ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Contract Issue in "A Series of Unfortunate Events"

Bad_beginningIf you are the sort of blog reader who prefers posts about happy resolutions to unsolved mysteries or about dutiful litigants winning large judgments or about smart people doing smart things smartly, you might want to continue your web surfing. This post is not for you.

For although this post is about Lemony Snicket, a very smart person whose life may yet result in large judgments, happy resolutions and smart things, I am afraid that it is my duty to report on a series of unfortunate decisions the renowned author made in Volume I (The Bad Beginning) of his masterpiece, A Series of Unfortunate Events. As you no doubt recall, in that first volume, the despicable Count Olaf launches a plan to capture the Baudelaire fortune by marrying the eldest of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet. Violet was to marry Olaf during a stage performance of a dreadful play, "The Marvelous Marriage." The staged marriage was to be real because Count Olaf's neighbor, Justice Strauss (sometimes referred to as Judge Strauss) presided, because Violet pronounced the words "I do" at the appropriate moment, and because Violet was to sign an official marriage certificate in her own hand. I need not remind you that Violet performed these actions because the vile Count Olaf had suspended the youngest Baudelaire orphan, Sunny, from a tower and would instruct his hook-handed minion, a word which here means "nasty subordinate who eagerly performed murderous tasks for Count Olaf," to drop her if Violet resisted the forced marriage.

Now, all of this is in strict accordance with the nuptial laws of the relevant jurisdiction, as researched by the middle Baudelaire child, the learned Klaus, as confirmed by Justice Strauss, upon some reflection, after Count Olaf had triumphantly (and a bit prematurely) announced the success of his wicked scheme. But here is where the wise Lemony Snicket goes astray, in my view.

Violet objects that the marriage is not lawful because she did not sign the marriage certificate in her own hand. Violet signed the certificate with her trembling left hand, and Violet is right-handed. Justice Strauss determined, right then and there, on the spot without the consultation of legal counsel, briefs or any legal authorities other than those stored in her head, that Violet's left hand was not her own hand. From a legal perspective, I find this a troubling and puzzling resolution, especially as the doctrine of coercion was so obviously applicable.

One can perhaps take some solace (if one is inclined to do so) in the fact that the film version of the first three books of Lemony Snicket's tale altered the marriage scene and thus avoided legal inaccuracies. I, however, take no comfort in the knowledge that an inferior movie is not further degraded by ignorance of legal doctrine. The damage to Snicket's masterpiece is, alas irreparable. I wish there were some magic potion that I could pour onto the high quality paper on which A Series of Unfortunate Events is printed so as to remove from them the tincture of legal nescience. But this is a post about Lemony Snicket, not about J.K. Rowling.

With all due respect.
[Jeremy Telman]

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