms that they will need to develop in order to come to terms with contemporary society. In this way literature can make them grow as people and critical thinkers. Finding pleasure in reading allows children to develop analytical skills that are necessary to follow a sequence of main events and construct a narrative, which is crucial to one’s emotional and intellectual growth. Narrative is not simply the means by which we understand and analyze literature, but also the means by which we structure our lives and create meaning from our daily actions. “Much of the humour in some comic Gothic texts for younger readers also relies on a sophisticated understanding of irony, parody, genre convention, and ‘higher’ order cognitive forms of humour, such as the perception of, and ultimate enjoyment and even acceptance of, incongruity […]” (Cross 2009, 61).
Considering all this A Series of Unfortunate Events definitely falls within the universe of the Gothic. Taking into account its extensive use of humor, intertextuality, and meta narrative it could also be considered a kind of a hybrid mock-Gothic subgenre. Generally speaking, it satisfies both major criteria set forth by contemporary literary theory; it abounds both in the Gothic aesthetic and the cultural need to address the prevalent anxieties of its time. The series is a wonderful addition to the rich and often under-credited world of children’s Gothic literature that takes the Gothic tropes and aesthetic and subverts and tailors them for the needs of young readers. They can learn valuable lessons about life, society, and themselves by reading such literature. This has a lot to do with the fact they’re much more likely to learn spontaneously (as opposed to forcibly reading “appropriate” fiction) when they pick their favorite monster-themed volume on their own.
One cannot legislate against risk – which by its nature eludes control – or the fear and uncertainty that accompanies it. Nevertheless, critically empowered children are much less likely to be defeated by pessimism, nihilism, fatalism or false optimism. […] By harnessing the power of darkness A Series of Unfortunate Events shows one way in which children’s literature can be illuminating and potentially empower child readers in their negotiation of risk society. (Bullen 2008, 21)
Aldana Reyes, Xavier. 2015. “Gothic Affect”. In New Directions in 21st-century Gothic. [s.l.]: Routledge.
Bullen, E. 2008. “Power of Darkness: Narrative and biographical reflexivity in A Series of Unfortunate Events”. International Research in Children’s Literature, 1(2): 200–12.
Cross, Julie. 2013. “Frightening and Funny: Humour in Children’s Gothic Fiction” In Jackson, A., McGillis, R. and Coats, K. The Gothic in Children’s Literature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October, vol. 59, 1992, pp. 3–7. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778828.
Harvey, David. 2010. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile.
Hogle, Jerrold E. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, Anna. 2013. The Gothic in Children’s Literature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.