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. In today’s post I review the fifth, The Austere Academy.
The Austere Academy is a departure from the first four books. Instead of having a guardian, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live in Prufrock Preparatory, a boarding school. The closest thing they have to a guardian is Vice Principal Nero, a cruel, pompous man who is a terrible violinist, and who enforces strict rules with harsh punishments in the school. While the book has almost all the trappings of the previous four (Count Olaf in disguise, scheme to steal the Baudelaire fortune, horrible circumstances) it also introduces two new characters that will continue to be important in the following books—Isadora and Duncan Quagmire. Isadora and Duncan are siblings, two of three triplets, whose third sibling and parents have died in a fire. They make a unique addition to the series, first in that they are kids, and second in that they actually befriend and help the Baudelaires.
This book gives me a great opportunity to discuss something I’ve been wanting to write about throughout this series—psychological realism. I had trouble posturing what I wanted to say about it, but this book provides a great example of what I mean, and the kind of straightforward simplistic psychology that children’s lit usually engages in. First, what I mean by psychological realism:
Students are forbidden from entering the administrative building, with the punishment being having to eat their next meal without silverware. However, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire have to walk to the administrative building to tell Nero about their suspicions about Count Olaf. On the way there, Klaus starts snickering.
“I just realized something,” Klaus said. “We’re going to the administrative building without an appointment. We’ll have to eat our meals without silverware.”
“There’s nothing funny about that!” Violet said. “What if they serve oatmeal for breakfast? We’ll have to scoop it up with our hands.”
“Oot,” Sunny said, which meant “Trust me, it’s not that difficult,” and at that the Baudelaire sisters joined their brother in laughter. …
“Or fried eggs!” Violet said. “What if they serve runny fried eggs?”
“Or pancakes, covered in syrup!” Klaus said.
“Soup!” Sunny shrieked, and they all broke out in laughter again. (85)
The reason this sequence is great is that, for most of the book, the emotions of the Baudelaires are static. They will react to some change in circumstances or piece of news, positive or negative, and then remain in that emotional track until another such event. So, the most straightforward way to plot this would be as follows: Orphans go to talk to Nero—Orphans are apprehensive—Orphans arrive and begin to talk to Nero—Orphans are determined/frustrated—Orphans are turned away—Orphans are disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the books move quick so there’s necessarily little time for twists in the tracks. Still, Daniel Handler finds places to put in these little moments where the orphans break from their emotional track, not because of some external development, but because of their own internal psyche. The above sequence gives the reader a window into the minds of Klaus, Violet, and Sunny, to show how they’re coping with these horrible situations by laughing at them.