What is the irony in Shirley Jackson's short story "Charles"?

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Shirley Jackson uses dramatic irony in her short story "Charles " about a young boy who is in his first year of school. Dramatic irony occurs when there is a contrast between what a reader realizes is true and what characters in the story believe. Throughout the story, young...

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Shirley Jackson uses dramatic irony in her short story "Charles" about a young boy who is in his first year of school. Dramatic irony occurs when there is a contrast between what a reader realizes is true and what characters in the story believe. Throughout the story, young Laurie, who has just started Kindergarten, repeatedly comes home from school with stories about a classmate named Charles, who is continually in trouble and is portrayed by Laurie as being a bully and a brat. Charles torments other children, is disrespectful to the teachers and is often "fresh," as Laurie puts it. It should be apparent to the reader within the first few paragraphs that Laurie is just as disruptive as Charles. He hits his baby sister, is "fresh" to his father, and is all too happy to apply his own misdeeds to the fictional Charles. Thus, the reader already knows what the parents cannot bring themselves to believe: that Laurie is Charles.

Laurie's mother never suspects that her son, even though he is a terror at home, could really be as bad as Charles. She becomes more and more concerned that Charles might possibly be a bad influence, but the father simply believes that it's good for Laurie to meet such children—"Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later." Both parents are in an obvious state of denial over Laurie's behavior. Finally, Laurie's mother attends a parent-teacher gathering and is anxious to find out about Charles. She is promptly informed by the Kindergarten teacher that there is no boy named Charles in the class and that all the teachers are very "interested" in Laurie. 

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The irony is that Charles does not exist, and the family has been judging Laurie the entire time.

Irony in literature is “the technique of indicating an intention or attitude opposed to what is actually stated” (“eNotes Guide to Literary Terms”). It is when what happens is different from what is expected. The irony in this story is that the horrible boy Charles in kindergarten with Laurie is really Laurie.

Laurie is a troublemaker. His mother should be able to see this, but she is too wrapped up in her complicated life to notice. She has a new baby who draws away most of her focus. From the beginning of the story, Laurie’s bad behavior is described.

At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain. 

When Laurie starts kindergarten, he describes a terrible boy who always acts up and gets in trouble. The entire family seems to enjoy listening to the little boy’s mishaps, even though their own child is no angel. The irony is that they are so judgmental of Charles and ignore Laurie’s misbehavior. 

Laurie’s mother can’t attend the first P.T.A. meeting, but she goes to the second one, excited to meet Charles’s mother. Laurie's parents gleefully discuss meeting the mother of the horrible boy.

“Invite her over for a cup of tea after the meeting,” he said. “I want to get a look at her.”
“If only she’s there,” I said prayerfully.
“She’ll be there,” my husband said. “I don’t see how they could hold a P.T.A. meeting without Charles’s mother.”

They are being very judgmental. At the meeting, Laurie's mother meets her son's teacher, who tells her Laurie “had a little trouble adjusting, the first week or so.” She then tells her that there is no Charles in the class. 

Although the story ends there, the implication is clear: Laurie made up Charles. All the behaviors he attributed to Charles were his own. He wanted to tell his parents what was happening, but did not know how or feared the repercussions.

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