The Bad Beginning Summary

Daniel Handler

The Bad Beginning

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The Bad Beginning Summary

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The Bad Beginning: Or, Orphans! (1999) by Daniel Handler is the first book in his well-known series of children’s novels, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Written under his pen name, Lemony Snicket, the series features the Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. After a fire, the orphaned children are sent to live with Count Olaf, who tries to steal their inheritance. The book is illustrated by Brett Helquist. The dark and humorous series inspired the 2004 film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The book is aptly named as it does indeed have a bad beginning. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are on their favorite beach, Briny Beach. As the weather is cloudy, they have the beach to themselves. Fourteen-year-old Violet, the oldest of the siblings, skips rocks into the water while thinking of an invention that could return the rock to her. Twelve-year old Klaus is also very smart. He is an avid reader who also loves to study things, like the spiny crabs in a tidepool. The baby Sunny is only understood by her parents and siblings. Her gift is a strong bite. While at the beach, they learn that their home has been destroyed by a fire and that their parents have perished.

The three siblings are sent to stay with the executor of the Baudelaire family estate, Mr. Poe. As executor, Mr. Poe will manage the money until Violet turns eighteen and is also responsible for finding them a guardian. Mr. Poe takes them to see what is left of their former home. The mansion that they lived in ruined along with everything in it.

Mr. Poe takes the three Baudelaire siblings to his home while he chooses a guardian to care for them. The children do not feel welcome at Mr. Poe’s home. His two sons, Edgar and Albert, are obnoxious and do not enjoy sharing their rooms with the children. They are forced to wear itchy clothing and eat bland food in a house that smells strange.

Mr. Poe chooses, Count Olaf, as the guardian of the Baudelaire children. The Count is a distant relative whom the children have never met or heard of before. It is obvious to everyone other than Mr. Poe that Count Olaf is not a good choice to care for the children.

Life goes from bad to worse when the children go to live with Count Olaf. He lives in a filthy and ramshackle home. The house has a tower, which Count Olaf forbids the children from entering. The three children, who were accustomed to living in a mansion, are now forced to share a single room with only a single bed. There is not even a crib for the baby Sunny, who sleeps on a pile of old curtains. Violet and Klaus take turns sleeping on the single bed.

Count Olaf is a cruel man who is trying steal the Baudelaire family fortune from the children. He gives them a long list of chores to do every morning along with some oatmeal. He mostly ignores the children, spending his time away from home or in the tower. When the children do see Count Olaf, they fear his bursts of anger.

One day, the Count asks the children to cook dinner—even though they don’t know how to cook—for a theater troupe who will visit the house that evening. The children can do nothing right. They choose to make a puttanesca only to learn that the Count wanted roast beef. The Count dangerously lifts baby Sunny into the air and later strikes Klaus after they tell the guests that all three children have to share a single bed.

The next day, the children go in search of Mr. Poe at all the local banks. The tell Mr. Poe how poorly they are being treated and even show him Klaus’ bruise. But Mr. Poe tells the children that Olaf has the right to treat them as he sees fit because he is their acting parent.

Olaf later apologizes for his behavior. He claims that he is nervous about his latest role in a play called The Marvelous Marriage. He casts each of the children in a role in the new play. The script calls for Violet’s character to marry Olaf’s character.

The children realize that Olaf is up to no good. They ask their neighbor Justice Strauss to research their legal rights. They learn that if Violet were to marry Olaf, he would inherit the Baudelaire family fortune.

Things look dire for the children. The play is performed and Violet is forced to sign a marriage document. Olaf tells the audience, which includes Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss, that this staged wedding was legally binding. But Violet has a trick up her sleeve. She announces that the document is not binding because she signed with her left-hand even though she is right-handed. Justice Strauss concurs that they are not married and that Olaf should be arrested for his crime.

Olaf escapes arrest and Justice Strauss offers to adopt the children, but Mr. Poe does not accept the offer. Mr. Poe takes the children back to his home until he can find a new guardian for the siblings.

Each book in the series, except the final book, includes an illustration which foreshadows the next book in the series. In The Bad Beginning, the final illustration foreshadows The Reptile Room with the image of a snake wrapped around a street light.

Author, musician and journalist Daniel Handler is best known for his children’s series, A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions, both of which are published under the pen name of Lemony Snicket. In public appearances for the series, Handler plays the role of Snicket or as a representative of Snicket named Daniel Handler. He has also published adult novels using his real name.