Charles Questions and Answers
by Shirley Jackson

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

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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.

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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.

Further Reading:

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Lorna Stowers eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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."

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