Charles Summary

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 teacher during a PTA meeting five weeks later. The mother knows that school will forever change her son, “that an era of [her] life was ended.” The little boy who was her “sweet-voiced nursery-school tot” was immediately “replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye” to her. Thus, the story opens with the voice of many mothers who are sad but proud their little boys are growing up and leaving the safety of their protection.

The mother’s prediction turns out to be quite accurate, for in many small ways that seem typical of little boys, Laurie begins to behave differently at home. After the very first day at school, he slams the door and throws his hat on the floor and screams, “Isn’t anybody here?” Demanding attention in this way, Laurie speaks “insolently” to his father and pronounces that his teacher said it was a sin “to take the Lord’s name in vain,” thus establishing a new rule for the household, one at which the parents can only smile but that also tells them they will need to change their behavior to accommodate their son’s new perception of the world as a result of school. When his father asks Laurie if he learned anything at school, Laurie, like many children, replies in the negative but proceeds to talk about a naughty child, Charles, who was, according to the teacher, “fresh,” and therefore punished with a spanking and directions to stand in the corner. The next day Laurie reports with a grin that Charles hit the teacher because “she tried to make him color with red crayons” when he wanted to color with green, and the day after that, according to Laurie, this incorrigible child bounced a seesaw on the head of another child and was again punished for his misbehavior. Each day, Laurie recounts another tale of how Charles misbehaved in very aggressive ways in the classroom. On one occasion, Laurie comes home late with the story that Charles had “yelled in school,” so the naughty child had been forced to stay after hours and the entire class stayed, too, just to watch him. The mother makes no connection between Laurie’s staying late and Charles’s. She accepts her child’s explanation without suspicion.

Meanwhile, Laurie’s behavior changes as well. He is rude to his father in ways that might be considered playful but are, nevertheless, inappropriate. He tries to demean his father with little jokes such as “Look down. Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb,” which, according to the mother, causes Laurie to laugh “insanely.” Another time Laurie says to his father, “Hi, Pop, y’old dust mop.” Simultaneously, the child becomes the center of all family conversation at dinner, for the most important topic is what Charles did or did not do at school that day and what his punishment was. Although concerned, the parents take all of these stories in stride. The mother would like to attend the first PTA meeting to meet Charles’s mother, but her other child has a cold and so she must stay home. The possibility of the father attending is not mentioned.

Eventually Laurie comes home to say that Charles had been good at school, helping the teacher and receiving an apple for his improved behavior. In fact, for an entire week Laurie reports that Charles acts as “the teacher’s helper; each day he handed things out and he picked things up.” The mother is hopeful this means the child has made a turn for the good, but the father is skeptical: “When you’ve got a Charles to deal with, this may mean he’s only plotting.” The father is correct, for once again Charles starts acting up in school, getting in trouble for one thing or another.

Finally the next PTA meeting comes up, and the mother is anxious to attend because she wants to meet Charles’s mother, just to find out what sort of person she must be to raise a child as troublesome as Charles is. At the meeting she looks for her, but instead she finds Laurie’s teacher. “We’re all so interested in Laurie,” the teacher tells her, for Laurie, she says, has had some difficulty adjusting at school but seems to be improving, “with occasional lapses, of course.” The mother is somewhat surprised, for in her view Laurie adapts easily to new situations. Perhaps, says she, it is Charles who is causing the difficulty. It is at this moment that the story throws its ironic punch. “Charles?” says the teacher. “We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.” And with that, the story ends, not providing the mother’s reaction or the conversation she would likely have with her husband and Laurie later that night.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access