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

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Charles” has two main settings: the kitchen table, where Laurie talks to his parents, usually over lunch, about what has happened in school that day, and Laurie’s kindergarten classroom, in which all his stories take place. Not much information is given directly about these settings, nor are there any real details given about either; we learn everything through Laurie’s stories about Charles and the narrator’s stories about Laurie.

At home we have standard images of a family with a young son—parents asking their kindergartener how he likes school, Laurie eating bread and butter and cookies. The only incongruous thing about this setting is Laurie’s behavior. We have no indication that he was a disrespectful or ornery child before starting school, and yet he addresses his parents very casually, often insultingly. Our narrator, Laurie’s mother, assumes this is due to Charles’s influence in class. In this way, she interacts with the kindergarten only through her son’s stories, and Charles seems to be wreaking havoc in Laurie’s class—throwing chalk, hitting the teacher, making a little girl bleed… The tales of disruption and violence are endless. Laurie’s parents have no reason to suspect Laurie of any wrongdoing, and as long as the child keeps what happens in the story’s two settings separate, he is golden. However, a few weeks into his school career, his mother attends a PTA meeting, and with this action the home and the school settings intermingle. It is only here, when our two settings converge, that the truth about “Charles” is revealed.

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The author never specifically says where or when this story is set.

However, it seems likely that it is set in the United States (the names, the general attitudes, the existence of the PTA all point to that).  It also seems likely that it is set sometime in the 1950s (you have teachers hitting kids and washing their mouths out with soap and no one thinks it is strange).

Almost all of the story happens at the family dinner table.  So I guess that is the physical setting for the majority of the story.

Overall, the setting is kept pretty vague.  This is probably so that we get the feeling that it could be happening anywhere -- city, country, rich area, poor area, etc.

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The settings in the story are the home and the school. Laurie is a little boy who lives in a house with his parents. The story takes place during his first year of school. Almost all the action occurs in the home and consists of interactions between the boy, his mother, and his father. At the beginning, through his mother's eyes, the reader sees him walking down the street. Although the school is an important setting, the reader hears about it almost exclusively through Laurie’s tales of what happened there. A possible opportunity to go to school for a PTA meeting and meet another parent—the mother of the problematic Charles—evaporates when Laurie’s parents have to stay home with their other child, who is ill. In the last part, the parents finally go to the school for the next PTA meeting. There, they learn from Laurie’s teacher that Charles does not exist—or rather, as they conclude, he exists only in Laurie’s mind. The reasons for his behavior are not further explored.

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The story takes place in the late 1940s at Laurie’s home and school during the beginning of the school year.

The story’s setting is significant in “Charles.” Because the story takes place at the beginning of the school year when Laurie starts kindergarten, the plot involves his and his parents’ adjustment to starting school. The story takes place over the period of a few weeks, giving the plot plenty of time to develop to its surprise ironic ending.

You can tell that the story takes place in the middle of the twentieth century partly by the clothes.

The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended. . . .

The setting of the 1940s is significant. Things were a little different back then. Children could walk home from school by themselves. Kindergarten was not as intense as it is now, and it only lasted half a day. Mothers typically did not work, staying home with the children. For this reason, the story is able to progress with Charles coming home from school each day to have lunch with his parents.

The kindergarten setting is not one the reader sees directly.  All information about it comes to us through the unreliable narrator, Laurie.

“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.

“What did he do?” I asked. “Who was it?”

Laurie thought. “It was Charles,” he said. “He was fresh. The teacher spanked him and made him stand in a corner. He was awfully fresh.”

We find out what happened in kindergarten with Laurie’s precocious blend of humor and half-truth. His parents do seem supremely gullible. Their home is a chaotic one, though. With a kindergartener and a young baby, things are bound to fall through the cracks.

School was also different in those days. Laurie’s teacher seems very patient. I can’t imagine teachers today letting things go for several weeks without contacting the parents.  Laurie's teacher just takes care of it herself. In today’s schools, the teachers do not directly discipline the students in most cases, but in those days, corporal punishment was common. Laurie's parents show only vague interest in the number of severe punishments that Charles gets, such as spankings and having his mouth washed out with soap.

The closest we get to seeing the school setting is when Laurie's mother finally makes it to a PTA meeting, and the teacher only says Laurie had a little trouble adjusting. That sounds like quite an understatement!

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