Shirley Jackson's story “Charles” centers around the theme of a child's misbehavior as he searches for identity and attention and his parents' poor response to his actions and attitude.
Laurie is just starting kindergarten, and he is a very ill-behaved little boy. He talks back to his parents, acts out, and is generally rude. He also begins talking about another boy at school who constantly misbehaves, even hitting the teacher, disrupting the class, and terrorizing other students. Laurie seems quite enthusiastic about Charles, even admiring his behavior and bragging about it. Laurie is obviously seeking attention through his bad behavior. He wants to feel like he is in control, and he learns that most often he is.
Laurie's parents fail to correct Laurie's bad behavior or talk to him about Charles's actions. They make a few minor attempts to curb their son, but he ignores them completely, and they never follow through. Further, they make Charles's antics into something of a family joke and never bother to explain to their son why this kind of behavior is not acceptable. They just let Laurie go along as he does without actually parenting him in any noticeable way.
Laurie's mother is in for a major surprise, however, when she talks to Laurie's teacher and learns that there is no little boy named Charles in the kindergarten class. Laurie is the one who has been doing everything he tells his parents about Charles. He has created a new identity for himself, so he can hide behind Charles rather than learn how to take responsibility for his own actions.
I would argue that the main theme of this short story is parents' blindness to their children's flaws. Right from the outset, the little boy telling tall tales about a classmate called Charlie is impolite and brash. Laurie's bad manners could not have been picked up at school, because after the first day, he is already speaking "insolently" to his father and being careless with his sister's milk. His mother turns a blind eye to this behavior, responding merely by asking him how school was that day. It is clear that keeping the peace is more important to her than giving her child the discipline he so clearly needs.
As the stories about "Charles" start to be told, thick and fast, it shouldn't have been too much of a stretch for Laurie's parents to see that the way Charles behaves at school is tellingly similar to the way Laurie behaves at home. Laurie continues to get away with murder. He leaves the table while his father is talking to him, calls his father "dumb," and refers to him as "y'old dust mop"—all without any form of reprimand coming his way.
Laurie's parents are so blind to his bad manners and unkind nature that they cannot see that Laurie and "Charles" are one and the same. Perhaps it is a case of love being blind, but the clear message that shines through is that Laurie's parents are oblivious to his true nature.
Another theme is the quest for attention, which dominates much of Laurie's time, both at school and at home.
An important theme in the story "Charles" is people's blindness to the flaws of those closest to them—and also their enabling of these flaws.
Although Laurie is constantly talking about Charles's antics at school, it never once occurs to his mother, the narrator of the story, that "Charles" could be Laurie. Laurie tells his parents that Charles gets spanked at school for being fresh and also for hitting the teacher. Meanwhile, he is also doing disrespectful things at home as he is telling these stories. His parents simply let him get away with this behavior and don't associate it with Charles. For example, after his mother asks him a question twice at the dinner table and Laurie ignores her, the parents do not stop him from leaving:
Laurie slid off his chair, took a cookie, and left, while his father was still saying, “See here, young man.”
Laurie continues to tell his parents about Charles's misdeeds, and the parents continue to be blind to Laurie's faults. For example, he tells a rude joke to his father and gets away with it.
Rather than recognizing that Laurie is crying out for the boundaries and discipline that his teacher is finally providing for him, the mother worries that school may be "unsettling" him.
By the time of the parent-teacher conference, Laurie appears to be responding well to the constraints of the classroom, learning to control himself, helping hand out supplies, and getting the approval of his teacher—all under the guise of being "Charles."
At the end of the story, it must be a shock to the mother to realize that Charles is Laurie and to confront her own misconceptions about her son.
One theme of "Charles" is that of parental myopia. Throughout the story, the mother, who acts as narrator, is prevented by her leniency and indulgence from perceiving that it is her own son who commits the acts attributed by him to a boy named Charles.
From the beginning the mother vacuously describes her son's change on his first day of school by narrating that Laurie transforms from a "sweet-voiced, nursery-school tot" to "...a swaggering character" who does not bother to say good-bye to her. Later, at lunch he is "insolent" in his tone when speaking to his father, then he remarks that his teacher has told him that they, his parents, are not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Yet neither parent questions him on how the teacher knows that they use the Lord's name, nor corrects him about his disrespectful tone.
Oblivious to the misbehavior of their son, the parents of Laurie listen eagerly to what Charles has done each day with no deduction that Laurie attributes his bad behavior to a fictional boy. Foolishly, the mother finally attends a P.T.A. meeting and asks the teacher about Charles only to be told "We don't have a Charles in kindergarten." It is only then that the parent discovers the true personality of her child.
The short story "Charles", by Shirley Jackson, has two prevalent themes: identity and gender.
The theme of identity is identified by the fact that Laurie's mother has no clue that the child, Charles, her son is talking about is, in fact, her own son. The theme is compounded by the way that Laurie's parents fail to see his behavior as inappropriate, but they both see the problems with the behaviors of Charles. The parents cannot identify the behaviors of Charles with those of their own son. Therefore, the parents have no clue who their child really is.
Another way to examine this theme is through examining Laurie. He does not seem to have a full grasp on his own identity (not surprising given he is only in Kindergarten).
The second theme defined in the story is one of gender. Many people would align the name of Laurie with a girl. The name Laurie is not typically associated with that of a boy. The name which Laurie uses as his alternate ego is, by far, much more masculine. Therefore, one could justify that Laurie has issues with his own assumed feminine identity and needs to create a more masculine one. He does this by creating Charles, a boy who speaks inappropriately and behaves like the "typical boy."