The Bad Beginning

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The Bad Beginning
Author Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
Illustrator Brett Helquist
Cover artist Brett Helquist
Country United States
Language English
Series A Series of Unfortunate Events
Genre Gothic fiction
Absurdist fiction
Publisher Scholastic Inc.
Publication date
September 30, 1999
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 162
ISBN 0-06-440766-7
OCLC 41070636
Fic 21
LC Class PZ7.S6795 Bad 1999
Followed by The Reptile Room

The Bad Beginning is the first novel of the children's novel series A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. It was later released in paperback under the name The Bad Beginning; or, Orphans! The novel tells the story of three children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, who are orphaned by an arsonous fire and sent to live with their distant and conniving cousin Count Olaf. The book was published on September 30, 1999 by Scholastic Inc. and illustrated by Brett Helquist.


The Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, have left the unspecified city in which they live to spend the day at the lonely Briny Beach. While enjoying the solitude, their parents' inept banker, Arthur Poe, arrives to inform them that their mother and father have both died in a fire which has destroyed their mansion and all of their possessions leaving him as executor of the Baudelaire estate.

The Baudelaire's briefly live with Mr. Poe and his wife, Polly, sharing a room with their ill-behaved children Edgar and Albert. All three Baudelaire's are miserable and dislike their situation, but Mr. Poe soon informs them that, in accordance with their parent's will (which requests that the children be cared for "in the most convenient way possible"),[1] he has located a distant uncle, Count Olaf, who lives within the city limits and is willing to become the children's legal guardian.

On the car ride to Olaf's house, Mr. Poe explains to the Baudelaire's that while Olaf is titular a count, he is also a professional stage actor. When the car arrives in Olaf's neighborhood, the kids are greeted by the kindly Justice Strauss, a judge on the High Court. When Violet mistakes her for Olaf's wife, however, Strauss hastily explains that she is only a neighbor, and directs the children and Mr. Poe to the squalid and be towered house that is Olaf's; carved on the front door is the image of a glaring eye.

The children soon learn that Olaf has only accepted their guardianship under the mistaken belief that he will receive their vast inheritance (which has been set aside until Violet turns 18). Olaf is sinister, self-absorbed, and unhygienic; he bears a tattoo of the glaring eye on his left ankle and a distinctive unibrow. When the count learns that he will not receive the Baudelaire fortune, he immediately drops all pretenses of friendliness toward the children. Every day Count Olaf leaves to work with his theater troupe, posting a list of often demeaning chores which the children must perform before his return home. Although the house is spacious, the orphans are given only one room and one bed. They are strictly forbidden to enter Olaf's tower study, and are provided with no belongings.

Olaf informs the children that his 10-man theater troupe will be coming over, and they must serve dinner. The children and Justice Strauss shop for ingredients to make spaghetti alla puttanesca and chocolate pudding. Olaf arrives with his troupe, a motley crew, and is outraged to find no roast beef. When Klaus protests, Olaf slaps him and grabs Sunny, but calms down and allows the children to serve the food.

The next day the Baudelaires set out to find Mr. Poe, who works at Mulctuary Money Management, and report Olaf's abuse. Poe explains that Olaf is acting in loco parentis, and can raise them as he sees fit. The next morning, Olaf stays late to speak with the Baudelaires. He explains that Mr. Poe called him to address the children's concerns, and that as a first-time parent, he has been uncertain how to connect with them. Olaf pretends to be sympathetic and caring, and puts a mask of someone who regrets his previous actions and is willing to become a better guardian, which the Baudelaires were not convinced of. He informs the children, to their dismay, that they will be performing with his theater troupe in their upcoming production The Marvelous Marriage.

Convinced that the performance is a scheme to steal their fortune, Klaus spends the day researching inheritance law in Justice Strauss's personal library. His research is interrupted by the hook-handed man, however, who takes him back to Olaf's house. Klaus manages to grab a book on marriage law before he is taken away. During the night he discovers that a 14-year-old may get married with guardian consent, and realizes that Olaf plans to legally marry Violet in The Marvelous Marriage and in so doing form a concurrent estate, giving him unlimited access to their fortune. The next morning Klaus heads out early to confront Olaf with the evidence; the count confirms Klaus's theory and informs him that Sunny has been kidnapped on his behest and is being hung in a birdcage from the tower study window, to be dropped the moment he or his sister does not comply.

That day Violet attempts to visit Sunny, but finds the door to the tower guarded by the associate who looks like neither a man nor a woman. During the night she builds a grappling hook to scale the tower. When she reaches the top, however, she is met by the hook-handed man, who locks her in the uppermost room of the tower and brings Klaus to join her. Together the three children wait out the night in anticipation of the Marvelous Marriage performance.

The Marvelous Marriage itself serves little other purpose than as a vehicle for the wedding which is part Olaf's little scheme that he is planning which had been planned by him to write the play under the name "Al Funcoot" which is Olaf's anagram. Justice Strauss is procured for the role of the officiator (hence ensuring it is a legal ceremony), and Violet plays the role of the bride. Klaus is given a role with no lines, while Sunny remains locked in the birdcage under the hook-handed man's supervision. Every attempt the children make to speak to Strauss or Mr. Poe (who has come to see the performance) is interrupted by Olaf. When the time comes for Violet to sign the wedding contract, she makes a final effort to annul the marriage by signing the document with her left hand rather than her right. (The law required the document to be signed in the bride's "own hand".)

As soon as the contract has been signed, Olaf announces that the performance is over, and that Violet is now legally his wife. Mr. Poe, Justice Strauss, and many audience and theater members object, but finally Strauss concludes that the ceremony has been legal. To Olaf's dismay, however, Violet informs Strauss that she has signed the document with the wrong hand, and the judge agrees that this is not in compliance with the law, rendering the ceremony annulled. Olaf orders the hook-handed man to release their infant sister, but Sunny and the assistant have already arrived onstage. Mr. Poe attempts to arrest Olaf, but one of the assistants turns the house lights off. In the darkness and ensuing confusion, only Violet in her white wedding gown is readily visible. Before he and his troupe escapes, Olaf finds Violet in the dark and promises her that he will get their fortune if it's the last thing he does.

Once order is restored, Mr. Poe calls the police, but only Olaf's getaway car is found. Justice Strauss offers to adopt the Baudelaires, but Poe objects, observing that their parents' will instructs the children be raised by a relative. In compliance with the law, Strauss bids the children goodbye and leaves them in the care of Mr. Poe.


The Bad Beginning contains the first references to Beatrice and to the V.F.D. eye insignia, which later become major plot devices. The book also contains the first mention of the High Court, which is one of the primary instruments through which Olaf tracks the Baudelaire orphans' guardianships.

The final illustration in the book shows a snake curled around a lamppost, an allusion to the next book, The Reptile Room.[citation needed]

Critical reception[edit]

Publishers Weekly praised Snicket's prose, observing, "The author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect, even for readers unfamiliar with the literary conventions he parodies."[2] The review went on to laud Helquist for his "exquisitely detailed" and "elegantly designed" artwork.[2] The trade publication Library Journal praised both Snicket's narrative and prose: "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."[3] Kirkus Reviews noted the uncomfortably macabre tone of the novel, warning that because "the Baudelaire children are truly sympathetic characters", the novel is "not for the squeamish".[4] In 2012, School Library Journal named it the 48th best children's novel.[5]

Special Editions[edit]

The Bad Beginning: Rare Edition[edit]

The Bad Beginning: Rare Edition (ISBN 0-06-051828-6) was published by HarperCollins on September 23, 2003. In addition to a box, new cover, and additional illustrations, this edition contains a fourteenth chapter filled with author's notes, many of which foreshadow later events in the series or provide excessive detailed information about the events in The Bad Beginning itself.

The Bad Beginning; or, Orphans![edit]

The Bad Beginning: or, Orphans! is a paperback edition of The Bad Beginning designed to mimic a Victorian penny dreadful.[6][7] It was released on May 8, 2007.[7] 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;[8][9] and a guide by Morley Adams on paper folding.

Other special editions[edit]

Two more editions of The Bad Beginning were published by Egmont Publishing on October 1, 2003—The Bad Beginning: Special Edition (ISBN 1-4052-0725-6) and The Bad Beginning: Limited Edition (ISBN 1-4052-0726-4). 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 website,[10] they do not contain any endnotes (as the Rare Edition does). There is also a new "Short-Lived Edition", released for general sale on the 14th of June, 2012.


Two [audiobook] versions of this novel were released. The first version was released in September 2003. It was read by Tim Curry and featured Daniel Handler, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, who read a portion entitled "A Conversation Between the Author and Leonard S. Marcus."

The second version was released in October 2004, after the release of the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. This multi-voice cast audio book was narrated by Tim Curry and featured Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, and Jude Law. This version also included sound effects and a soundtrack. This edition of The Bad Beginning was an Audie Awards finalist for Children's Titles for Ages 8+ in 2005,[11] and a Grammy Award Nominee for Best Spoken Word Album for Children in 2005.[12]


Most foreign editions have borne titles which are direct translations of the phrase "the bad beginning", including:

However, the Indonesian version, Mula Malapetaka, translates to "The First Catastrophe" (ISBN 979-22-0301-X); the French Tout commence mal…, "All Begins Badly", translated by Rose-Marie Vassallo (Éditions Nathan, 2002: ISBN 2-09-282353-1); and the Quebec French Nés sous une mauvaise étoile, "Born Under a Bad Star", apparently also translated by Rose-Marie Vassallo (Éditions Heritage, 2007: ISBN 2-7625-2942-5), the Korean version 눈동자의 집 translates to "The House of the Eye" (ISBN 89-546-0834-5), and the Japanese version 最悪のはじまり translates to "The Worst Beginning" (Soshisha, 2001: ISBN 4-7942-1070-1).

See also[edit]