Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
After “The Lottery,” “Charles” may be Shirley Jackson’s best-known short story and is often anthologized for young readers. The story’s appeal seems to derive more from the irony of its surprise ending and from its humor than from any very significant thematic content. One interesting thematic aspect of the tale, however, emerges from considering the significance of Laurie’s creation and characterization of Charles.
The narrator reflects, as she sends Laurie off to his first day at kindergarten, that in his change of dress from corduroy overalls with bibs to blue jeans and a belt, he has been transformed from an innocent tot into “a swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye to me.” One can see Laurie as beginning the discovery of his identity. At school, he tries various modes of self-construction and self-assertion. Although his stories about Charles protect him from parental wrath, they also reveal that he naturally conceives of his self as a fictional construct over which he has considerable power. The Charles he creates is also a person who can create himself, who can be extremely “bad” one day and extremely “good” the next, as he chooses.
Part of the interest of this thematic aspect of the tale is that an interest in how the self is constructed pervades Jackson’s fiction, and is often near the thematic center in her horror novels and stories.
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The difficulty of a child shaping his or her identity is central to this story. Jackson suggests that negotiating and integrating aggressive impulses is essential to a child’s identity formation and that parents must be alert to the complexities of this psychological process. Through the character of Laurie/Charles, Jackson also raises questions concerning what is normal childhood aggression as opposed to what is dangerous and problematic. While the humorous tone of the story disarms our reactions to Laurie’s behavior, there remain suggestions that Laurie’s splitting his good self from his bad self might result from family relationships but also, and more disturbingly, from aggression and evil innate to human behavior.
Jackson depicts this family as normal, and she at first shows the child as normal too, delaying readers’ understanding of his stories to the very end. Even then, however, one is not sure how normal this child and this family might be and, indeed, if one should think of them as typical or aberrant. It is not difficult to read this story as a case study of what in the 1950s was known as a “split” or “multiple personality disorder,” but is now referred to as a “dissociative personality disorder.” Although some specialists dispute the authenticity of this disorder, it is defined as a condition in which “two or more distinct identities or personality states” alternate in controlling a person’s consciousness or behavior. The question is whether little Laurie truly dissociates in such a pathological way so that he has no control or awareness of Laurie behaving at one moment and Charles at another, with his parents only smiling while this transpires. If this is the case—and the mother’s passing observation that her child screams “insanely” might just suggest such an interpretation—readers and parents are smiling at a serious mental disorder. If, on the other hand, Laurie is merely a child who tells tall tales to escape responsibility for his bad behavior, then one might think with some proper discipline he can learn to be a good boy. The problem is the ambiguity with which Jackson develops this theme of identity, aggression, and childhood behavior and the disarming, humorous way in which she presents the problem.
Gender psychology constitutes another theme in this story. Important to understanding Laurie, too, is his...
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