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 writing about The Slippery Slope, the tenth book in the series, as well as meaninglessness and morality.
The Slippery Slope is set in the Mortmain Mountains, a chilly range of odd, squarish mountains, home to snow gnats, bears, and the VFD headquarters. The Baudelaire orphans are separated, with Sunny being kidnapped by Count Olaf and taken to the summit of Mount Fraught, and Violet and Klaus left for dead along the road up the mountains. Sunny is forced to cook for and clean up after Count Olaf and his troupe, who are planning to destroy the headquarters of VFD. At the same time, Violet and Klaus are searching for the headquarters, and hoping to rescue their baby sister.
The Slippery Slope is the first book where the reader starts to get some broad ideas of what VFD is, and why so many villains and heroes alike seem involved in it. It also has some incredibly clumsy grappling with morality and what separates good people from bad people. But, to paraphrase a Fernald’s remarks in The Grim Grotto (which does a much better job of handling these themes), books aren’t either good or bad, “they’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together” (223). And Slippery Slope is actually mostly good, so while I will get to the fumbled themes, I’m going to highlight some other parts where it sticks the landing wonderfully. First off:
After being attacked by a swarm of snow gnats, Violet and Klaus take refuge in a cave, and find a group of Snow Scouts camping there. The Snow Scouts quickly welcome Violet and Klaus into their troop, and recite the Snow Scout Alphabet Pledge:
“Snow Scouts … are accommodating, basic, calm, darling, emblematic, frisky, grinning, human, innocent, jumping, kept, limited, meek, nap-loving, official, pretty, quarantined, recent, scheduled, tidy, understandable, victorious, wholesome, xylophone, young, and zippered — every morning, every afternoon, every night, and all day long!” (71)
The pledge recurs throughout the book, sometimes as the Snow Scouts recite it and other times just in reference to its absurdity—however the most pertinent commentary on it comes immediately after the scouts first recite it, when Snicket writes that, “Like many pledges, the Snow Scout Alphabet pledge had not made much sense” (71).
In a series so focused on precise vocabulary and the meaning of words, the Alphabet Pledge really sticks out as inane and meaningless. And while Handler takes the opportunity to poke fun at pledges in general, the motif of meaninglessness mainly comes to bear when the Baudelaires reach the VFD headquarters, and meet another orphan whose parents were a part of VFD. The orphan tells them what he knows about VFD, upon hearing his theory on what VFD stands for, Violet remarks, “I always thought that knowing what the letters stood for would solve the mystery, but I’m as mystified as I ever was.” (166-167) Just as the Alphabet Pledge has a seeming order and sense to it, with every word corresponding to a letter, Volunteer Fire Department would seem to be the key to the puzzle, with each word fitting a letter of this mysterious acronym—however, the case with both is that the words are so vague and detached from what they describe that they mean nothing.
The most striking development of this theme is the revelation that VFD has split into two opposing factions, both of whom still claim to be VFD:
“Volunteers who were once working together are now enemies. … Both sides are using the same codes, and the same disguises. Even the V.F.D. insignia used to represent the noble ideals everyone shared, but now it’s all gone up in smoke.” (168)
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t rope vocabulary into this. In addition to defining words in his typical “Which here means” style, in the later books (only starting with book 8, as far as I can tell) Handler begins to define words by explaining multiple disparate definitions. This resonates with some of the thematic shifts of the story, as morality and the morality of specific characters becomes more multidimensional. Certain actions may appear moral or villainous depending on how you look at them, or depending on the surrounding circumstances—just like certain words may have different meanings based on context. In The Slippery Slope Snicket discusses how “if you open a good dictionary and read the word’s long, long entry, you will begin to think that ‘set’ is scarcely a word at all, only a sound that means something different depending on who is saying it,” (216) though he makes an even clearer connection between semantic complexity and ethical complexity in The Grim Grotto when he writes that “The word ‘lousy,’ like the word ‘volunteer,’ the word ‘fire,’ the word ‘department,’ and many other words found in dictionaries and other important documents, has a number of different definitions depending on the exact circumstances in which it is used.” (139)
Prisoner Swaps are a Slippery Slope that Leads to Arson and Murder
Because these books are all about the Baudelaires, you could imagine the titles as having an implied “The Baudelaires Orphans and” before all of them. Go ahead. Give it a whirl on these titles:
The Reptile Room
The Austere Academy
The Hostile Hospital
That would really convey the wrong tone though, and make them sound too much like fun adventures rather than horrible ordeals. I bring this up because The Baudelaire Orphans and The Slippery Slope sounds so stiffly moralistic, and would seem to fit the stiff moralism of this book. To be clear—I’m not deriding the title, I’m merely using it as a framing device.
“The Slippery Slope” refers to the slippery slope argument—in this case, that certain members of VFD began by doing only slightly villainous things, then eventually became the faction of VFD to which Olaf belongs, a wholly villainous group. The concept also applies to the Baudelaires and their newfound ally as they scheme to rescue Sunny. While it is interesting to see the Baudelaires playing out this same kind of moral dilemma in the ashes of the VFD headquarters, shadowing the struggles of their parents, the execution is sloppy.
The main problem is that the slightly villainous act of the Baudelaires is trapping Ésmé Squalor in a pit, and negotiating an exchange of prisoners with Olaf—Ésmé for Sunny. I feel the need to constantly highlight what this section is doing well, because Handler really does have a pretty good handle on all of this—and in later books he executes the theme masterfully. So, once again, I will concede that it’s a really powerful image—the Baudelaire digging this pit as the sun goes down, even referencing Nietzche’s “the abyss also looks into you” (273) and recalling the oppressive darkness of the empty elevator shaft the Baudelaires faced in The Ersatz Elevator. The problem is, even with all the creepy imagery, there really is nothing sinister about the pit. It’s not deep enough to pose any physical threat to Ésmé. They don’t plan to leave her in there for days and days without food and water. There is no reference to any possible chance of harm befalling Ésmé—so what is the big hang-up about? Handler could’ve at least made some mention to a risk of Ésmé being attacked by snow gnats or bears if the Baudelaires left her alone and went off and negotiated with Olaf. So instead, the reader gets that they are willing to forfeit a surefire plan to rescue Sunny from Count Olaf, solely to avoid making Ésmé uncomfortable (oh the horror.)
I think what I find so bothersome about this is that children’s literature (or any kind of story-telling aimed at children) rarely seriously grapples with morality. The problem is that when the hero decides not to do the villainous thing, they end up lucking into an alternate solution that resolves things peacefully. The same thing happens with the Baudelaires. At one point, after the Baudelaires have decided not to go through with their plan, and have gone up to the peak of Mount Fraught with no negotiating power, it appears that Sunny is going to be killed. Unbeknownst to Count Olaf, she has managed to sneak away to safety. Did Klaus and Violet know that their baby sister would be able to handle herself? What if she hadn’t escaped? I’ll tell you what, they would’ve caused their little sister’s death because they didn’t want to put Ésmé in a scary hole.
Believe it or not, I’m not actually that upset by this, because where other series might use this as the point where the Baudelaires turn away from villainy and repudiate moral relativity, The Slippery Slope is actually just the start. As the series continues, these moral dilemmas don’t go away for the Baudelaires, and they are presented with more difficult choices with more serious implications as the books go on.
And as I said, it’s a chef’s salad. While the whole Ésmé-pit thing is clunky and heavy-handed, Handler weaves in a much subtler thread with Violet repeatedly bumping into a bread knife in her pocket. At many points when Violet is faced with a problem that needs to be resolved, she reaches into her pocket to retrieve her ribbon, and bumps into the knife. There isn’t even any internal monologue, but it’s clear that at each of these impasses, Violet is physically aware of this more violent solution (Is this a bread knife which I see before me?)—a truly sinister, villainous solution, not just a minor inconvenience—until finally Violet uses it in a mechanical way, to solve a physics problem. The pay off actually makes sense—because Violet refrained from putting the knife to any violent use, she was able to use it in a more creative, and ultimately life-saving, way.
As much as I’ve criticized this book for its clumsy moral lesson, it really is a fantastic addition to the series. It’s actually the longest in the series, and it certainly feels big—almost post-apocalyptic, in the way the Baudelaires are picking through the ruins of this once great and powerful organization. In some ways it’s the weakest book of the second half, but in others, it’s the grandest. It’s a chef’s salad, so my advice is to eat around the tomatoes (or whatever you don’t like in a salad—tomatoes for me) of heavy-handed themes, and enjoy the rest of it.
“The song is called ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ and it is one of the saddest songs ever composed.” (281)
—The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket
If you enjoy these posts, consider purchasing The Only Series that Matters to support posts like these, and the blog in general! The collection holds all the posts that have appeared on the site so far, polished up and consolidated for the book. It also contains “Chapter Fourteen,” an essay that won’t be published on this blog, discussing my relationship with the series through different parts of my life, and The Appalling Appendix—an index of selected notes, quotes, and observations from the file I kept while rereading the series. The collection is available on Smashwords and Amazon.