From June 2012.
I did not have good memories of this book. It was the one, as I recall, that broke my suspension of disbelief, and struck my fourteen-year-old self as being entirely too absurd, beyond the limits of reality. What particularly offended me was the bloodthirstiness of the crowd at the climax, how they shouted indiscriminately for someone to be thrown to the lions.
Haha, yeah. Apparently my fourteen-year-old self hadn’t yet read a great deal about public hanging spectacles in the 19th century, nor the popularity of Roman gladiator combat and the whole point of the Coliseum. Plus, there’s the whole fact that rather than a random sampling of the population, the people who came to the carnival that day specifically came to see lions eat someone.
And besides my wider education about the common people’s taste for bloodshed, I have also written a great deal since that’s relevant to the Baudelaires disguising themselves as freaks, joining a freak show, and experiencing all the prejudice showered upon freaks and also what that treatment long-term does to people.
I don’t even know where to start. I could talk about every single interaction or discussion between the freaks and “normal people.” But I’ll restrict myself to just a few major points.
First, this was just a throwaway line that really took me aback, reminded me again that these books are on an entirely different level for adults as they are for children’s. This is the backstory they gave for Sunny’s disguise, which was a wooly scarf wrapped around her body:
“This is Chabo the Wolf Baby,” she said, in her low voice. “Her mother was a hunter who fell in love with a handsome wolf, and this is their poor child.”
WHAT. BESTIALITY OUT OF NOWHERE. Particularly implying consensual bestiality (though I guess noncon would be much more disturbing), and that falling in love with a wolf is just something that happens in this world. And then wolf babies are born. Wow. (Yeah, having a hard time getting the story of Chabo’s parents out of my head.)
Back to the freak stuff. So the three other freaks in the freak caravan are Hugo the hunchback (like Victor Hugo, oho, I see what you did there Lemony Snicket), Colette the contortionist, and Kevin the ambidextrous man. I feel like there’s more going on with these choices than just Lemony’s absurdism. Kevin is the most self-conscious of the freaks, the most totally convinced he’s nothing but a freak and could never be normal, that everyone laughs at him constantly for having equally strong hands. Lemony’s point, of course, is that we define what makes a freak.
Another recurring incident is how carnival attendees mistake the hook-handed man, one of Olaf’s henchmen, for a freak in the carnival, when he was set in charge of them. The hook-handed men is offended and sternly corrects them, sometimes adding, “It’s not polite to comment on other people’s appearances,” and then promptly redirects them to the real freaks: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, gaze with horror on Hugo, the hunchback! Instead of a regular back, he has a big hump that makes him look freakish!”
And then there was this nugget of truth when Count Olaf introduces the lions:
The villain removed a whip from his pocket and whipped at the lions through the trailer bars. Like people, animals will become frightened and likely do whatever you say if you whip them enough…
Then there’s the climax, in which the crowd gets increasingly riled up and expresses their desire to see anyone thrown into the pit, and they’re willing to accept any excuse to call them a freak. They focus first on the actual freaks, to the hook-handed man, to the nasty audience member with pimples on his face, and finally to Madame Lulu, the fortune-teller who is actually Olivia, a member of VFD in long-term disguise:
“To me, a woman in a turban is just as freaky as a two-headed person. I’m not prejudiced!”
And that’s when I want to make love to Lemony Snicket and all his layers.
So this book actually became one I like the most so far, possibly right after The Hostile Hospital. It’s the one that really starts to delve into moral grays. The only major problem I have with it is the end, when Olaf finds the Baudelaires inside Madame Lulu’s tent with an archival library, containing all kinds of pertinent secrets to their lives, under the table. Olaf picks up Sunny, then hands Violet and Klaus a torch and commands them to burn the tent before joining them in the caravan attached to his automobile, because after all, where else can they go? And then Violet and Klaus do what he says. Yeah, they might not have had a choice about joining him, especially when he’s carrying off Sunny, but they didn’t even try to save the archival library, and it certainly could have fit inside their enormous suit. Especially in Lemony Snicket’s world. Moreover, it’s Klaus who’s all, WELP DOESN’T LOOK LIKE WE HAVE A CHOICE, WHAT’S THE POINT OF TRYING. Which is ridiculous, given everything else they’ve pulled off and refused to give up on or compromise.
Someone else, with the username missakito, provided a better explanation for the kids giving up at the end:
Ahhh! I agree with everything you’ve said yes! I love this! Well, except the end, about them giving up so easily. yeah it’s not like them, especially Klaus, but I think that’s the point. They’ve really hit a low at this point in their story, and I feel as if the kids are beginning to give up all hope. They also begin to get rather desperate in the next book, which is the next stage after ‘why even try’ so to speak. Wow, hope I made sense. Sorry for babbling.
Hmm, you know, that’s a good point. I guess it is more realistic for their characterization to show how beaten down they are at this point, that they can’t always find the strength and ingenuity to keep fighting to outwit Count Olaf, this adult tyrant in their lives who always gets the better of them.