Dark Whimsy

Hello again all! This is my fourth, and final, Graduate School Paper post this term. As my literature final essay, it’s pretty long and detailed. I hope you enjoy it and, as always, please cite if you chose to use any quotes.

Now, I have a whole month and a half to concentrate on “Guts and Glory” once more, as well as write you guys some fun posts, finally! I’ll start next term in April; look for more graduate papers then! ~ MM

Dark Whimsy

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The Evolution of Death

in Children’s Literature

from 1865 to 2000

)

A Study of Four Novels

Jessica Sandoval

(Morgan Marshall)

)

MA Disciplinary Foundations: Literature and Writing

UI&U

)

There is a well-known quote floating around the internet that states “… nothing is certain but death and taxes”. This quote is often correctly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, although some also name Mark Twain as the originator (Yablon 4). It is, perhaps, so popular because it is so true. The image of our own mortality is a spectre that has haunted mankind since our inception. And while it has been considered a subject to protect children from in the recent past, it seems society’s attitude is now returning to the Victorian-Era view that childhood should not be protected from the darkness that realistically touches even the very young. From horror-based cartoons by directors like Tim Burton, to dark-themed storybooks by authors like Neil Gaiman, the theme of death is growing more and more evident in children’s literature today.

In this paper I will follow the trends of dark whimsy, or death in the form of fanciful fantasy, in children’s literature from both England and America through four very different eras, viewing one iconic storybook from each through the critical lens of new historicism. In this manner I will seek to highlight the social and economic reasons behind the changes in western-societal views towards loss and mourning when it comes to children. These storybooks are, in order from earliest to latest: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (England, 1865), The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (America, 1900), James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (England, 1961), and The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snickett (America, 1999).

Though not the first book ever written for children, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was one of the most popular titles of early children’s fiction — stories written to entertain the young rather than instruct them (Reichertz 22). Written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland is a story of nonsense written by a mathematician to entertain a little girl (Walker par 4). It has been critiqued by many through an array of lenses, from its views of idealized girlhood (Geer), to its bi-polarity of whimsical nonsense and deep metaphor (Masslich), to its sexual psychoanalytic metaphors (Goldschmidt). In fact, Alice in Wonderland can perhaps be said to be the most critiqued children’s book in history. It has also been one of the most retold, re-mastered, and rebooted in an impressive array of artistic media, including sculpture (de Creeft), visual art (Thomas), and both cartoon (Alice in Wonderland, Geronimi) and live-action film. In 2010, acclaimed director Tim Burton retold the story of Alice through his signature macabre lens (Alice in Wonderland, Burton).

Yet despite how many times Alice has been critiqued, retold and remastered, one theme is repeatedly reoccurring: the confusion and uncertainty of one’s own place in the world (Booker, Gilead, Walker). This theme is often seen as an introduction for the child reader into the strange, often unsettling condition of becoming an adult (Booker 68). And I believe Burton had it right when he painted Alice with a gothic pen, for with that strangeness comes the often terrifying knowledge of one’s own mortality.

Not that the children of Lewis Carroll’s day needed a lesson in mortality. In Victorian England where Alice is first set and where both Carroll and his real-life heroine Alice Liddell lived (Carroll, Gardner and Tenniel xxiii), death was well-known. “For one infant, destiny meant malnutrition or early death; for another, life was an alternating series of illnesses…” (Jordan 2) According to The Dictionary of Statistics. Part 2. Q – Z, infant mortality in England and Wales during the later part of the seventeenth century was an average of 57% for babies under the age of twelve months. Though the percentage went down tremendously for ages five to ten, mortality was still an issue with almost 5% of the entire child population of England and Wales dying within the scope of one year (Mulhall 685). Indeed, mortality was such a fact of life for Victorian children that “memento mori”, or after-death photography, gained its height in popularity with mourning parents at that time. “So high was the demand for post-mortem photographs that many photographers were able to make a living from them alone” (Cadwallader 13). So it should come as no surprise that Alice in Wonderland, having been written during a time when childhood and death were almost synonymous, would not only feature themes of death, but would take it as a matter of course.

The story of Alice in Wonderland begins with young Alice, sitting by her sister on the bank of a river. She is terribly bored, “… for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid” (Carroll 9), and thinking about making a daisy chain, when a white rabbit comes hopping by. This rabbit, as we all know, is wearing a waistcoat, looking at a pocketwatch, and saying “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (Carroll 9). Right from the beginning we can see a metaphor of death in Carroll’s tale with the white rabbit’s watch, a symbol so synonymous with time and mortality that it hardly needs to be pointed out. This metaphor of death echoes throughout the story, from Alice’s longing to “… get out of that dark hall and wander among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains…” (Carroll 12), to the Duchesses’ howling baby-turned-pig: “…’if it had grown up,’ she said to herself, ‘it would have made a dreadfully ugly child…” (Carroll 60), to seemingly nonsense commentary by little-known characters such as the Pigeon:

“You’re a serpent; and there’s no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!”

“I have tasted eggs, certainly,’ said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”

“I don’t believe it,’ said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why then they’re a kind of serpent, that’s all I can say.” (Carroll 52)

This quote directly relates to both death and children. The Pigeon is speaking of her young being eaten (killed) by a serpent, which she assumes Alice is. Without realizing it, Alice only reinforces this belief as she admits that she eats eggs. To the Pigeon, nothing but the death of her children matters, so Alice is exactly like a serpent to her. This is an echo of the different forms that death took for Victorian children, from convulsions, to diarrhea, to whooping cough, to infanticide, to causes that The Dictionary of Statistics. Part 2. Q – Z mysteriously lists as “various” (Mulhall 685). But, like the Pigeon, to a Victorian child it didn’t matter how their loved ones died. It just mattered that they did.

Death-laden imagery can also be seen in the words of well-known characters like the Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” (Carroll 66) I have always suspected this well-known quote to be an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, a well-known poem about death that was published twenty years before Alice, and with which Carroll was most certainly acquainted.

But perhaps the best example of Carroll’s death-imagery can be found within the storyline as a whole. Alice, entering Wonderland as a child and having to navigate this strange, unpleasant, and mad world of adults, soon forgets who she is, questioning her own identity throughout:

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” (Carroll 42)

This question of “who are you” is a reoccurring theme in Alice. As literary critic William Empson writes: “…for the child this may be a natural connection; I remember believing I should have to die in order to grow up, and thinking the prospect very disagreeable” (Empson 7). Empson also believes that, to Carroll, the loss of childhood and innocence was very much akin to death: “There seems to be a connection in Dodgson’s mind between the death of childhood and the development of sex, which might be pursued into many of the details of the books [Alice and Through the Looking Glass]… the marriage bed was more likely to be the end of the maiden than the grave, and the metaphor firmly implied treats them as identical” (Empson 7-8).

Still, are any of these metaphors obvious to the lay reader, especially in the case of my last example where the metaphor of death is wrapped within yet another metaphor, that of growing up? Would any Victorian child see death in these? The answer, of course, is unknown. We can’t jump into the minds of those who read Alice way back when and say for certain if they understood any of these things as being symbolic to the recent deaths in their families or of their friends. However, there are certain passages that are blatant in their fatality, which Victorian children could not have helped but to understand:

Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: “Dinah’s our cat. And she’s such a capital one for catching mice you can’t think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why, she’ll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!”

This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. Some of the birds hurried off at once: one old Magpie began wrapping itself up very carefully, remarking, “I really must be getting home; the night-air doesn’t suit my throat!” and a Canary called out in a trembling voice to its children, “Come away, my dears! It’s high time you were all in bed!” On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.

“I wish I hadn’t mentioned Dinah!” she said to herself in a melancholy tone. “Nobody seems to like her, down here, and I’m sure she’s the best cat in the world!” (Carroll 31)

The context here is obvious. Alice is confused as to why the birds and mice are afraid of Dinah, though she herself has just given them a very great reason to be. Any Victorian child so used to the spectre of death as we have seen would find this scene very amusing, indeed. For how could Alice not understand the fear of death? Like much of Alice in Wonderland, this scene uses metaphor, talking animals, and other fantastic literary devices to give the Victorian child a lighthearted laugh in the face of very real, very grave, mortality.

Another example of this blatant fatality can be found when Alice first arrives in Wonderland and forgets who she is. In order to remember, she tries to recite a poem she knows. Only she says it all wrong:

How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spread his claws,

And welcome little fishes in

With gently smiling jaws! (Carroll 19)

The poem takes an obviously nasty turn, directly relating to the impending death of the fishes in the crocodile’s mouth. Once more, a whimsical little bit of macabre within the story to give Victorian children a gentle smile of their own. There are many more examples of dark whimsy to be found within the pages of this classic children’s story, but I will leave it up to you to search them out.

It is then easy to see that Alice in Wonderland epitomizes the Victorian attitude towards death: that it is something both inevitable and acceptable, if not agreeable. Children during Carroll’s time were witness to death on a far greater scale than we are today, and would have undoubtedly understood far more of the themes within Alice relating to mortality. Though it is a whimsical, fantastic story for children, Alice in Wonderland inevitably reflects the themes and culture of its own time, giving the reader of today a unique, fantasy-laden glimpse into a mad world of mortality that the children of Victoria lived every day.

In 1900, thirty-five years after Lewis Carroll published Alice, an American writer created his own version of Wonderland for his children. This writer’s name was Lyman Frank Baum, and he called his world Oz. Like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz starred a young girl. And while Alice in Wonderland is set against the backdrop of prim-and-proper Victorian England, The Wizard of Oz takes place in a world that Baum knew well: the American Midwest during the height of America’s second industrial revolution. Separated by three decades, an ocean, and a nationality, Alice and Oz, while often compared to one-another in criticism (Burns; Ashbourne; Raczynski), can be seen as polar opposites in many ways.

America at the turn of the century was in full-swing industry mode, having begun its second industrial revolution only twenty years prior to the publication of The Wizard of Oz. (Scranton 46). When told to describe the industrial revolution, it’s a pretty good bet that the average American will use words like “city”, “factories”, “smog”, “child labor”, “dangerous” and “dirty”. Yet these familiar, stark images actually only describe the first industrial revolution, which ended roughly around 1860, before Carroll’s Alice was even written. The second industrial revolution, during the time of Oz, saw major changes in working conditions for children and, indeed, fewer and fewer children working at all. “By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age structure of the workforce in the central industries of an industrial economy had changed… children, however denominated, played little or no part in the new industries of the period, electricity, or the chemical industries.” (Cunningham 27). Nearly everyone, city-dweller and townie, urban and rural, east coast and west coast, fully embraced the future, with its new technological wonders, cleaner, safer factories, and economic boom that positively impacted many across the board: “If a man had the will and a few bank notes for a start, he could make a fortune for himself…” (Burns 17). Advances in public health and sanitation were also growing by leaps and bounds, helping mortality rates drop rapidly across the board. According to Samuel H. Preston and Michael R. Haines of the Journal of the American Statistical Association, in the year 1900, mortality among children could be calculated as only 17.6% of the total U.S. population (Preston and Haines, 280). And so, unlike its more famous, slave-driving father before it, the second industrial revolution in America was a time of hope and prosperity for many.

If enormous, smog-filled cities are seen as the epitome of the industrial revolution, the Midwest is its complete opposite. States like Kansas, where Oz is initially set, aren’t generally known for their large factory cities and industrial complexes. Rather, non-locals tend to picture the Midwest with vast fields of grain as far as the eye can see, farms dotting idyllic landscapes and, thanks to Baum himself, “… nothing but a great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions” (Baum 2). Not exactly the picture of industrialization. Yet the Midwest was not immune to the push of industry, especially during the turn of the century: “Investing heavily in urban plants, and employing tens of thousands, these core enterprises transformed major cities (Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago), and profoundly reconfigured smaller centers (Gary, IN; Johnstown and Bethlehem PA)” (Scranton 46).

As literary critic Tim Ziaukas wrote, “The Wizard of Oz was produced while the United States was making the transition from a pastoral past to an industrial future, from the post-Civil War era to the country’s emergence as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century. Oz reflects contemporary concerns generated by that transition” (Ziaukas par 3). He then goes on to describe the story as “a potent piece of Gilded Age propaganda” (Ziaukas 6). While this description may seem wholly negative, I believe it, too, supports my argument. Oz, it is generally agreed, came from a time when money and prestige were everything, and optimism and delight were in high-regard. Indeed, in his opening to Oz, L. Frank Baum himself wrote:

The old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as `historical’ in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer `wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out (Baum introduction).

Though there is little in the way of research into societal views on death and the macabre in 1900 America, I believe Baum was echoing his time. With its new, positive view of life, the future looked rosy and bright for turn-of-the-century Americans. Focusing on the dark and macabre would have been terribly retroactive to the hope so many shared. It was a time of sunshine, not darkness.

Like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz epitomizes the attitudes of its time, laughing in the face of death, pouring sunshine and happiness on everything it touches.  This can easily be seen throughout the story, in its unwavering optimism and lack of negative plot-twists, as noted in this scene:

Toward evening, when Dorothy was tired from her long walk and began to wonder where she should pass the night, she came to a house rather larger than the rest. On the green lawn before it many men and women were dancing. Five fiddlers played as loudly as possible, and the people were laughing and singing… The people greeted Dorothy kindly, and invited her to supper and to pass the night with them (Baum 21).

In the vast majority of stories, something negative would have happened to Dorothy at this house. Even Alice would have surely run into some strange creature that would tell her she was mad, at the very least. Yet nothing happens to Dorothy here except that she gets two good meals and a night spent in a comfortable bed. The next day she is off again, down the yellow brick road on her way to the Emerald City.

Indeed, the yellow brick road itself is quite a metaphor of prosperity and good times. A road lined with gold is an iconic view of Heaven, the epitome of western utopias. And Dorothy’s famous slippers in which she walks along this heavenly road are not ruby as the famous MGM film would have us believe, but in fact silver (Baum 11). Add to these the bejeweled Emerald City, and you have a perfect picture of prosperity.

Yet even with all these positive feelings and happy times, Oz is not entirely without a touch of the macabre. After all, even when we deny its presence, death still stalks every human being, and is therefore a core element in the psyche of nightmares for everyone, including L. Frank Baum. Though as Baum’s later books tell us, nobody in Oz dies of natural causes, they are not immune to unnatural ones:

“I shall keep it, just the same,” said the Witch, laughing at her, “and someday I shall get the other one from you, too.”

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Instantly the wicked woman gave a loud cry of fear, and then, as Dorothy looked at her in wonder, the Witch began to shrink and fall away.

“See what you have done!” she screamed. “In a minute I shall melt away.”

“I’m very sorry, indeed,” said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes.

“Didn’t you know water would be the end of me?” asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice. (Baum 122)

And even when they don’t die, their lives aren’t always rosy. In his story about how he became tin, the Tin Woodman tells Dorothy and the Scarecrow how he accidentally cut off his arms, legs and head with his axe, which had been cursed by the Wicked Witch. Then he goes on to explain, “I thought I had beaten the Wicked Witch then, and I worked harder than ever, but… she… made my axe slip again, so that it cut right through my body, splitting me into two halves” (Baum 43).

But even these macabre images are painted by Baum with a lighthearted, whimsical pen. The wicked witch is killed by water, an allusion to a child’s hatred of baths, perhaps? And the Tin Man’s story is entirely blood-and-gore free, even though it really shouldn’t be, all things considered.

The story ends with Dorothy saving the people of Oz from both witches and returning home a hero, to the loving, caring arms of her family. It is a perfect ending to a perfect story about perfectly happy people and the evils that, with their goodness, they can easily slay on a bucket-throwing whim. And so, despite its propaganda-laced criticisms, I believe The Wizard of Oz is what its author wished it to be: a modern fairy tale with the nightmares (mostly) removed. Just like the society of its time, when people were too busy singing joyously of life to bother thinking about death.

But sixty years after Baum published The Wizard of Oz, western society was once more rife with strife. This time, in the form of social revolution. Onto this chaotic stage came another iconic children’s story: Roald Dahl’s classic, James and the Giant Peach.

James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961 in Great Britain, the first children’s book written by Roald Dahl, an ex-pilot who had seen war and death first-hand.

Before taking up children’s writing, Dahl had served in the British Royal Navy, flying a fighter jet in the Second World War. During that time, he crashed his plane and almost burnt to death in the wreckage. His vast injuries took a lengthy hospital stay and plastic surgery to heal (Mote par 1). This terrible experience came out in his writing, both for adults and for children, in the form of a macabre kind of whimsy. While Dahl is not known for his adult stories, he wrote many, all of which were dark and twisted: “In praising Dahl’s macabre tales, a Books and Bookmen reviewer called Dahl ‘a master of horror–an intellectual Hitchcock of the writing world’” (Mote par 1). And though he kept his children’s stories a bit above that adult level of horror, it cannot be denied that they still echo his “master of horror” title: “… Dahl replied to interviewer Mark West [when asked about his obscene writing style]: ’Children are different from adults. Children are much more vulgar than grownups. They have a coarser sense of humor’” (Mote par 6).

The 1960’s was a decade of social and familial revolution in Great Britain. Though the nation did not officially enter the Vietnam War, the people of Britain certainly had their opinions on it. “The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign… attracted considerable support among university students and sponsored mass demonstrations in London on 17 March and 27 October 1968, with marchers converging on the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square… Some Labour Party MPs also got involved in campaigning about Vietnam. Hugh Jenkins set up the Vietnam Fund in his Putney constituency to raise money to help victims of the war. As part of the effort, Jenkins sent 100 pounds to the South Vietnamese embassy in London for the ‘aid of people in the village recently bombed by accident by the Americans’” (Vickers 63-64).

And Britain had its hands full even without Vietnam, with capturing Soviet spies during the Cold War (Epstein 78), and a radical socioeconomic changes, such as a rise in both divorce rates (Schoen and J. Baj 439), and illegitimate birthrates (Hartley, 537). In fact, Great Britain at the time of James was in a societal frenzy of raging against “the man”, with a boom in satirist entertainment (Wagg 319), and the emergence of contemptuous youth-based subcultures such as mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads, to name a few. The youth of the 1960’s were blasé about subjects such as death, as seen in the lyrics to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by the Beatles, a very popular, and not at all unique, song:

“Savin’ up your money for a rainy day
Givin’ all your clothes to charity
Last night the wife said
Oh, boy when you’re dead
You don’t take nothin’ with you
But your soul…THINK” (Beatles)

And while parents still generally wished to protect their children from the topic, the widespread use of television and recorded music made this blasé youth attitude not only easily accessible to children, but also attractive.

Considering the revolutionary attitude of its time as well as its author’s macabre background, James and the Giant Peach is surprisingly benign on the surface. However, one only has to look just under the surface to find plenty of death metaphors, and even some blatancy. The story opens with James Henry Trotter, a little boy of about four years old, at his wonderful home by the sea. Yet even as the reader is being lulled into a false sense of security by this idyllic scene, they can’t help but feel somewhat uncomfortable at the original illustration of James by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who makes the little hero look like a ghoul, with eyes like black holes and an eerie little smile. As the reader continues, they only have to turn a few pages to see another picture of James, now two years later. He still has those creepy, black-hole eyes, but now he is standing by a barred window, in a shack of a room, and wearing tattered, ruined clothes. Despite the fact that James is very much alive, his picture is not of a living child, but of a wraith, a dead thing.

Of course, a story is not its illustrations, but James and the Giant Peach itself certainly lends to such creepy pictures. Within the first two pages, James’ wonderful parents are eaten by a rhinoceros, and he is sent to live with two of the most horrible, evil women in children’s literature: Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, who force James to work all the time, never let him go see the ocean, hardly feed him, and abuse him terribly. Then James is given a surprise by a strange old man who looks suspiciously like an elf: a bag of magic green “things” that squirm and wiggle like giant maggots. Excitedly, James rushes to make them work, as the old man has instructed, but…

He swerved away from [Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker] so as to go around the other side of the house, but then suddenly, just as he was passing underneath the old peach tree… his foot slipped and he fell flat on his face in the grass. The paper bag burst open as it hit the ground, and the thousands of tiny green things were scattered in all directions (Dahl 11).

The tiny green things then wiggle unto the ground faster than James can grab them, to work their magic on the bugs below and the tree above. Much like a dead body in a cemetery feeds both bug and root.

But the magic isn’t entirely lost. Before he knows it, James is taken on a wild adventure in a giant peach and makes friends with a host of giant bugs. In the end, James escapes his horrible aunts and makes it to America, where he lives in happiness and comfort in the giant peach pit.

Yes, the story ends happily, but the youth-based blasé’ attitude of its day, that death is just a thing like everything else, is seen throughout. For example, Dahl’s description of James’ parents’ death is quite matter-of-fact:

Then, one day James’ mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros that had escaped the London zoo.

Now this, you can well imagine, was a rather nasty experience for two such gentle parents. But… their troubles were all over in a jiffy. (Dahl 1-2)

And death itself is discussed openly by the characters in more than a few places:

“Crocodile tongues!”, he cried. “One thousand long slimy crocodile tongues boiled up in the skull of a dead witch for twenty days and nights with the eyeballs of a lizard!” (Dahl 9)

“We shall get thinner and thinner and thirstier and thirstier, and we shall all die a slow and grisly death from starvation. I am dying already…” (Dahl 49).

This permeating death-imagery in James is taken in-stride, as a thing that’s a part of the story as much as anything else. It’s never used to scare the reader, and while the illustrations are somewhat creepy, the story itself is never blatantly so. Death was, to Dahl as it was to his society, just another part of life, and it didn’t matter if you were an adult or a child, it was to be taken as such. Nothing more, nothing less.

Modern society has taken that blasé attitude toward death and turned it on its head, making it a whimsical adventure. This can be seen all over America today, with popular gothic-inspired animated films like The Corpse Bride by Tim Burton (2005), video games that depict a dark and dreary landscape to play in for fun such as Bioshock (2007), and the enormous popularity of monster-based literature such as Pride, Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (2009) and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series (2005). Television, too, has seen a surge in the popularity of dark shows like Underworld (2003) and True Blood (2012). Indeed, it seems that to modern western views death is something to enjoy, not fear. A kind of macabre holiday, as it were.

Perhaps this attitude is to be expected, however. In a time when the economy has plummeted (Ingraham), world-news networks and the internet give us an open window on everything negative that’s happening everywhere, and the Mayans have predicted the end of the world (Sitler), perhaps it seems that embracing the macabre rather than fighting it is just the natural thing to do.

Like the other children’s books I have discussed, The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snickett resonates with its time. Published in 1999 in America, the story follows three young siblings: 14-year-old Violet Baudelaire, 12-year-old Klaus Baudelaire, and baby Sunny, who at the opening of the story is less than a year old, as their parents are murdered in a house fire and they are sent to live with an estranged uncle they have never met by the name of Count Olaf. Olaf is after their fortune, which they will get when Violet is of-age. This, the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, ends with the Baudelaire children foiling Olaf’s attempt to force Violet into marriage. But the happiness is short-lived, as the orphans find out that they have to go live with yet another relation they have never met, and Olaf escapes justice to plot his next move against the children.

Lemony Snickett does not pull punches with his dreary writing style. At the opening of the story, he lets the reader know exactly what they’re in for: “If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book” (Snickett 1). Yes, this book is depressing. Snickett certainly delivers on his promise to tell a story “… rife with misfortune, misery and despair” (Snickett 1). The theme of death is not only a metaphor within its pages, it is a major part of the plot itself, with the Baudelaire children being thrown into this dreary existence in the first place by the death of their parents, then running from their own deaths at the hands of Count Olaf: “’You’re such a lovely girl, after the marriage I wouldn’t dispose of you like your brother and sister’” (Snickett 109).

Everything in the Baudelaire’s lives is dreary, dismal, depressing and, yes, dead. Even their surname is an allusion to the poet Charles Baudelaire, a macabre French poet in his own right who translated many poems by Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the macabre (Mills). The book is a satire on death, with everything being emphasized by ten. Olaf’s house isn’t just creepy, it’s “… dilapidated… stained with soot and grime” (Snickett 20). The Baudelaire’s story isn’t just sad, it’s “… rife with misfortune, misery and despair…” (Snickett 1). And the end isn’t just bad, it’s “… very, very wrong and causing much grief” (Snickett 162). And yet this macabre series of children’s books is wildly popular with today’s youth, perhaps not in spite of its negative tone, which is such a part of the story that without it the story itself would cease to be, but, considering our societal fascination with the macabre, because of it.

Unlike the Victorians, who had to deal with true death on a regular basis and therefore accepted it as a part of life, our society today does not generally deal with real death, but rather fictionalized, sensationalized death, which we crave. Violent video games, horror-based cartoons, monstrous anti-heroes and cultural memes such as zombie-fying classic novels, all are a part of our everyday entertainment, for young and old alike. Perhaps it is that difference between truth and fiction that makes us so much like the Victorians, yet so different. We would not take pictures of our dead standing up as if they were alive, but we would watch a movie of the fictional dead trying to eat our brains. It is not a surprise, then, that The Bad Beginning, which epitomizes that love of the sensationalized dark and dreary, would be so beloved. Once more, a children’s story echoes the themes of its time.

Since 1865, western society has gone from accepting death, to fearing it, to studying it, to loving it, and these themes have echoed in the pages of its children’s stories. What does the future hold for the children’s writers of tomorrow?

I’m seeing steampunk…

Works Cited

Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske. Disney. 1951. Film/Animation.

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