Shirley Jackson's "Charles" is a short story about a kindergartener named Laurie who tells his parents about the daily antics of his classmate, Charles.
- Every day, Laurie describes instances where Charles hurts other students and is generally a bad influence.
- Laurie's parents are aghast at the described behavior and become fascinated by what kind of parents must have raised Charles, believing themselves superior.
- While attending a PTA meeting, Laurie's mother learns that there is no one in Laurie's class named Charles.
The narrator tells the story of Laurie’s first month at kindergarten. Laurie comes home each day to report on the doings of a fellow student, Charles, who behaves in an extraordinary manner. For the first two weeks, Charles is spanked or otherwise punished almost daily for being “fresh,” for hitting or kicking the teachers, for injuring fellow students, and for a host of proscribed activities. Charles proves so interesting to the kindergarten class that whenever he is punished, all the students watch him; whenever he stays after school, all the students stay with him.
As a result of this behavior, Charles becomes an institution at the Hyman house. Whenever anyone does anything bad, inconsiderate, or clumsy, he or she is compared to Charles. During the third week, however, Charles undergoes a conversion. For several days, he becomes a model student, the teacher’s helper. Reports of this transformation astonish the Hyman household. Then, Charles seems to return to normal, first persuading a girl to say a terrible word twice, for which her mouth is washed out with soap. The next day, Charles himself says the word several times and receives several washings.
When the day of the monthly Parent Teacher Association meeting arrives, Laurie’s mother is anxious to go and to meet the mother of the remarkable Charles. At the meeting, she learns from Laurie’s teacher not only that Laurie has had some difficulty adjusting to kindergarten, but also that there is no student named Charles in his class.
In many ways, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles” seems like a humorous sitcom about a naughty child. The mother’s voice in telling this story about the experiences of her little boy, Laurie (a rather unusual name for a boy), in kindergarten could be that of any mother. Children often come home with tales about the “bad kid” at school who always gets into trouble, and Laurie is no exception. Day after day, he reports the naughty things a boy named Charles does—from hitting the teacher, to bouncing a seesaw off a girl’s head, to saying bad words. Laurie’s parents are mildly concerned about their son learning in such an environment, but they do not intervene at all. Rather, Laurie’s stories about Charles become part of the household lore. Because they love their son, his parents believe all he has to say, and this belief prevents them from noticing that what he says is not the full truth. When the mother learns at the end of the story that there is no child named Charles in the class and that it is Laurie who has had difficulty adjusting to kindergarten and has done all the bad things he attributed to Charles, the reader no less than the mother is very surprised. This lighthearted story, which seems to merely depict a typical boy’s early days at school, more significantly suggests the ways children invent shadow figures as a means of confronting problematic feelings while forming their identities. Laurie invents an alter ego to do “bad” so that he might stay good in the eyes of his parents. Loving but myopic, the parents do not intervene. By eliminating any real resolution to the story, Jackson leaves an ominous message concerning children, human behavior, and family relationships.
In a neighborly tone, Laurie’s mother recounts her son’s experiences in kindergarten. She begins with the first day of school, when the child walks out the front door, and continues through her meeting his...
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