Explain how Charles became a household joke at Laurie’s home in Shirley Jackson's short story "Charles."

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Shirley Jackson's short story "Charles," Laurie is a kindergartner who comes home starting on the first day of school with outrageous stories about a little boy in class. The little boy's name is Charles, and he is quite a character. He says naughty things which Laurie takes great pleasure in repeating; he does rebellious things which Laurie enjoys shocking his parents with.

Somehow, of course, Laurie is free to all kinds of equally naughty things when he talks to his parents about Charles's exploits at school. For example:

“What?” his father said, looking up. “Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee,you’re dumb.” He began to  laugh insanely.

In another setting this disrespectful behavior would have gotten him in big trouble; however, Laurie says this to his father in the middle of a Charles story, and all his father wants to know is what else Charles did at school today. We hear about bad words, cruel pranks, disrespect of the teacher and more; every day is an adventure for Laurie's kindergarten class, and he brings that adventure home to his own family.

While this is amusing once or twice, it is the repeated pattern, the daily recounting of Charles's naughty exploits which really creates a running joke. Of course, the joke is on Laurie's family because they do not realize the truth: that Laurie is Charles and Charles is Laurie. While perhaps it should have been obvious to them, it was not. Once they know, however, they must surely realize the joke has been on them. They have been "played" by their five-year-old son.  

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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After Laurie returns home after his first day at kindergarten, he is a changed boy, demanding attention in loud and annoying ways. He has plenty of stories to tell about his first day, and most of them involve a rowdy boy named Charles. Each day Laurie becomes more precocious, but the stories he has to tell about Charles make Laurie look tame. Charles's adventures become a guideline for comparisons about other children's behavior, and Laurie's parents don't seem to realize that his own continuing disobedience at home seems to mirror Charles's antics at school. Instead, they joke about Charles: Whenever a mistake is made or someone is bad, that person is compared to Charles, and things don't seem so bad. In the end, however, the joke is on Laurie's parents: When his mom attends the PTA meeting in the hopes of meeting Charles's mother, she discovers that there is no Charles--and that she (apparently) is the mother of the kindergarten class's most notorious student. 

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