Anyone familiar with A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASOUE) knows that it’s chock full of literary references and allusions. Author and narrator, Lemony Snicket, uses his love for the literary canon to convey themes, ideas, and plot devices in his own story. For many young readers, the series is a gateway to classic literature.
One of the most direct references in ASOUE to another story is the character Esmé Squalor, who takes her name from JD Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé-with Love and Squalor”. The short story follows a young soldier, about to ship back out to war, who encounters a young girl, Esmé before his departure, and later receives a letter from her that helps him recover from trauma. This story, and Salinger’s work as a whole, appear to be hugely influential on ASOUE. Tracing the literary lineage between the two offers us an interesting look at Snicket’s writing process, and a look back at how Salinger’s writing still resonates today.
A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the lives of the three Baudelaire children, orphaned after their parents die in a fire, and shuffled from home to home. They are constantly trying to escape the clutches of the evil Count Olaf who hopes to steal their fortune. Each book finds the Baudelaires in a different setting with different strange people looking after them, and their goal of finding a place to call home is always just out of reach, as Count Olaf continues to hunt them down and destroy anyone who gets in his way. It’s a tragedy marked with dark humor and colorful characters and builds toward larger mysteries involving secret organizations, hidden codes, and great unknowns.
The Baudelaires are shown to be precocious, intelligent, and capable. Each of them has their own special skill: Violet is an expert inventor, Klaus is a voracious reader and researcher, and Sunny has sharp teeth and later becomes a chef before she can even talk. They use their respective skills and quick thinking throughout the series to help others and to get out of tight situations.
The children maintain a neutral-to-pleasant demeanor throughout most of the series, but as the series progresses, the tragic events that continually plague them slowly take their toll on their outlook and demeanor. They find their faith in the adults expected to look after them, including their late parents, to be shaken. Their ability to shake off traumas and pick themselves back up after each tragedy that befalls them wears thinner and thinner as the series progresses. These three bright and charming children are put through continuous suffering due to forces they can’t control, and it eventually it shows.
Genius children who turn into disaffected young adults are a staple of JD Salinger’s work. Most noticeably, the Glass family is comprised of several brilliant siblings, whom, as children competed on a radio game show where their intellect was put on display for the entertainment and delight of listeners. We meet these members of the Glass family when they’re a bit older, through several short stories and novellas, including “A Fine Day for Bananafish”, and “Franny and Zooey”. In the former, the eldest sibling, Seymour Glass, shoots himself in the head. In the latter (two short stories forming one novella) the youngest sibling has an existential crisis and starts questioning, while the second youngest sibling takes a bath and then consoles her.
We see in Salinger’s stories how being precocious as a child can leave one unprepared for the world of adulthood. The loss of, and desire to maintain innocence is a major theme throughout all of his works. It’s readily apparent in The Catcher in the Rye, where the rebellious teenager, Holden Caulfield, finds his kid sister to be one of the only good things in the world. The story consists mostly of Holden walking around New York and commenting on how terrible everything is, and we learn at the end that his greatest dream is to save children for a living. As a teenager, he is caught between childhood and adulthood. To Holden, the world of grown-ups is insincere, or in his words, “phony”. Adults who are supposed to look out for him and other children reveal themselves to be useless or have questionable intentions. The insincerity of so-called authority figures pops up again and again in Salinger’s stories.
The trope of useless adults is a recurring theme throughout ASOUE. Mr. Poe, the man in charge of Orphan Affairs, is supposed to look after the Baudelaires and keep them safe, but he fails miserably time and time again, largely due to the fact that he never believes the children when they tell him they’re in danger. Their appointed guardians who try to help them are also unsuccessful and either give up or wind up dead. In the world of ASOUE as in the world of JD Salinger, grown-ups can’t help you, they can’t even help themselves.
Adulthood is represented in ASOUE by VFD, a secret organization of unknown origin that nearly all of the Baudelaires’ guardians, including their parents, were a part of. It was started with the noble intent of putting out the world’s fires. Its members utilize secret codes and disguises, blurring their identities and messages to achieve their goals. It’s mysterious and vast, leaving the protagonists and the reader with many unanswered questions. But as the Baudelaires uncover more and more about VFD, they find that even its noblest members are marked by moral grays, love entanglements, and frequent miscommunications that lead to tragic outcomes. VFD, for all its complex inner workings and good intentions has no idea what it’s doing. It turns out that this secret organization’s biggest secret of all is that it’s an absolute shit show.
This is telling about how Snicket views the world, and it’s a view that he seems to share with Salinger. The most capable of grown-ups are just a bunch of large children running around in costumes, playing pretend to get what they want. And the rest just stick their head in the sand when things get rough. It is children and depressed young adults in these stories that are able to see the world closest to what it really is.
This brings us back to Esmé Squalor and the story she’s named for. Esmé is introduced in the sixth book of A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Ersatz Elevator, where she, along with her husband, Jerome Squalor, become the Baudelaire orphans’ new guardians. Esmé is vain, vapid, and ultimately cruel. She’s revealed by the end of the book to be in league with Count Olaf.
Snicket posits Esmé as a fashion-obsessed, trendsetter, indicating that he views her consumeristic, fad-based lifestyle to be a detriment to society at large. She’s obsessed with appearance and makes all of her decisions based on what’s “in” (i.e. trendy, cool, hip) at the time. She is well-educated, speaks properly, and is fabulously rich, showing the reader that evil can, and often does exist within the upper echelons of society and IQ levels. In a book series heralded for its literary references and complex use of language, it’s noble for Snicket to point out that smart people can be awful too.
The titular Esmé of Salinger’s story is also well-educated and seems to be concerned with how she is viewed. She is described at one point as seemingly bored of her own talent, yawning imperceptibly while she sings beautifully in a choir. Later she states her lofty goal of becoming a famous jazz singer and then retiring at the age of 30 to live in Ohio. The Esmé of this story, however, is not a wicked person, but a 13 year old child, doing her best to connect with a human being whom she recognizes as lonely.
The narrator of “For Esmé-with Love and Squalor” first watches her perform with her choir and then encounters her at a cafe where she notices him and she strikes up a conversation. She reveals that she lives with her aunt and brother after the death of both of her parents. She and her brother are orphans, just like the Baudelaires, displaced by tragedy. It’s worth noting that the story takes place during World War II, as the narrator, an American soldier, is visiting England before shipping out. The war has taken its toll on the children of England, and will soon take its toll on American soldiers as well.
Young Esmé continues to brag about herself, her brother, and her dead parents, but it’s clear that this comes not from a place of condescension, but of an eagerness to honor her family and speak with the eloquence of someone much older than herself. When the narrator reveals himself to be a writer, she implores him to write a story exclusively for her- something about “squalor”, a subject she is extremely interested in. She doesn’t explain what she means by squalor, a broad word describing places or things in a dirty or dilapidated state, she simply asks if the narrator is acquainted with it.
This Esmé is a displaced child, a casualty of a war that she has nothing to do with, started by grown-ups she will never meet. And despite the fact that she sings, has dreams, and can hold a stimulating conversation, it’s clear that the trauma she has faced affects her deeply. She tries to talk like a grown-up because losing her parents and having a younger brother to take care of forced her to grow up too fast. She’s interested in “squalor” because it describes the state of the world crumbling around her.
Following the narrator’s encounter with Esmé, the story shifts to the narrator in a broken state, suffering from PTSD due to the war. During this transition, the perspective shifts from first person to third person, a narrative device used frequently by Snicket (which is of course both a pseudonym for Daniel Handler and a character in the story itself).
Both “For Esmé-with Love and Squalor”, and ASOUE are presented as “factual recountings” with the narrators adding their own commentary about the situations at hand. This allows the narrators to become characters within their own stories. And when the narrator stops referring to himself as “I” and starts using the third person, he states “I’ve disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me,” despite the fact that it’s obvious which character he is. This facetious little narrative joke feels like something that would fit right into the Snicket playbook.
“This is the squalid part of the story,” says the narrator, indicating that the time and perspective jump will show him under darker circumstances. He finds himself incapable of performing tasks that he once enjoyed such as reading or writing. It’s apparent that the trauma of war has isolated him from society at large. This begins to change when he receives a package from Esmé- a letter reminding him of their conversation, and her father’s watch, a token that she hopes will keep him safe. This reminder of a human connection he made during his life before the horrors he faced in the war, and the kindness and innocence of a child is enough to start the restoration of his faculties.
Ultimately “For Esmé-with Love and Squalor”, and ASOUE are stories about loss of innocence and dealing with trauma. The characters in each of the stories face personal and material loss, and deal with that loss in different ways. Snicket’s Esmé guards herself with excess wealth and uses trends and fashions to form her identity. In this regard, she has more in common with several minor female characters from Salinger’s stories, who engage in gossip and shopping and other activities that Salinger seems to view negatively. Salinger’s Esmé, on the other hand, copes with her trauma by reaching out to a soldier about to go off to war, and later sends him a token of her warmest wishes for his safety, a gesture which helps restore his sanity. Snicket’s Esmé eventually finds some redemption when she leaves Count Olaf in order to protect a child she’s grown attached to. Thus in both cases, these Esmés end up finding a purpose in connecting to and trying to protect others.
If you’re familiar with the works of JD Salinger and Lemony Snicket the similarities become readily apparent. Both use recurring the recurring motifs of precocious children and intelligent but sad families. Both show their characters suffering and questioning their purpose in a world that seems increasingly more complicated. They share a narrative style of presenting their stories as documentation of fact. Even the authors themselves are alike: Salinger, a notorious recluse; and Snicket, hiding from the public due to being framed for crimes he didn’t commit.
It’s hard to know exactly how much Snicket was influenced by Salinger before him, but he’s certainly continued to explore the same themes for a new audience. He’s crafted a world that entices with its wit, keeps you guessing with its mysteries, and ultimately overwhelms you with bleakness. If you, as a reader, are anything like the young Esmé that Salinger wrote about, with an extreme interest in squalor- have I got a series for you.