Shirley Jackson’s very short story, “Charles” is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a mother, depicting the transformation of her young son as he begins school. The story focuses on the boy’s sudden transition from a well-behaved child to a cheeky and mischievous troublemaker. Throughout the story, the mother narrates her son’s constant chatter about a classmate named Charles, who is portrayed as engaging in various acts of mischief.
American novelist Shirley Jackson is renowned for her writings in the psychological suspense, mystery, and horror genres. As a teenager, Jackson started her writing career by submitting her poems and stories to literary journals. When her short tale “The Lottery” appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, she became well-known. The story’s stunning and unpleasant themes led to a great deal of debate. Jackson wrote novels in addition to short stories, such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Her skill at creating evocative and psychologically intricate stories is on full display in these works. Her writings frequently deal with supernatural, domestic, and more sinister elements of human nature.
Charles | Summary
“Charles” by Shirley Jackson, is a very story following a young boy named Laurie as he starts kindergarten. Laurie becomes the primary source of information about a classmate named Charles, who is notorious for his disruptive behavior.
Each day, Laurie returns home with stories about Charles’ misbehavior, which range from hitting the teacher to throwing chalk. Laurie’s parents find these stories both shocking and amusing, and they discuss Charles’ actions daily, using him as an example of what not to do.
As time goes on, Laurie’s behavior begins to change. He becomes increasingly defiant and uses inappropriate language. His parents grow concerned and attribute his actions to the influence of Charles.
During a parent-teacher conference, Laurie’s mother inquires about Charles and his disruptive behavior. To her surprise, the teacher reveals that there is no Charles in the class. This revelation shocks Laurie’s parents, and they realize that their own son has been fabricating the stories about Charles.
The story ends with Laurie’s mother sharing this discovery with his father, and they reflect on the irony of their preoccupation with Charles’ behavior while overlooking their own child’s actions.
Charles | Analysis
In the short story “Charles” by Shirley Jackson, we are presented the protagonist Laurie, a young kindergartener. Laurie comes home from school every day with stories about a misbehaving boy named Charles who disrupts the class and engages in various acts of mischief and disobedience. Laurie’s parents find Charles’ behavior both shocking and amusing, and they discuss it daily, often using Charles as an example of bad behavior.
Laurie’s imaginative portrayal of Charles allows him to live vicariously through the misbehavior and defiance that he himself wishes he could engage in but is too fearful to do so due to potential consequences, especially considering the prevalent use of corporal punishment during that era. Laurie’s longing for independence and rebellion is reflected in Charles’ acts of hitting the teacher and throwing chalk.
Laurie’s parents initially find amusement in his daily stories about Charles, a misbehaving boy in his kindergarten class. They engage in discussions about Charles’ behavior, using him as an example of what not to do. This showcases the parents’ focus on external influences and their belief that their child could not possibly engage in such misbehavior. As the story progresses, the parents become increasingly concerned about Laurie’s own behavior, noting his sudden changes and use of inappropriate language. Eventually, during a parent-teacher conference, they discover that there is no Charles in Laurie’s class. It becomes clear that Charles does not exist in reality, but is only a fabulated fiction of Laurie’s own imagination. Instead of Charles being a separate mischievous boy, it can be said that Laurie’s vivid imagination conjures up the character of Charles to fulfill his own secret desires and fantasies.
“Charles” is a commentary on the discrepancies between how children behave in public and how they behave in private. It highlights the parents’ lack of awareness regarding their own child’s behavior and their tendency to believe that their child could not possibly be responsible for such actions. The story challenges assumptions about childhood innocence and calls attention to the importance of understanding children’s behavior.
The teacher in the story is presented as a reliable source of information, providing insights into Charles’ struggles with adjusting to school. However, it is possible to interpret Charles’ behavior as a projection of Laurie’s own social difficulties. Instead of causing havoc and gaining popularity, Laurie may be withdrawn, isolated, and struggling to adapt to the school environment. Charles, in this context, becomes an alter-ego or superhero persona that Laurie creates to compensate for his own perceived shortcomings.
The detail mentioned about Charles not wearing a jacket is an astute observation, suggesting that Laurie, who is likely annoyed by the obligation to wear a jacket, incorporates this detail into his imaginative narrative.
This alternate interpretation invites readers to consider the extent to which Laurie constructs a fictional character to navigate his own desires and frustrations. It adds depth to the story by exploring themes of escapism, imagination, and the contrast between internal desires and external reality.
Laurie’s alter ego, Charles, may represent the Freudian concept of the id. Charles, Laurie’s creation could be seen as a manifestation of his repressed desires for rebellion and mischief. By attributing these actions to an external figure, Laurie allows himself to indulge in his unconscious desires while maintaining a public image of conformity. This sublimation allows him to channel his desires into a more acceptable form of storytelling rather than directly acting upon them.
The superego, the moral and social component of the mind, represents societal expectations and parental influence. In “Charles”, Laurie’s parents represent the superego, as they shape his moral compass and set expectations for his behavior. The parents’ reactions to Charles’ misbehavior and their discussions about his actions reflect their attempt to instill societal norms and expectations upon Laurie.
Charles | Themes
The story raises questions about parental awareness and involvement. It highlights how parents may overlook or underestimate their own child’s behavior while focusing on external influences. Laurie’s parents are caught off guard when they discover that their son has been fabricating the stories about Charles to divert attention from his own misdeeds. This realization suggests a lack of communication and attentiveness on the parents’ part. Additionally, the story touches on the theme of parental discipline. The parents’ initial amusement at Charles’ misbehavior may indicate a lenient approach to discipline. However, the fact that Laurie makes up another boy, one who is “bigger” and “doesn’t wear a jacket” to get his parents to pay attention also indicates a lack of parental understanding and communication. One can interpret that Laurie makes up such stories to garner his parents’ attention and interest, something that he perhaps does not get enough of otherwise.
Charles | Title of the Story
The title “Charles” sets up an expectation that the story will revolve around a character named Charles. The reader is introduced to a child delinquent named Charles in the course of the story. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Charles is not a distinct character but a creation of the protagonist’s imagination. The title plays a role in misdirecting the reader’s expectations and adding to the climactic reveal.
The title “Charles” also highlights the focus and preoccupation of Laurie’s parents on the character he describes. The parents consistently discuss Charles and his behavior, using him as a point of comparison for their own child’s actions. The title emphasizes the central role that Charles plays in the parents’ perception of their child’s behavior.
The straightforwardness of the title contrasts with the twist in the story. By presenting the title as a simple name, Jackson subverts expectations and challenges readers to question their assumptions about the narrative.
Charles | Character Sketch
In the short story “Charles” by Shirley Jackson, Laurie is the young protagonist of the story. He is starting kindergarten and becomes the primary source of information about Charles, a misbehaving boy in his class. Laurie’s character development is primarily explored through his imaginative storytelling and his desire for attention and independence.
Laurie’s mother is a secondary character and the narrator of the story. She is initially amused by Laurie’s stories about Charles’ disruptive behavior, but as the narrative progresses, she becomes increasingly concerned about Laurie’s own misbehavior. She represents the parents’ perspective and their attempts to understand and shape their child’s behavior.
Laurie’s father is another secondary character who participates in the conversations about Charles. Similar to Laurie’s mother, he finds Charles’ misbehavior entertaining initially but becomes worried about Laurie’s own actions. The father too, provides a parental perspective and contributes to the dynamics within the family.
Lastly, Charles, the namesake of the story, does not appear as a physical character. Instead, Charles is a fictional creation of Laurie’s imagination, serving as a plot device and a catalyst for the development of the other characters.