What are some themes in Shirley Jackson's short story "Charles"?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Shirley Jackson's short story "Charles" has a simple plot as well as a relatively simple theme. A young boy named Laurie goes off to his first day of school, and he comes home and tells his parents all kinds of outrageous stories about another boy in class named Charles. 

This boy is naughty in just about every way, and Laurie takes great delight in repeating every bad word and rascally act that Charles said or perpetrated that day. In doing this, Laurie insults his parents, talking to them in ways he would not be allowed to do if he were simply being himself.

“Look up,” he said to his father.
“What?” his father said, looking up.
“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.

Charles gets in trouble with the teacher at school, but Laurie only gets his parents' full attention at home when he tells about Charles's exploits and even repeats them.

Both parents look forward to parent-teacher night so they can meet Charles's parents; however, they are unable to attend the first one, and they again have to settle for hearing all about Charles's wicked deeds. Laurie's mother does get to attend the second meeting night, and her husband eagerly suggests she should invite Charles's mother over for a cup of tea after the meeting.

At the meeting, of course, Laurie's teacher says,

“We had a little trouble adjusting, the first week or so,” she said primly, “but now he’s a fine little helper. With occasional lapses, of course.” 

This indicates that the behaviors Laurie has been describing are real, and then Laurie's mother discovers that there is no one named Charles in Laurie's class. 

Any theme for this story has to do with Laurie's motivation for doing such things and telling such stories. His mother remarks at the beginning of the story that she is sending her son off to school and remarks that her little boy is all grown up now, and this may be one theme of the story. Once we are old enough, we get to make some choices in life; we can choose to be obedient and respectful or we can choose to break rules and hurt people. Laurie obviously makes the choice to do the latter--and then lie about it to his parents, playing them rather for fools.

Another possible theme suggests that Charles is some kind of altar ego for Laurie, a second personality which he can or cannot control but which is known to his parents. We know that he "laughs insanely" at times, and Jackson may be suggesting that his parents see him act out and do nothing about it (except laugh), indicating a child's difficulties in molding his identity--perhaps in dysfunctional family structure--as a possible theme.

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