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Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is about emotional devastation and interpersonal conflict: Charlie’s best friend, Michael, has committed suicide; Patrick experiences public humiliation and repeated sorrow emanating from his sexual orientation; Charlie, it is finally revealed, was sexually abused by his beloved aunt; Charlie’s sister has been physically abused by her boyfriend. In discussing Michael’s suicide with his dead friend’s former girlfriend, Susan, Charlie experiences an epiphany of sorts:
“It suddenly dawned on me that if Michael were still around, Susan probably wouldn't be ‘going out’ with him anymore. Not because she's a bad person or shallow or mean. But because things change. And friends leave. And life doesn't stop for anybody.”
The theme of the novel lies in that quote: Life is about overcoming challenges.
The irony involves first and foremost the role the deceased Aunt Helen played in Charlie’s life. Early in the story, Charlie writes:
“My Aunt Helen was my favorite person in the whole world.”
Throughout the story, Charlie lovingly references Aunt Helen and how close he and she were before she died. Subsequent revelations regarding Helen’s dark secret (“I will just say that my aunt Helen was molested. I hate that word. It was done by someone who was very close to her”) and her subsequent abuse of Charlie, strongly hinted at in the following quote, lead to the realization that Charlie’s emotional problems may be tied to the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of the person he trusted most:
“When I fell asleep, I had this dream. My brother and my sister and I were watching television with my Aunt Helen. Everything was in slow motion. The sound was thick. And she was doing what Sam was doing. That's when I woke up. And I didn't know what the hell was going on”
Charlie is a “dynamic character,” who undergoes emotional and intellectual transformations. At first, he is a shy, awkward, emotionally troubled freshman, tormented by Michael’s suicide and the death of Aunt Helen when Charlie was seven. By the end, he has developed interpersonal skills, experiment with drugs and sex, and accepted that life has to be lived to the fullest even through emotional pain. In the epilogue, he comes to terms with the fact that everyone has problems and that growing up means learning to handle them:
“ . . . we could all sit around and wonder and feel bad about each other and blame a lot of people for what they did or didn't do or what they didn't know. I don't know. I guess there could always be someone to blame.”
An inciting incident in the book could have occurred before the story begins: Michael’s suicide, which provides much of the deep-seated anguish experienced by Charlie. Similarly, Aunt Helen’s death when Charlie was seven could be considered the book’s primary inciting incident. Within the pages of the book, however, Charlie’s surprise observation of Patrick and school athlete Brad kissing could also qualify as the incident that propels action forward. The story’s climax, Charlie’s realization that he was sexually molested on a regular basis by his beloved aunt, has been discussed in the context of irony.
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