In this book, the Baudelaire children become orphans after a mysterious fire destroys their mansion, and supposedly kills both of their parents. They are sent to live with a dismal abusive guardian named Count Olaf in his filthy house, where they are treated like slaves, physically and emotionally abused, and under threats of death. They also discover he is scheming to steal their inherited fortune and will not hesitate to kill all three of them once he obtains it.
I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.
It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.
With all due respect,
- To Beatrice—
- darling, dearest, dead.
The book opens with the Baudelaire children (Violet, Klaus, and Sunny) enjoying a dark, foggy day at Briny Beach when it is not crowded. Arthur Poe, a friend of the family, emerges and approaches them with news of their parents' demise in a fire that destroyed their home. Mr. Poe is the executor of the Baudelaire fortune, whose duty is to stay in control of the fortune until Violet comes of age.
The Baudelaire orphans then spend the next few days in the Poe residence until Mr. Poe announces they would move to live with their appropriate guardian's home. The guardian is Count Olaf, a distant relative who makes his living as a theatrical actor in the city. When they arrive, their friendly new neighbor Justice Strauss greets them outside.
Olaf's house is filthy and covered in disconcerting eye images. It has a tower in which the Baudelaires are forbidden from entering. Count Olaf is unpleasant, easily angered and calls the Baudelaires "orphans." Olaf only provided them with one filthy room with only one bed, a pile of rocks, and a cardboard box for clothes. He forces the children to perform many laborious and difficult chores such as chopping wood for his own amusement.
One day, the Baudelaires are set the task of making dinner for Olaf and his theatre troupe. They go to Justice Strauss's house and find a recipe book in her library, and decide to make pasta puttanesca. While the Baudelaires are in the kitchen, Olaf enters and demands roast beef. The children remind him that he never asked them to make roast beef and Olaf becomes angry. He lifts Sunny up to frighten the children as "discipline," but puts her down and accepts to eat their "disgusting sauce" anyway.
After dinner, Olaf orders the children to their "beds." An annoyed Klaus reminds Olaf he has only provided them one bed and they can't use their fortune to buy another until Violet is of age, causing Olaf to angrily slap Klaus' face so hard he falls to the floor - Olaf's theatre troupe only laughs and applauds Olaf. The Baudelaires retreat to the kitchen and Violet looks at the pasta sauce in the pot, which now resembles a vat of blood to her. The depressed Baudelaires wash the dishes and go to sleep, quietly weeping because of the terrible situation they are in.
The next day, the children go to the city and complain about Olaf's lifestyle and abuse to Mr. Poe at Mulctuary Money Management, who downplays their complaints and could not care less, even when Violet mentions Count Olaf slapped Klaus so hard that a bruise still remains. Poe tells them that Olaf is acting "in loco parentis" and he can raise them any way he sees fit, even if they do not particularly like it. Frustrated, the Baudelaires decide to suck it up and go to Justice Strauss's library and immerse themselves in books to cope.
The next morning, Olaf reveals Mr. Poe blabbed to him about their visit. Olaf apologizes for being "standoffish", which the Baudelaires feel is a word that really downplays his behavior. Olaf gives the children oatmeal with raspberries. They wonder if it is poisoned, but eat it after Olaf does. Olaf announces he has given the children roles in his new play, The Marvelous Marriage, in which Violet will marry Olaf. Although Violet mentions she could do the mechanical work building the sets, Olaf persuades her to take the main role of the bride because a "pretty girl" like her shouldn't be backstage. The children suspect something is amiss and use Justice Strauss's library to research the law. Klaus sneaks a law book back to Count Olaf's house and stays up all night reading it. Klaus learns that the marriage in the play will be legally binding allowing Olaf to be in control of their fortune.
The next day, Klaus confronts Olaf about his plan, which Olaf admits. Klaus is unnerved because Olaf doesn't seem frightened or intimidated, and Olaf tells Klaus to wake up his sisters and inform them of his victory. Klaus wakes up Violet, and they become worried when they can not find Sunny. Olaf leads them to the backyard, where they see Sunny locked in a dangled birdcage from the top of the forbidden tower, her mouth taped and body tied. Olaf reveals he had had one of his associates swipe Sunny. He threatens to kill her if Klaus and Violet do not follow his plan, and the Baudelaires are forced to comply.
That night, Violet constructs a makeshift grappling hook and uses it to climb up the tower. She finds the hook-handed man (a member of Olaf's theatre troupe) waiting to capture her. Klaus is brought up to the tower and they are locked together in the room until the play begins.
During the play, Violet signs the marriage document, and Olaf ends the performance to tell the audience that their wedding was legally binding. Justice Strauss and Mr. Poe both object, but concede that the law requires them to hand over the Baudelaire fortune to Olaf. Violet interrupts to proclaim that the marriage was not legally binding, as she signed with her left hand despite being right-handed, and the law states that the bride must sign in her "own" hand. Justice Strauss agrees that this logical loophole invalidates the marriage, even after Violet was forced to under duress of Sunny being killed.
Before Olaf can be arrested, one of his associates turns the lights in the theatre off. Violet finds the lightswitch in the dark and as she is about to raise it, Olaf whispers in her ear that once he obtains her fortune he will kill her and her siblings before disappearing when the lights are on. Justice Strauss tells the Baudelaires that she is willing to adopt them and the Baudelaires support the idea, however, Mr. Poe says that this would go against their parents' will as Strauss is not directly related to the Baudelaires, and the will states the Baudelaires must go to their "closest living relative." Mr. Poe takes them back to his household until he can find another guardian for them. The Baudelaires are saddened but thank Justice Strauss and say goodbye as they enter a car to their next destination.
In the final picture, Justice Strauss stands in the entrance to the theater which held the showing of The Marvelous Marriage, waving at the Baudelaires as they ride off in Mr. Poe's car. In the bottom left corner, a snake, whose tail is wrapped around a light pole, watches the scene, foreshadowing the snakes in the next book.
Letter to the Editor
To My Kind Editor,
I am writing to you from the London branch of the Herpetological Society, where I am trying to find out what happened to the reptile collection of Dr. Montgomery Montgomery following the tragic events that occurred while the Baudelaire orphans were in his care.
An associate of mine will place a small waterproof box in the phone booth of the Elektra Hotel at 11 p.m. next Tuesday. Please retrieve it before midnight to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. In the box, you will find my description of these terrible events, entitled THE REPTILE ROOM, as well as a map of Lousy Lane, a copy of the film Zombies in the Snow, and Dr. Montgomery's recipe for coconut cream cake. I have also managed to track down one of the few photographs of Dr. Lucafont, in order to help Mr. Helquist with his illustrations.
Remember, you are my last hope that the tales of the Baudelaire orphans can finally be told to the general public.
With all due respect,
- Count Olaf ( main antagonist)
- The Hook-Handed Man ( secondary antagonist)
- The Bald Man with the Long Nose
- Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender
- White-Faced Women
- Wart-Faced Man
- Aberrant: the word "aberrant" here means "very, very wrong and causing much grief".
- Adroit: the word "adroit" here means skillful
- Blanched: the word "blanched" here means boiled
- Break a leg: "That's a theater term," Mr. Poe explained, "meaning 'good luck on tonight's performance.'
- Briskly: the word "briskly" here means "quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house
- Casing the joint: to observe a particular location in order to formulate a plan.
- Duration: the whole thing
- Faking: a word which here means "feigning" --- kindness
- Fallen by the wayside: an expression which here means "they stopped calling, writing, and stopping by to see if any of the Baudelaires, making them very lonely"
- Figuratively: feels like it's happening
- Fitfully: a word which here means "with much tossing and turning"
- '"Keep our chin up'": an expression the children's father had used, and it meant "try to stay cheerful"
- Lamentably deplorable: a phrase which here means "it was not at all enjoyable"
- Literally: if something is happening literally, it actually happens
- Incentive: "an offered reward to persuade you to do something you don't want to do" - to read long, dull and difficult books.
- In confidence: a phrase which here means "kept a secret between Mr Poe and themselves and not blabbed to Count Olaf"
- Incurring: a word which here means "bringing about"
- In loco parentis: "In loco parentis means 'acting in the role of a parent,'" Mr. Poe said. "It is a legal term and it applies to Count Olaf. Now that you are in his care, the Count may raise you using any methods he sees fit."
- Insipid: the word insipid here means "dull and foolish"
- Nuptial: "The word 'nuptial'," Klaus said, "means 'relating to marriage'."
- Of two minds: a phrase which here means "they felt two different ways at the same time."
- Pandemonium: a word which here means "actors and stagehands running around attending to last-minute details".
- Perished: "'Perished', Mr. Poe said, 'means killed'"
- Polygamists: "Polygamists are people who marry more than one person," Klaus explained.
- Posthaste: "Posthaste", Mr. Poe said, "means--" "--means you'll do nothing to help us," Violet finished for him.
- Relinquished: a word which here means "gave to Count Olaf even though [Klaus] didn't want to".
- Revulsion: a word which here means "an unpleasant mixture of horror and disgust"
- Rickety: "the word rickety, you probably know, here means unsteady or likely to collapse"
- Simmered: a culinary term which means "cooked over low heat"
- Sleeping fitfully: a phrase which here means "with much tossing and turning" on the lumpy bed
- Smirked: a word which here means "smiled in an unfriendly, phony way"
- Standoffish: It means "reluctant to associate with others".
- Testily: a word which here means "in an extremely annoyed tone".
- The Bad Beginning contains the first reference to the V.F.D. tattoo, on Count Olaf's left ankle.
- Al Funcoot is an anagram of Olaf's name, which is one of the codes used by V.F.D.
References to the Real World
- Main article: References and allusions in Lemony Snicket's works
- The name "Baudelaire" is a nod to Charles Baudelaire, a poet whose most famous work is The Flowers of Evil, "a cycle of poems that discusses dreadful circumstances and finds beauty in them."
- Beatrice's name likely came from Charles Baudelaire's poem La Béatrice, and as a reference to Dante Alighieri's unrequited love, Beatrice.
- Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire share their names with Claus and Sunny von Bülow, who were involved in a famous court case of the 1980s; the district attorney who reopened the Claus von Bülow case was named Arlene Violet.
- According to Snicket, "There are all sorts of antecedents for those names that people have picked up on, but I also thought it would be interesting to devise a setting for the book that is somewhat ambiguous. Violet is a fairly British name; Klaus is a fairly German name; Sunny is a fairly American name, and Olaf is a fairly Scandinavian name, and that creates a certain amount of confusion."
- Violet Baudelaire is also possibly a reference to a famous crime; she shares her given name with Violet Sharpe, a suspect in the Lindbergh kidnapping.[source needed]
- Arthur Poe's name is a reference to American author Edgar Allan Poe.
- Edgar and Albert Poe may be a reference to American poet Edgar Albert Guest (Klaus' least favorite poet, as mentioned in The Grim Grotto), or may, in fact, be a continued reference to Edgar Allan Poe, with Albert being a slight variation on the name.
- The name for Doldrum Drive is a reference to the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The Doldrums is a land inhabited by lazy, grey creatures called Lethargarians that spend their days wasting time and sleeping. It is forbidden to think and laugh in the Doldrums.
- Briny Beach takes its name from the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll.
The Bad Beginning has a 3.9/5 on Goodreads.com.
Amazon reviewer Karin Snelson cites the Unfortunate Events series as "delightful, funny [and] linguistically playful", and the narrator as “personable” and "occasionally pedantic". "There is no question that young readers will want to read the continuing unlucky adventures of the Baudelaire children [...]."
Other reviewers somewhat share the same general opinion as well. The writing method employed by Handler was widely complimented and mentioned numerously. "While the misfortunes hover on the edge of being ridiculous, Snicket's energetic blend of humor, dramatic irony, and literary flair makes it all perfectly believable," says Linda Bindner of Library Journal. "[Snicket] uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect," quotes Publishers Weekly.
Ron Charles calls the narrator "witty and explanatory". Susie Wilde of Children's Literature also speaks, "[The Bad Beginning] has subtle humor, Roald Dahl-like pathos, and lots of action [...]". “Written with old-fashioned flair, this fast-paced book is not the squeamish. [...] Those who enjoy a little poison in their porridge will find it wicked good fun," speaks Kirkus Reviews.
The Bad Beginning was generally favored by the community as well. 1,114 readers agree to a 4/5 rating on Amazon. Likewise, 459 readers also give the novel a 4.5/5 rating on Barnes and Noble.
The Bad Beginning received a lot of controversy, especially when it was first published, by certain parents and school districts. Controversy resulted from the dark and depressing nature of the book; the children are abused, the villain gets away, and no justice is given to the Baudelaires. The only authoritative adults in the book (Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss) are inept, the former handwaving Olaf's abuse, while Justice Strauss condones a child marriage, which could send the idea that children should not seek help from adults in abusive situations. Count Olaf was also noted for being extremely sinister, even threatening death and murder on the Baudelaire orphans.
There were also objections to the suggested incest (referring to Olaf's attempt to marry his distant cousin Violet in The Bad Beginning, although his motivation was not sexual in nature, but rather an attempt to gain the Baudelaire fortune). There are also suggestive lines between Olaf and Violet, such as:
- When Count Olaf proposes his marriage play, there is this line: "Violet imagined sleeping beside Count Olaf, and waking up each morning to look at this terrible man."
- When Violet signs the marriage certificate, Count Olaf says, "Now, if all of you will excuse me, my bride and I need to go home for our wedding night."
- When Violet reveals she signed the document with her left hand, Count Olaf says to Violet, "You may not be my wife, but you are still my daughter, and-"
Since its release, access to The Bad Beginning and other books in the series have been banned and restricted in similar school districts; these include:
- Katy ISD Elementary School in Katy, Texas, due to having "violence/horror" (see bb2k6.pdf)
- T.M. Clark Elementary in Portland, due to the extremely vague reason "mysticism" (see bb2k5.pdf)
- Decatur, Georgia 
The Catastrophic Card Game
Several editions of The Bad Beginning have been published. Some of these include foreign editions or re-prints such as: The Bad Beginning (UK), The Bad Beginning or, Orphans! and Tout Commence Mal; similarly, "rare," "limited," and "special" versions of the book were released.
The Bad Beginning (UK)
The UK version of The Bad Beginning was published on May 12, 2003 by Egmont Books, Ltd. It features a black cover with a red spine. On each of the UK versions, between the colored spine and the black cover, there are narrow images depicting a reference to the content of each book. The Bad Beginning features a row of eyes. This is repeated on the back cover.
The Bad Beginning (UK Paperback)
This is a paperback version of The Bad Beginning released in the UK by Egmont Books in 2010. It has Lemony Snicket written on the top with A Series of Unfortunate Events written below it in an eye shape.
The Bad Beginning Or, Orphans!
The Bad Beginning Or, Orphans! is a paperback re-release of The Bad Beginning, designed to mimic Victorian penny dreadfuls. It was released on May 8, 2007. The book features a new full-color cover, seven new illustrations, and the first part of a serial supplement entitled The Cornucopian Cavalcade, which in this edition includes the first of 13-part comic entitled The Spoily Brats along with a page of Victorian-era false advertisements, both produced by Michael Kupperman, an advice column written by Lemony Snicket along with a page listing every entry in A Series of Unfortunate Events (some of which are fictional), the first part of a story entitled Q: A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural by Stephen Leacock, and a guide by Morley Adams on paper folding.
The Bad Beginning: Rare Edition
Another edition of The Bad Beginning was published by Harper Collins in September 2003; it is known as The Bad Beginning: Rare Edition. This boxed edition comes with a new cover, a portrait of the characters, and an extra chapter filled with author's notes, many of which occasionally foreshadow later events in the series. Each of the notes, particularly the ones relating to The End, proved accurate or were addressed by later books in the series.
The Bad Beginning: Limited Edition and The Bad Beginning: Special Edition
Two more editions of The Bad Beginning were published by Egmont Publishing on Oct 1, 2003; known as The Bad Beginning: Limited Edition, and The Bad Beginning: Special Edition, they come in a larger format and contain three plates of color artwork that are redrawn from the original edition of the book and two plates of new color artwork. The Limited Edition is bound in leather and contained within a box, similar to the Rare Edition, and each copy was signed by Daniel Handler. Contrary to the description on the UnfortunateEvents.com website, the Limited Edition does not contain any endnotes as the Rare Edition does.
Tout Commence Mal
Tout Commence Mal is the French edition of The Bad Beginning, published by Nathan Poche.
The first audiobook of The Bad Beginning was released in September 2003, narrated by Tim Curry. The end features Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket, reading A Conversation Between the author and Leonard S. Marcus.
A second version, releasing December 28, 2003, was a multi-cast audio recording, with Tim Curry remaining as Lemony Snicket, Tara Sands as Violet and Sunny, Mitchell Federan as Klaus, and L.J. Ganser as Count Olaf.