The novel begins with a dedication to a mysterious Beatrice, whom Snicket describes as “darling, dearest, dead”. The author then provides a brief explanation of why the book should not be read, before describing the series’ protagonists: Violet Baudelaire, a 14-year old amateur inventor; Klaus Baudelaire, a 12-year-old bookworm; and Sunny Baudelaire, an infant with unusually powerful teeth.
The Baudelaire children have left the unspecified city in which they live to spend the day at the deserted 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 Baudelaires briefly live with Mr. Poe and his wife, Polly, sharing a room with their ill-behaved children Edgar and Albert. All three Baudelaires are miserable and apathetic to 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”), he has located a distant cousin, 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 Baudelaires that while Olaf is titularly a count, he is also a professional stage actor. When the car arrives in Olaf’s neighborhood, the chits 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 betowered 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.
Eventually Olaf informs the children by way of the chore list that his 10-man theater troupe will be coming over in the evening, when the Baudelaires must serve dinner. Having no suitable supplies to make a meal for ten, the children spend the day with Justice Strauss shopping for ingredients to make spaghetti alla puttanesca and chocolate pudding. That evening Olaf arrives with his theater troupe, a motley crew which includes a man with hooks for hands, a bald man with a long nose, two women with white-powdered faces, and one who is so obese as to resemble neither a man nor a woman. The count and his troupe openly discuss his intentions to embezzle the children’s inheritance, and Olaf becomes outraged when he learns the children have not prepared roast beef. When Klaus protests, Olaf slaps him and grabs Sunny, but calms down and allows the children to serve the puttanesca.
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 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 drop 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.