What is the mood of "Charles" by Shirley Jackson?

The primary mood of “Charles” by Shirley Jackson is perplexed, for Laurie's parents are at a loss to figure out how to handle their son's misbehavior and his stories about his bad-boy classmate Charles.

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The mood of a piece of literature is its guiding emotion or atmosphere that is created by its setting, plot, characterization, tone, imagery, and dialogue. The mood of Shirley Jackson's story “Charles” is probably best described as perplexed.

Laurie's parents cannot figure out what is happening with their son. First, he has changed from a cute, sweet toddler to a “long-trousered, swaggering character” who doesn't even wave goodbye to his mother on his first day of kindergarten. His behavior is insolent, noisy, and disobedient. He talks back to his father, is rude to his mother, and is generally a very naughty little boy. Yet his parents don't seem to know what to do about it. They correct him verbally, but they don't enforce their words with punishment, and Laurie's behavior worsens. His parents remain completely perplexed at how to handle Laurie.

What's more, Laurie's mother and father are perplexed by their son's constant talk about his classmate Charles. Charles is always doing something horrible at school. He is fresh with the teacher. He even hits the teacher. He refuses to participate in class activities. He throws chalk and makes noise and says bad words. Again, Laurie's parents don't seem to know what to say to their son about Charles. They listen to him, but they never talk to him about why Charles is wrong or how Laurie most certainly should not behave that way. Instead, Charles becomes something of a family joke.

The story (and Laurie's mother) reaches the heights of perplexity at its end. Laurie's mother goes to a conference with her son's teacher, who tells her that Laurie had a tough time adjusting to kindergarten but is doing better (with a few lapses). Laurie's mother wants to blame Charles's influence, but the teacher looks at her strangely and says that they “don't have any Charles in the kindergarten.” Laurie's mother must now come to terms with the greatly perplexing fact that “Charles” is her own son.

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Talking about the mood of any given story can be a tricky undertaking. “Mood” is not the most specific of words. It refers to a story’s general, inexact feeling, atmosphere, or tone. Indeed, the abstract quality of “mood” can make describing the mood rather difficult.

One way to make the process easier is by identifying words that call to mind a certain mood. For example, in Shirley Jackson’s short story “Charles,” the boy, Laurie, speaks “insolently” to his dad, spills his little sister’s milk, and then tells his family about a boy who was spanked during school.

All of the above happens over lunch. This lunch scene, which takes places early on in the story, appears to set the mood of the overall narrative. The words used in this scene convey an odious, petulant, and disorderly mood that continues throughout the story.

It’s also reasonable to refer to the mood as contentious or combative. Laurie’s bellicose attitude towards his parents and the stories that he tells about Charles instill the story with an aggressive, hostile mood.

Often, the mood connects to what happens in the story. In this case, the eerie, unsettling atmosphere of Jackson’s tale links to the strange relationship between Laurie and this mysterious Charles child. In a certain light, the mood prepares the reader for the ending.

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The mood of "Charles" is darkly humorous. At the beginning of the story, readers are sympathetic to the narrator, Laurie's mother, as she adjusts to her son's newfound independence and confidence as he leaves the house for kindergarten. Laurie's cheekiness is amusing, understandable, and not yet out of control.

The stories that Laurie tells about Charles are shocking but at the same time funny because they are ostensibly happening to another family. Jackson builds readers' interest in finding out what Charles's mother is like, and when Laurie's mother misses the first PTA meeting, it heightens the suspense even further.

Though a close reading of the story makes the outcome less surprising, the mood is maintained throughout because of the descriptions of Charles's antics. Jackson utilizes the phenomenon of schadenfreude (enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others) to create the story's darkly humorous mood.

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Mood is the feeling an author deliberately creates through the use of
language and images, particularly in the treatment of the setting, the place or location of the story. You can think of mood as an effect that the author tries to achieve through a consistent and repeated use of similar details. The details that are constantly repeated in "Charles" are how awful Charles behavior is and how that bad behavior escalates. This creates a mystery about who this child is and who his mother can be. The irony comes at the end of the story when the reader finds out what he/she has already suspected. Charles does not exist; he is simply a character young Laurie has created to mirror his own behavior. Consequently, two moods are prevalent in the story. The first is mysterious and the second is ironic.

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