Study Guide

Charles

by Shirley Jackson

Charles Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator tells the story of Laurie’s first month at kindergarten. Laurie comes home each day to report on the doings of a fellow student, Charles, who behaves in an extraordinary manner. For the first two weeks, Charles is spanked or otherwise punished almost daily for being “fresh,” for hitting or kicking the teachers, for injuring fellow students, and for a host of proscribed activities. Charles proves so interesting to the kindergarten class that whenever he is punished, all the students watch him; whenever he stays after school, all the students stay with him.

As a result of this behavior, Charles becomes an institution at the Hyman house. Whenever anyone does anything bad, inconsiderate, or clumsy, he or she is compared to Charles. During the third week, however, Charles undergoes a conversion. For several days, he becomes a model student, the teacher’s helper. Reports of this transformation astonish the Hyman household. Then, Charles seems to return to normal, first persuading a girl to say a terrible word twice, for which her mouth is washed out with soap. The next day, Charles himself says the word several times and receives several washings.

When the day of the monthly Parent Teacher Association meeting arrives, Laurie’s mother is anxious to go and to meet the mother of the remarkable Charles. At the meeting, she learns from Laurie’s teacher not only that Laurie has had some difficulty adjusting to kindergarten, but also that there is no student named Charles in her class.

Charles Overview

In many ways, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles” seems like a humorous sitcom about a naughty child. The mother’s voice in telling this story about the experiences of her little boy, Laurie (a rather unusual name for a boy), in kindergarten could be that of any mother. Children often come home with tales about the “bad kid” at school who always gets into trouble, and Laurie is no exception. Day after day, he reports the naughty things a boy named Charles does—from hitting the teacher, to bouncing a seesaw off a girl’s head, to saying bad words. Laurie’s parents are mildly concerned about their son learning in such an environment, but they do not intervene at all. Rather, Laurie’s stories about Charles become part of the household lore. Because they love their son, his parents believe all he has to say, and this belief prevents them from noticing that what he says is not the full truth. When the mother learns at the end of the story that there is no child named Charles in the class and that it is Laurie who has had difficulty adjusting to kindergarten and has done all the bad things he attributed to Charles, the reader no less than the mother is very surprised. This lighthearted story, which seems to merely depict a typical boy’s early days at school, more significantly suggests the ways children invent shadow figures as a means of confronting problematic feelings while forming their identities. Laurie invents an alter ego to do “bad” so that he might stay good in the eyes of his parents. Loving but myopic, the parents do not intervene. By eliminating any real resolution to the story, Jackson leaves an ominous message concerning children, human behavior, and family relationships.

Charles Extended Summary

In a neighborly tone, Laurie’s mother recounts her son’s experiences in kindergarten. She begins with the first day of school, when the child walks out the front door, and continues through her meeting his teacher during a PTA meeting five weeks later. The mother knows that school will forever change her son, “that an era of [her] life was ended.” The little boy who was her “sweet-voiced nursery-school tot” was immediately “replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye” to her. Thus, the story opens with the voice of many mothers who are sad but proud their little boys are growing up and leaving the safety of their protection.

The mother’s prediction turns out to be quite accurate, for in many small ways that seem typical of little boys, Laurie begins to behave differently at home. After the very first day at school, he slams the door and throws his hat on the floor and screams, “Isn’t anybody here?” Demanding attention in this way, Laurie speaks “insolently” to his father and pronounces that his teacher said it was a sin “to take the Lord’s name in vain,” thus establishing a new rule for the household, one at which the parents can only smile but that also tells them they will need to change their behavior to accommodate their son’s new perception of the world as a result of school. When his father asks Laurie if he learned anything at school, Laurie, like many children, replies in the negative but proceeds to talk about a naughty child, Charles, who was, according to the teacher, “fresh,” and therefore punished with a spanking and directions to stand in the corner. The next day Laurie reports with a grin that Charles hit the teacher because “she tried to make him color with red crayons” when he wanted to color with green, and the day after that, according to Laurie, this incorrigible child bounced a seesaw on the head of another child and was again punished for his misbehavior. Each day, Laurie recounts another tale of how Charles misbehaved in very aggressive...

(The entire section is 847 words.)