First and foremost, what is structuralism? From its Wikipedia page, “In literary theory, structuralist criticism relates literary texts to a larger structure, which may be a particular genre, a range of intertextual connections, a model of a universal narrative structure, or a system of recurrent patterns or motifs.” But it is more than simply stating that a book (or series) is part of a genre. If that were the case, I could end this post right now by saying that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of gothic/absurdist fiction novels written primarily for children. An important question to ask for this kind of criticism is “why”? Why is A Series of Unfortunate Events gothic fiction? Why is it absurdist fiction? Why are they considered children’s novels instead of young adult novels or even just regular novels? To answer these questions, we also need to ask what defines each of these genres. What defines “gothic fiction”? What is part of absurdist fiction that is so different that we call it “absurdist fiction”, instead of lumping these kinds of novels in with other novels? And what constitutes a children’s novel that does not constitute a young adult novel? Of course, we can also apply this kind of thinking outside of just genre. What makes Violet a heroine? What defines a heroine in the first place? Even the fact that the books were written from 1998-2006 mean something, because the books would most certainly have been different if they were written in the late 1800s instead. So, how does time play a factor into the content of the book? How does time play a factor into the content of any piece of writing? How do the author’s worldviews play into the writing? As you can see, structuralism can balloon as far as you want it to very quickly. If you imagine looking at a book as viewing it under a microscope, as one would do with bacteria, then a structuralist view of the book would be removing it from the stand and looking at the entire colony as a whole. Rather than diving deeper into the book, you pull back and provide insight to the book by looking at what surrounds it and why they surround it.
So, what does make A Series of Unfortunate Events gothic fiction? This one is easy enough to answer, even without having read any of the books. Just look at the cover of one of the books:
Without having read the books, and even really without knowing much about what “gothic” is, you could probably make the assumption that this is what gothic is. And of course, not being based on real events is what makes the novel fictional. So, what is “gothic fiction”? Again, from Wikipedia: “Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance.” Some other novels within the genre include Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded to be the origin of the genre. How, then, does A Series of Unfortunate Events fit this mold? Well, the series most certainly combines all of the things above, and the first book even has a few similarities with The Castle of Otranto, to boot. But what makes “gothic fiction” distinct? Why is it any different from another novel that may or may not have any of the things listed above? Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, wrote the novel as a combination of medieval romance and the modern novel, the former of which was too fanciful and the latter, too strictly realist for his own tastes. So the origin of the gothic genre is simply a desire to have a type of novel that is romantic, but not fantastically so, and is also more modern, but not hyper-realistically. And I think that A Series of Unfortunate Events captures this very well. The characters are presented very realistically, and many of the scenarios are believable, but not all of them, adding some sense of mystique and wonder to what would otherwise probably be a very drab novel.
So now, to speak of the heroine, Violet, what makes her a heroine? Wikipedia describes a hero or heroine as someone who combats adversity through feats of bravery, ingenuity, or strength, and often makes sacrifices for the greater good. Does Violet fit this definition? I don’t really think so. While she certainly combats adversity through a variety of different means, I don’t think she is ever concerned for the greater good. In the first half of the series, she and her siblings are only trying to escape the clutches of Count Olaf and his associates, who want to get their hands on the fortune left to them by their parents. In the second half of the series, the trio are primarily attempting to learn more about their parents’ pasts, as it is revealed that they do not know quite as much about them as they had previously suspected. There is hardly any consideration for some kind of “greater good”, and I doubt that there would even be one to find within the context of the series. Never once does the scenario the children find themselves in ever have much of an effect on anyone but themselves and the minute number of other characters within each book. So then, are the Baudelaires not heroes? I think that in this case, we need to define “hero” a little differently than usual. I think it is certainly clear throughout the series that Count Olaf is the villain. But if the Baudelaires are not traditional heroes, what makes Olaf a villain instead of simply an antagonist? An antagonist is defined solely by their opposition to the protagonist, but a villain is defined by evil actions or by having a negative effect on others within the story. So, it is possible for the antagonist of a work to be a hero, but a villain acts in a specific way regardless of position. So then I would argue that the Baudelaires are not heroes because they are self-sacrificing, but rather because they are the only characters who directly oppose the main villain over the course of the series. Would this definition of a hero be any more valid than the other presented? Well, what is a hero without a villain to oppose them? There seems to be some kind of duality necessary, and I would be hard-pressed to find a story with one of the two and not the other. Therefore, while the Baudelaires are not the most clear-cut of heroes, because Count Olaf is clearly a villain, because they oppose him they must be heroes.
So, lastly, how does the time period the books were written in change the story? First, let’s consider what time period exists as the setting for the books. It appears to be set around the 1930s, but there are several anachronisms present that could change that. For example, the Baudelaires interact with both a telegraph and fiber-optic cables; there is mention of a super-computer of sorts, but its exact specifications are unknown; and finally, various cars are used throughout the series, none of them ever named or described in any technical aspect. But even the “timelessness” of the series reveals many things: It was written in a time when there existed fiber-optic cables, super-computers, and even automobiles. If this were a series published in, say, the 1800s, none of these things would be present, and a different kind of “timelessness” would need to be presented as a result. The presence of Violet as one of the main characters additionally reveals some form of modernity; a book series with a female main character would have been less and less popular the further back in history you go. The Baudelaires are also Jewish, a result of not only Handler’s own faith but also the fact that society at the time was accepting of non-Christian religions. It is clear that if the books were not written at the exact time that they were, they would have been radically different.