On Friday, January 13, the Netflix TV adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events drops. There’s lot riding on the success of the new streaming series, and it would seem the bulk of that pressure is on the shoulders of Neil Patrick Harris and his portrayal of the orphan-hating, money-grubbing Count Olaf. But the reason the source material is so enduring has nothing to do with famous actors. Instead, it’s the simple fact that in the book series version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, author Lemony Snicket (really Daniel Handler IRL) does not condescend to his readers but instead encourages children to keep the hell up with the literary allusions and other references. A Series of Unfortunate Events is probably the most intensely allegorical works of children’s literature ever assembled. So, consider the following your field guide for the various references — obvious and not — throughout the entire Series of Unfortunate Events.
To be clear, I am a Lemony Snicket fanatic and have the ankle tattoo to prove it. Plus, I know full well that Lemony Snicket is just Daniel Handler’s nom de plume, a word here that means he writes under the guise of a made-up person. So, I’ve done my homework. The following is pulled from from multiple fan sources and my own obsessive notes from ages 7 55to 15, so you don’t miss a single thing in this goliath of intertextuality. Because the new series covers only the first four books (*The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and The Miserable Mill, I’ll focus just on the references in those books. For now.
Book One: The Bad Beginning
Lemony Snicket is a reference to Pinocchio.
Mr. Snicket, acting in the role of a depressed investigator with more ties to the Baudelaire orphans than he’s letting on, is one of the series’s most important if detached characters. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it is — remember a certain conscience-obsessed insect from Disney’s Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket?
Beatrice References Dante.
Each of the 13 books is dedicated by Snicket to the mysterious Beatrice, a reference to Italian poet Dante’s muse who appears in both The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, portrayed as the woman the author could never have. For Snicket, Beatrice’s identity is gradually hinted at as the book series progresses, eventually resulting in a huge revelation. At the start, we’re just left with the feeling that Beatrice is the one who got away, thanks to his tongue-in-cheek dedications like “dearest, darling, dead.”
Briny Beach is a Nod to Lewis Carroll.
The Bad Beginning begins (badly) with the Baudelaire children spending a gloomy day at Briny Beach before learning from Mr. Poe that their “beloved parents have perished in a terrible fire.” The name of their location is taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “‘O Oysters, come and walk with us!’ / The Walrus did beseech. / ‘A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, / Along the briny beach.’
Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire are named after French poets and murderers.
The three unfortunate orphans around which the series pivots, listed in order of age, get their surname from French poet Charles Baudelaire, most famous for 1857’s La Fleurs du mal, or The Flowers of Evil. Baudelaire, in spite of being labeled a flaneur (as in ‘layabout, as in if he is a flaneur do not have sex with him’), was one of the most influential poets of the nineteenth century and the first to translate American poet Edgar Allan Poe into French, developing a long-standing connection between the two throughout their careers, though they never met.
As for the first names, Klaus and Sunny are a reference to Claus and Sunny von Blow, key players in a high-profile Rhode Island socialite murder case from the 1980s in which wealthy husband Claus made two alleged murder attempts on his even-more-wealthy wife Sunny, the second of which left her in a coma until her death in 2008. Violet’s name is more difficult to pin down, but it is either a reference to Arlene Violet, the Attorney General in Rhode Island at the time of the case, or to Violet Sharpe, an English maid who was a major suspect in the famed Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932, who committed suicide before her second police interrogation, or half of my favorite conjoined English twins of the 20th century, Violet and Daisy Hilton.
Count Olaf is from a Théophile Gautier poem.
The unibrowed villain hellbent on stealing the Baudelaire fortune who secretly contains multitudes has now been played by both Jim Carrey and Neil Patrick Harris, but his origins lie in nineteenth century French poetry just as much as the Baudelaires. Count Olaf Labinski is a character created by Baudelaire’s peer Théophile Gautier in 1856 story “Avatar (no not that one) as a reworking of the German legend Faust. Gautier’s Count Olaf is removed from his consciousness and put into the body of his foe Octave in order to fool Olaf’s wife into believing that the soul within her husband’s body is actually Olaf. Imagine Freaky Friday, but French and someone dies.
If you really want to get into it, and of course you do, there’s yet another tie between Charles Baudelaire and Thophile Gautier — the former’s most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal, is dedicated to Gautier.
Mr. Poe is a reference to guess who.
This one is practically handed to you. The executor of the deceased Baudelaire parents’ fortune and the orphans’ first caretaker, you’re out of your mind if you dont know that Mr. Poe’s name is a reference to gothic American legend Poe, especially because his bratty sons in The Bad Beginning are named Edgar and Allan. Keep up, this is Poetry 101.
The symbolism of the eye is a reference to the Freemasons.
One of the first things we learn about Count Olaf besides the fact that he smells is the very specific tattoo of an eye on his ankle, an image that becomes more and more ingratiated in Snicket’s universe as the series progresses. The symbolism of the eye throughout history can take on a number of meanings — its most popular association in America is with the secret Freemasons society, one comparable to an organization that appears, ahem, probably next season of the Netflix series. Then there’s the ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus, J.R.R Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron, and others, but the Freemasons are the most likely culprit for this particular piece of imagery.
There are a number of other small references in the book that may or may not make it to the series — city fixture the Library of Babel giving a nod to a story by postmodern author Jorge Luis Borges, baby Sunny exclaiming the Cantonese word for rice gruel, a wedding before an audience that I suspect is another reference to the conjoined Hilton twins in the climactic scene of 1951 starring vehicle Chained for Life and others. For more, check out one of the many collections of references on fan sites or call me at any time of the day and I’ll regale you for six hours.
Book Two: The Reptile Room
Montgomery Montgomery is part Monty Python, part Nabokov.
The Baudelaires’ second guardian Uncle Monty, played in the Netflix series by Aasif Mandvhi and previously by Billy Connolly, is one of the more lovable characters in the series and a highly regarded herpetologist, or reptile researcher. The combination of a man named Monty working with a bunch of pythons makes for one of my favorite allusions in the series, a nod to famous 1960s British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As for the repetitiveness of the character’s name, it’s possible it’s a reference to Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but since Daniel Handler has cited Vladimir Nobokovs Lolita as his favorite novel many times over, its more likely a nod to tortured pervert protagonist Humbert Humbert.
Stephano is a reference to Shakespeare’s last play.
The Reptile Room features Count Olaf in one of the many disguises he dons in the series in order to trick the Baudelaire’s guardians into giving them the children’s inheritance, this time as Uncle Monty’s Italian assistant Stephano. This name is pulled from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the alcoholic butler character regarded by Caliban as a father figure. In keeping with this, Uncle Monty tells the children that they will be sailing on a ship called the Prospero, a reference to The Tempest’s protagonist who is sent out to sea to die by his own brother.
Virginian Woolfsnake is a reference to Mrs. Dalloway herself.
As in every Snicket installment, there’s a softball thrown to readers, and the reptile Uncle Monty names after English author Virginia Woolf is it this time around.
Also in this book: the symbology of horseradish and Sunnys cryptic exclamation of “Ackroid!” not as a reference to SNL alum Dan but Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Book Three: The Wide Window
Aunt Josephine and deceased husband Ike are based on Kafka.
This is a fun one. Aunt Josephine is the Baudelaires’ third guardian — afraid of everything, obsessed with grammar, and lives in a house perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Played by Alfre Woodard in the Netflix series and previously by Meryl Streep, her name requires a little context from the epilogue to The Reptile Room, in which Snicket details to his editor to pick up a manuscript at Cafe Kafka, an oblique reference to German Metamorphosis author Franz Kafka.
Stay with me. One of Kafka’s other notable short stories is “Josephine the Songstress, or The Mouse Folk,” a description that suits the jumpy, timid Aunt Josephine perfectly. In Kafka’s story, his character Josephine’s singing sounds like whistling if heard from the wrong angle, and this plays right into Snicket’s Aunt Josephine Antwhistle (there’s “whistle” again) speaking of her dearly departed husband Isaac Antwhistle (or Ike), who she tells the Baudelaires could whistle with a mouthful of crackers. Say Ike’s full name aloud, Ike Antwhistle, and it sounds suspiciously like “I can’t whistle.” Also, there have been multiple hurricanes named for both Josephine and Ike in past years, though the most notable Ike storm happened after the publication of The Wide Window.
Okay, that was a long one. Fun though, right? Feels like you just had sex or something.
Captain Sham is, well, a sham.
Count Olaf plays dress-up as a peg-legged suitor to Aunt Josephine named Captain Sham in The Wide Window, and the reference is an easy one — what’s more of a sham than a terrible disguise?
Damocles Dock is a reference to an ancient Greek legend.
At the bottom of the steep hill that Aunt Josephines precarious home is balanced on is Damocles Dock, a nod to ancient Greek figure Damocles. A servant to King Dionysius, Damocles is allowed to sit in the king’s throne as a sword looms above his head, leaving “sword of Damocles” phrase to invoke a feeling of impending doom in popular culture. It’s used in a similar way by Snicket’s artistic collaborator Brett Helquist, illustrating the siblings sitting with a sword dangling over the titular dock.
Hurricane Herman is a tribute to Melville.
As we find out in even more heavy-handed references in later books, Daniel Handler is a Herman Melville aficionado, and naming the hurricane that drives the events in The Wide Window after him compliments Melville’s legendary at-sea tales well.
Dr. Lorenz is a reference to the scientist who discovered the principles of light.
Without spoiling too much, the principles of the convergence and refraction of light are a major plot point in The Wide Window, and Snicket explains that “quite frankly I can’t make head or tail of them, even when my friend Dr. Lorenz explains them to me.” Danish scientist Dr. Ludwig Lorenz actually did crack the relation regarding the convergence and refraction of light in the 1800s.
Some of what remains is a gem from the mouth of baby Sunny, “Brobdingnagian!”, which refers to a land where sixty-foot giants dwell in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and a slick mirroring of a scene from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in which Captain Sham produces a business card with his name on it as evidence of his identity, much like Wilde’s Algernon holds onto a business card of Ernest’s “as proof that your name is Ernest.”
Book Four: The Miserable Mill
Dr. Georgina Orwell and Evil Hypnosis are a reference to 1984.
Unlike its predecessors, Count Olaf has a partner in crime in The Miserable Mill, in which the Baudelaires are shipped off to work at a lumber factory and Klaus is brainwashed by an evil optometrist under the guise of getting his glasses repaired. Very normal. The master behind this scheme is Dr. Georgina Orwell, a pretty transparent nod to English author George Orwell, most famous for his sprawling dystopian works Animal Farm and 1984, and the concept of Big Brother watching and manipulating the thoughts of the people. The use of optometry hearkens yet again to the symbology of the eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.
The Mill is a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution.
The Lucky Smells Lumber Mill is where the majority of the action takes place in The Miserable Mill and appears to be Snicket’s take on the Industrial Revolution in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — poor workers are exploited (the Baudelaires are paid in coupons), put in danger by unwatched machinery (there’s a pretty dangerous incident with a logging machine), and is owned and operated by tyrannical owners and foremen.
Charles and Phil are a reference to the British monarchy.
In keeping with the British Industrial Revolution theme, the coworkers that the Baudelaires get on with the best are Charles and Phil, named for two twentieth century members of the royal family. Like their namesakes, both are sweet, if a little thick.
Dr. Orwell’s Sign is pulled from The Great Gatsby.
While this is technically a reference made more by illustrator Brett Helquist than Snicket himself, it’s still well worth a mention. His depiction of Dr. Orwell’s office is shaped like an eye tilted on its head, but pay attention to the sign hanging from it - that’s a clever visual allusion to optometrist Dr. TJ Eckleburg’s billboard from F. Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby.
Some fun tertiary mentions in The Miserable Mill: a reference to Ahab Memorial Hospital when an injured worker is recovering from a leg injury as yet another allusion to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where character Captain Ahab is famously missing a leg. Snicket mentions anecdotally that he’s been in a swordfight with a TV repairman, a reference to a scene in The Cable Guy in which Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick swordfight at Medieval Times. The mill owner who requests to only go by “Sir, a possible reference to the Mr. Sir character in fellow children’s literary genius Louis Sachar’s Holes. Count Olaf’s disguise, his only in drag as Dr. Orwells receptionist Shirley, is a reference to the “And don’t call me Shirley!” scene from 1979’s Airplane!
Feel smarter yet? A Series of Unfortunate Events is designed for readers and viewers who can enjoy the story on its surface, and make for even more fun for those who want to excavate all the many hidden encryptions from Lemony Snicket’s mind. We can’t speak for the Netflix series quite yet, but the author’s involvement and its major production players give us hope that the complicated but brilliant books are, for once, in capable hands. And, as always, Harry Potter can eat me. See you next Friday!
Photos via Brett Helquist