Stories of Woe: My American Literature Final

by Mr. Sheehy

The following is what is what Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) writes on the back cover of The Bad Beginning (the first in the Series of Unfortunate Events books):

Dear Reader,

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 first 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.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

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,

Lemony Snicket

Many students have accused me as an American literature teacher of taking the same approach as Lemony Snicket–I have in this way assembled an array of stories that tell about “extremely unpleasant” circumstances and characters, stories “filled with misery and woe.” Today, for this exam, I have asked you to read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” another arguably depressing story.

My question for you at the end of the year is simple: What is the deal with all these depressing stories, these stories of woe?

Please write a one and a half to two page essay theorizing why authors write stories like this and why readers continue to read them instead of “something happy.” Reference at least four things we have read this year. For your convenience I have included a list of the novels and short stories we have read.