The protagonists of Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning—the three Baudelaire orphans—are at the mercy of a dangerous world inhabited by adults who are either too evil, apathetic, or naïvely trusting to help them. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are the victims of a society that has failed to protect them, a society represented by the characters of Count Olaf, Mr. Poe, and Justice Strauss. Poe and Strauss have ample power to act in the children’s best interests, but they refrain from doing so. Count Olaf certainly has no reservations about acting, though he does so only in his own self-interest.
Poe’s and Strauss’ lack of freedom, however, is merely a lack of will to act—they could easily step in and help on many occasions—but their lack of will prevents them from aiding the children. The children, on the other hand, have the freedom to act, but they have no power to do so. Despite all these marks against the orphans, however, all is not lost for them. They can help themselves, we will discover, but this will only happen when they are able to gain power through the attainment of knowledge—primarily information pertaining to the law. In The Bad Beginning, it is this knowledge that represents true power over one’s destiny.
The first appearance of each adult to the children suggests that he or she will be a force of some influence. When Mr. Poe tells Violet, Klaus, and Sunny on the beach of their parents’ deaths, he is a powerful force in their lives, altering them irrevocably. “He had simply walked down the beach to them and changed their lives forever,” Snicket writes. By Poe’s hand, Snicket goes on to say, the children “…were led away from the beach and their previous lives.” This suggests that in some way, he is and will remain to be responsible for their fates. Additionally, Mr. Poe’s social standing and character is alluded to when the children search for his place of employment; the names of the banks connote the qualities a person of good character might possess. They first try Trustworthy Bank, Faithful Savings and Loan, and Subservient Financial Services, finally locating him at Mulctuary Money Management. Likewise, Justice Strauss first appears to be an omen of hope when the children see her standing in front of her house. Violet shakes the woman’s hand and feels “…for the first time in a long while…as if her life and the lives of her siblings might turn out well after all.”
Ultimately, however, despite their good characters, Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss are each prevented from acting on behalf of the orphans by their everyday orders of business. At first, when the children appeal to Mr. Poe for help, it seems they may be in luck, but their efforts turn out to be in vain. Violet and Klaus believe that if Mr. Poe only knew how terribly Count Olaf was treating them, he would help them, but when they go to him, he tells them he cannot spare the time. Poe and Strauss often justify their inaction by citing a lack of time as an excuse. “Like your new legal guardian,” Mr. Poe tells the orphans, “I am very busy myself.” When Justice Strauss explains why she has not stopped by earlier, she tells the children she had a very difficult case in the High Court that kept her busy for much of the day.
Although Mr. Poe is a well-respected banker, and Justice Strauss serves as a judge on the High Court, each of them seems uncharacteristically reluctant or unable to interfere in the children’s lives. Mr. Poe—whose tendency to cough before he is able to speak is a reflection of his refusal to act—is adamant in his refusal to help, and Justice Strauss appears essentially clueless as to what is happening to the children living in the house next to her. It should be recognized that Justice Strauss does help the children by giving them a cookbook, but it is also important to note that in doing so, she only aids them in doing the bidding of Count Olaf. Later, she unwittingly assists Olaf once again in his evil plot with her performance in the play. Help for the children—if indeed, it will ever come—must be sought elsewhere.
Since the children are unable to gain assistance from any of the adults in their lives, they gradually begin to realize they must depend upon themselves. Violet fantasizes about killing Olaf as he is eating dinner; she looks at his food and finds herself “wishing she had bought poison in the market and put it in the puttanesca sauce.” Later, when the children realize once again that their troubles have compounded, Snicket writes that they thought “they might do something to make it better [emphasis added].”. Thus, the responsibility to take action has now shifted from the adults, who have the power, to the children, who have the freedom to act but must gain power through knowledge.
By the time Mr. Poe sends the children away when they visit him at the bank, the realization that knowledge is the only way power has hit home. Violet suggests they leave and go back to Justice Strauss, not for actual help, she tells Klaus, but “for books.” She realizes that they will only find the aid they need in the library. The children’s decision to take matters into their own hands is later confirmed to be correct when they learn that Mr. Poe has betrayed their confidence by telling Count Olaf about their visit to him. The law the children must learn in order to save themselves, incidentally, is the same one that protects Count Olaf in his quest to steal the Baudelaire fortune, the law that has established him as a surrogate parent. “Now that you are in his care,” Mr. Poe tells the children, “the Count may raise you using any methods he sees fit.” The only way the children can fight Olaf is to play by the same rules that allow him to victimize them. Rather than interference from any representative of civil society, then, it is Violet’s knowledge of the law that enables her to thwart Olaf’s plan by signing the marriage paper with her left hand.
It is only after Olaf’s plan to steal the Baudelaire fortune has been revealed that Poe and Strauss—the representatives of the good, legal, and upright society—pass moral judgment on him and regret not having acted earlier. Even at this point, however, each person admits to still being restricted by the law. When it seems the orphans’ troubles may finally be coming to an end, Mr. Poe reveals that he cannot legally allow the children to go live with Justice Strauss. Once again, the laws of society—which should protect the innocent child—have failed our protagonists.
So what is to be made of the failure of Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss on the behalf of the Baudelaire orphans? Is it an indictment of society at large or merely a clever storytelling device designed by the author to place his characters in precarious situations? Perhaps it may be read in part as a comment on the value of knowledge and the power it bestows upon its possessors, particularly those who find themselves victimized. Violet is the inventor of the group; she values books for the things they allow her to create. Klaus craves books for the sake of the knowledge they contain, initially only reading things that pique his curiosity. But when it becomes clear that their family’s livelihood may depend on what they read, they choose a more fitting subject. Olaf may escape his fate, but the children, by learning the rules of the game, gain the power to set things right and live to fight another day.