Please welcome today’s guest writer, Erin Tanis. Erin studied English literature at Calvin and graduated in 2016. She is currently having all her adventures in a house in Eastown with a group of other Calvin grads.
I recently discovered the word schadenfreude. It’s a German word, and it means that you enjoy watching the unhappiness of others.
My first experience with this emotion (which, up until now, I had no name for) goes all the way back to my childhood. I have a little brother, whom I love, but, as with many siblings, whom I resented in my youngest years for stealing the spotlight. Sometimes, when my parents denied him something he wanted, he would wail as if he were the most miserable child in the whole world. As I watched, I would experience an irresistible urge to laugh. I was ashamed of my callousness even then, but I couldn’t stop the giggles from trumpeting through my clenched lips.
That part of me still exists. How do I know? Because A Series of Unfortunate Events just aired its first season on Netflix, and I loved every minute of it.
Of course, my schedenfreude cannot be sated by one measly season. I listened to the entire collection of audiobooks. That’s thirteen novels of misfortune, brought to life by the ever-expressive voice of Tim Curry.
What struck me about this series—particularly the later books—is how culturally relevant it is. If you have not read this series (and you absolutely should!), then allow me to summarize: the story opens on a cloudy day at the beach. The young Baudelaire siblings sit at the water’s edge, contemplating their favorite hobbies and enjoying the peacefulness of the day, when Mr. Poe enters the scene. He relates the tragic news that the siblings’ home has been destroyed by a terrible fire. All of their belongings are gone and their parents have perished. Thus begins a chain of increasingly unpleasant situations in which the orphans are forced to defend themselves from the evil schemes of Count Olaf, a greedy and unibrowed villain.
At some moments, the series seems to take place in an alternate universe. From book to book, the technology may seem limited or it may be advanced. The stories reference historical figures from the world we inhabit, but describe locations too fantastic and unpleasant to imagine existing in reality. The effect is the constant sensation of being unsettled and uncertain—a fitting sentiment given the nature of the series. In every story, the reader may feel both familiar with and alienated by Lemony Snicket’s claims; of course a baby babbles, but can we really believe that her siblings understand her? Of course we rely on media, but people are too smart to believe an article accusing three young children of murder!
Or are they?
In order to carry on, I must now expose my bias. I never believed that a reality television star could be the president. I never considered for a moment that we would elect someone who so blatantly and notoriously spouts “alternative facts” like the fountain spouting water in The Vile Village. I was wrong. I am eating crow. I need to figure out how to be a part of a world that seems too strange and treacherous to believe.
The Penultimate Peril best identifies how I feel when Snicket takes a moment to discuss a book I wouldn’t normally recommend for the typical young reader of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Richard Wright is an author often commended for his unapologetic realism. His book Native Son takes a hard look at the injustice of segregated 1930s Chicago. It watches as a young Black man named Bigger experiences his own series of unfortunate events, ultimately leading to the death of a beautiful, rich, white woman. The newspaper, controlled by the rich and powerful, paints Bigger as a rapist and a killer. The world treats him like an animal. What’s more, as the story progresses, Bigger becomes a rapist and a killer. He becomes an animal. With this novel, Wright’s narrator poses an important question, echoed by Snicket: “Who knows when some slight shock disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?”
We wanted to make America great again. This is the path we have chosen. And the world I thought I understood feels strange to me.
Objectively, the final installation of the series, simply titled The End, resolves too little and hurts too much. Yet, as a reader who feels like she is on the highest floor of a toppling skyscraper, there is something to be said for an open question. It leaves room for hope.
In these unfortunate days, I feel the misery of the Baudelaires acutely, but I feel something else. It is not schadenfreude. It is catharsis.
But the story of the Baudelaires does not end when Lemony Snicket signs off for the last time. There is another chapter. Without giving too much away, this final chapter represents a call to be a part of the absurd and sometimes terrible world. It does not do to sit and think. Now is not the time to hide behind strongly worded Facebook posts. If you believe in changing the world, you must put forth the time and energy (yes, and money) to create change. Much like the Baudelaire parents, it’s time to volunteer for what is right.
And, of course, it’s time to read A Series of Unfortunate Events.