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by Lemony Snicket
Harpercollins Juvenile, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 25th 2002

The Carnivorous Carnival

As a college philosophy teacher, I am hoping that within a decade I can expect a surge in interest in ethics courses from students who read the enormously popular books by Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events.   These wonderful stories for children chronicle the adventures of the three Baudelaire orphans in their encounters with the dastardly Count Olaf.  Despite the decidedly unhappy themes that run through this series, it is not surprising that they wide appeal because they are smart, funny and moving.  Previous books in the series may well spark the imagination of future detectives, inventors, psychologists, researchers, and reporters, since the children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, use their intelligence to get themselves out of difficult situations and demonstrate bravery and perseverance in each book.  They are confronted by the incompetence, self-deception and duplicity of adults who are meant to be their guardians, and they carry the burden of their grief for their lost parents with dignity.  The children have become familiar with the moral weakness of those who should know better.  In the latest book in this series, The Carnivorous Carnival, however, the children start to face the difficult question of their own moral characters. In their extended battle with Count Olaf, they have lied to and stolen from people who trusted them, and destroyed valuable property.  It seems that they are in danger of becoming like the adults who let them down.  Many readers will surely be led to reflect on the nature of virtue and the difficulty of being a good person, and later on, familiar with the nuances of moral self-interpretation, these readers will take pleasure in the ethics of Aristotle, Hume, and Kant.  At least, that is my fervent hope.

While the books in the middle of this series by Lemony Snicket verged on the formulaic, with the children being shunted from one hapless custodian to another while being pursued by the nefarious Count Olaf, who would always crop up in disguise, the last few book have had unpredictable plots that keep the reader guessing.  In this latest episode, it is the children that are pursuing Count Olaf, and they need to disguise themselves to avoid detection.  When the children arrive at the Carnival, they find that it contains a freak show, and they decide that their best option is to pass themselves off as freaks.  Violet and Klaus dress up as a person with two heads and Sunny takes on the guise of Chabo the Wolf Baby.  They become the companions of a hunchbacked man, a contortionist and Kevin who has the peculiar misfortune of being ambidextrous.  This will raise in thoughtful readers’ minds questions about how society decides who counts as a freak; it’s particularly notable that Count Olaf’s assistant, the hook-handed man, insists that he is not a freak.  In contrast, Kevin is convinced that having equal function in one’s right and left arms and legs is equivalent to a terrible deformity, and wishes that he were either right or left handed like other people.  The children see the dark side of people who pay to watch freaks perform humiliating acts and who are willing to pay more if there’s a promise that the very lives of the freaks will be at risk.  But they also see how people like Kevin are all too willing to participate in their own victimization when they are quite capable of solving their own problems.  If Lemony Snicket is introducing his readers to identity politics of disability, he is showing the complexities of the issues from the start.  It is particularly disturbing to see how some of the freaks are ready to sacrifice any moral principle in order to win friends and be treated with respect.  Again, these themes will prime young readers for philosophical investigation of the society decides what is normal and what is pathological.

Even with all its silliness, The Carnivorous Carnival is a morally serious book appropriate for these times.  It is rumored that this series will eventually consist of thirteen books.  In each book, the author warns readers that the story may lead to despair and weeping, and recommends that readers stop reading immediately.  At this stage in the series, we have increasing reason to think that maybe the author is not kidding, and there really will be no happy ending.  Indeed, the author may be setting the stage for a full-blown tragedy—and in all the best tragedies none of the main protagonists find happiness or even peace.  Of course, as devoted readers we hope the Baudelaire children will find the answers to the most important questions, such as what do the letters VFD stand for, and whether one of their parents, in fact, survived the fire that burned down the family home.  Alas, the children have already lost their innocence, and we might be content if they escape with their lives and a firm grip on the difference between right and wrong. 

Actor Tim Curry again performs the unabridged audiobook magnificently.  On it, the Gothic Archies play some excellent music, although it is difficult to decipher all the words.  Highly recommended.

 

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© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.