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.