When I was a kid, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’ve reread all thirteen books. This final post is about The End, book 13. This post will contain spoilers for The End and probably other books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “I would drop this [review] at once, so THE END does not finish you.”
Finally, we arrive at The End. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are at sea with Count Olaf, and a massive storm shipwrecks them on an island. Pretty soon they encounter the inhabitants of the island, an easygoing colony of castaways, lead by the “facilitator” Ishmael. Count Olaf is forbidden from entering the colony, and while the colony is undoubtedly dull and unambitious, it seems the Baudelaires have finally found a place where they can be safe. Of course, it turns out the island is full of as many mysteries and confusing conflicts as the world the Baudelaires left behind, and the siblings come to realize that they can never really escape these issues.
The End is also the end. (Surprise.) It is Book the Last, and it knows it. Where The Penultimate Peril felt climactic in terms of surface-level story elements—bringing together characters from all throughout the series, putting the Baudelaires in the middle of a direct conflict between the two factions of VFD—The End feels climactic in terms of theme. The book is exploding with meaningful imagery, literary and biblical allusions, thematic discourse, and symbolic scenes. I’m only going to talk about some of them though, the ones that interest me, but there’s all sorts of overlap, so hopefully I’ll be able to cover all the main threads by doing this.
“What’s the deal with all this super specific junk in the general store?”—that’s the note I made when this motif first cropped up in The Hostile Hospital. In the opening of that book, the Baudelaires are in a general store waiting for a telegram, and multiple times Handler lists out in hyper-specific detail the items surrounding them, none of which seem to fit with each other:
“They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fyber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.” (18-19)
Is this a comment on materialism? Something about greed maybe? I had a hunch about what it could be, but Handler didn’t distinctly make the connection, so I just continued to note the motif whenever it popped up. In The Grim Grotto, when the Baudelaires are in the grotto, they each list out all the worthless items they’ve found while searching for the Sugar Bowl. Again, it’s hard to tell if Handler is just having fun or actually doing something.
In The End, Handler takes this motif to its breaking point, and finally makes it into something I can put in a blog post. The Baudelaires go to the arboretum on the far side of the island, where the islanders dump all the things that have washed up on the shores of the island for years. Handler describes these items for three pages. Each sentence is a long list, typically starting with some kind of organizing guideline, such as, “there was everything the alphabet could hold,” or, “everything that could hold the alphabet,” (196) or, “There were objects from every climate” or, “there were objects the Baudelaires did not know if they had seen before” (197). Regardless of how Snicket imposes structure on these lists, the organization is meaningless, and all these different items don’t fit into one singular category. And here, Handler explicitly points to the purpose of these overwhelming lists of distinct objects: “the Baudelaire orphans had found themselves in the largest library they had ever seen, but they did not know where to begin their research.” (198) This arboretum is the dumping ground for all the world, and all the world is not driven by a single narrative. Handler uses this setting to epitomize the theme of stories, which he’s working throughout this book—the idea that everything, and everyone, has a story, and that you can never get the full story. And, with these lists, he’s forcing this disorienting experience on the reader. In The Hostile Hospital and The Grim Grotto, it seems that he’s just toying with the idea, but here he really brings it to center stage, and it becomes clear why he was trying it out in those previous books. Incredibly, he even references one of the items listed in Hostile Hospital in The End when he writes, “there were objects the Baudelaires did not know if they had seen before, such as a wooden rocking horse” (197).
If you take a moment to ignore the biblical gunk and the hundred and one McGuffins and mysteries, if you stop scrabbling for some idea about what the Sugar Bowl is or what the Baudelaire parents had to do with Olaf’s parents, there’s one mysterious line in this book which I find much more intriguing than all that—a line that I completely glossed over and forgot about when I first read it, despite Handler’s attempts to draw attention to it.
In the thirteenth chapter of The End, Ishmael and all the islanders are leaving the island on a raft, and all of them, except Ishmael, are poisoned with the spores of the Medusoid Mycelium. There’s a bit of a Jonestown vibe, although Ishmael claims he’s going to cure them when they reach the mainland. The Baudelaires implore Ishmael and the colonists to take the antidote, which they actually have on the island, but Ishmael advises the islanders against taking anything from the Baudelaires. Ishmael tells Friday, a young girl, to listen to her mother and not take the antidote. “You should respect your parent’s wishes,” he says. “It’s more than the Baudelaires ever did.” Violent responds, “We are respecting our parents’ wishes … They didn’t want to shelter us from the world’s treacheries. They wanted us to survive them.” Ishmael puts his hand on the stockpot of antidote-infused apples the Baudelaires are holding, and delivers his final line in the book: “What do your parents know … about surviving?” (297)
We know this isn’t a throw-away comment because of how dramatically Handler presents it—it’s the last thing Ishmael says to the orphans, and it comes in response to Violet mentioning something that’s been a major theme in the book. So, knowing this line probably means something, there are a few ways to take it:
- Ishmael is a dick that is making fun of the Baudelaire parents for being dead.
- Ishmael had some involvement in the death of the Baudelaires, and is being a dick … etc.
- Ishmael believes the Baudelaire parents didn’t do everything they could to survive, and gave up, hoping their children would be sheltered.
This third option is what I’ve really glommed onto, because it would explain Ishmael’s comment about the Baudelaires not following their parents’ wishes. The idea that the Baudelaire parents wanted their kids to stay away from VFD is implied throughout the series (the Baudelaires wonder, multiple times, why their parents never told them about it), and the idea that the parents had some foreknowledge of the fire that would kill them is hinted at in the Netflix series, where the Baudelaire siblings remark on how odd it is that their parents sent them away to the beach for the day. The Netflix series of course isn’t the book series, but it is a look into Handler’s head, and how he thinks about the characters in this series now after having written all thirteen books.
Now, as it is, this theory doesn’t hold much weight—but ten pages later, Handler starts explicitly addressing this concept of people weary with the horrors of the world giving up on survival. Kit Snicket says, “I cannot go on … I’ve lost too many people—my parents, my true love, and my brothers.” (307-308) A few pages later, Count Olaf is saying the same thing—“I’ve lost too much to go on—my parents, my true love, my henchfolk, an enormous amount of money I didn’t earn, even the boat with my name on it.” (312)
These books are about a lot of things, but something that’s resonated with me from 2004 to 2017 is the focus on survival. Not being a hero, not courting someone, just making it through alive. And for most of the series, survival is a visceral, bodily thing—surviving a sword fight with Dr. Orwell, surviving a toboggan ride down a frozen waterfall, surviving an infection of the Medusoid Mycelium. There are still physical threats to the Baudelaires in The End, but it’s much more focused on emotional survival. In this book, while all these adults—Kit Snicket, Count Olaf, perhaps Ishmael, maybe even their parents, have collapsed under the weight of their grief, the Baudelaires survive it all, and make it through the thirteenth book alive and strong.
Trippy Literary Shit
Time for some trippy literary shit. A Series of Unfortunate Events, besides being a story about these three orphans struggling to survive, is an ongoing struggle between Count Olaf and Lemony Snicket, both of them fighting over the Baudelaires. Count Olaf is trying to destroy all evidence of the Baudelaires’ existence to replace it with the narrative that they are murderers and arsonists—presumably out of a desire for revenge against the Baudelaire parents. He does this by burning down almost every location they stop at, seeking out documents that hold information about the Baudelaires and their parents, and trying to destroy the Baudelaires themselves, and steal their fortune. In the other corner of the ring, Lemony Snicket, following in Olaf’s footsteps, is trying to preserve the truth about the Baudelaires, and save them, by writing and publishing these books—presumably out of a sense of duty to the Baudelaires’ mother.
And while The End leaves the story of the Baudelaires open-ended, it’s a decisive ending for this meta-story. Olaf dies, failing to destroy the Baudelaires, and because he’s dead, Snicket is absolved of his need to record and save the lives of the Baudelaires.
There’s even a definitive character arc for Snicket, as he finally admits that Beatrice is the mother of the Baudelaires, and that Kit Snicket is his sister. Now, you could read Snicket’s coyness about this information throughout the entire series just as Handler withholding information, and that’s definitely what it is—but it also makes sense from a character standpoint, when you look at ASOUE as telling a meta-story about its narrator. Snicket is able to distance himself from the horrible events of his life—the death of his brother, the death of his love, the death of his sister—by writing about them in the third person, and never explicitly stating his personal connection to them. As Klaus says in Hostile Hospital, “We are in grave danger. It’s almost as if I didn’t realize how grave the danger was until I tapped it out into a telegram.” (17) Snicket is avoiding the realization of his own grief by never writing it out in the books. It’s only after Count Olaf has died, the Baudelaires break out of their series of unfortunate events, and the Snickets and Beatrice gain new life with the birth of Kit’s child, Beatrice, that Snicket is able to be explicit about his connection to this story. Finally, he is able to face his own tragedies and commit them to paper.
Speaking of breaking out of the series of unfortunate events, I remember this being something I thought was really cool and satisfying when I read this as a kid: Chapter Fourteen.
Unfortunate Events is undeniably formulaic. Even beyond repeated plot elements, there are certain formatting and extra-textual elements that recur in every book. Each book has an alliterative title. Each book has a dedication to Beatrice. Each book has three full page illustrations. Each book has a letter to the editor at the end. And, each book has thirteen chapters. There’s only one book that is an exception to a few of these trends: The End. The title’s not alliterative, and there’s a fourteenth chapter. Actually, the way it’s stylized, the fourteenth chapter is the fourteenth book, but either way, it breaks the unfortunate cycle of thirteens. You could take the formulaic nature of the books as a knock against them, but in The End Handler uses this repetition brilliantly to make a point. The formatting is so flawlessly reproduced in ever single book, when the pattern is broken, it feels like the story has entered completely foreign territory. When I first read it, it really gave me a sense that the Baudelaires had embarked on a new journey—a completely different phase of their lives—and finally beaten the cycle of unfortunate events they’d been caught in.
Although the symbolism at times feels like it is overshadowing the story, when things get going they really get going. The End is a fantastic close to the series. It’s the most piercing look at Count Olaf that we ever get. It manages to be sad and hopeful at the same time. Ending a series is a tricky thing, and The End pulls it off.
And as far as the series as a whole, well, the fact that I’ve reread the entire thing and written thirteen posts about it should tell you how much I adore this series. And this won’t be the last time I reread it.
“‘This isn’t fair,’ Klaus said finally, but he said it so quietly that the departing islanders probably did not hear. Only his sisters heard him, and the snake the Baudelaires thought they would never see again, and of course Count Olaf, who was huddled in the large, ornate bird cage like an imprisoned beast, and who was the only person to answer him.
“‘Life isn’t fair,’ he said, in his undisguised voice, and for once the Baudelaire orphans agreed with every word the man said.” (143)
—The End by Lemony Snicket
If you’ve enjoyed 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.