Style and Technique
“Charles” is a short sketch, originally published in Mademoiselle and eventually incorporated into Jackson’s fictionalized memoirs of family life in Bennington, Vermont, Life Among the Savages (1953).
In Shirley Jackson (1975), Lenemaja Friedman points out that when the real Laurie Hyman went to kindergarten, there actually was a boy there who performed several of the exploits that the fictional Laurie attributes to the fictional Charles. Altering this fact enhances the dramatic and thematic effects of “Charles.” The surprise discovery that Charles is Laurie’s fiction produces irony, the realization that all along the story has been meaning something other than what it has been saying. What it has been meaning becomes more interesting as well, for depths of complexity become visible in the child’s character. One result is a kind of wonder at the fiction-making powers that all people possess.
The story takes place at the beginning of the school year, probably sometime in the Leave It to Beaver era of the 1950s, for it is a time when children walk to school with friends, when children and husbands come home for lunch, and when mothers stay at home to care for their house and children and to fix lunch for their family. Lunch, then, is a family event, and in “Charles” most of the conversation occurs during this important family time. In fact, the sense of place is so contained that one can imagine the story as a contemporary sitcom, with the days going by in a linear fashion and the action taking place on one set where the family eats together. Attending only to the reports that her son gives about the events of Charles at school, the mother does not provide any visual details about this lunch setting.
However, the story is very detailed in the chronological development of events. The narrator specifically names each day of the week in tracking the stories her son tells about Charles. At lunch on Monday, the first day of school, Laurie acts insolently toward his father and mentions Charles for the first time; on Tuesday, Charles kicks the teacher; on Wednesday, he bounces the seesaw on the head of a little girl; on Thursday, he pounds his feet on the floor; and on Friday, he throws chalk. The narrator tells us that on Saturday, after this horrific first week, she asks her husband if kindergarten “is too unsettling” for Laurie, a notion her husband dismisses. The story continues with this day-by-day account of Laurie’s stories about Charles. The mother similarly lists the events for the following week on a day-by-day basis, then summarizes weeks three and four as looking “like a reformation” in Charles in that Laurie has no bad stories to report. However, she then says “on Friday of that week things were back to normal,” because Charles makes a girl in class say a bad word and then does the same himself. Finally, Monday of week five rolls around and the mother goes to the PTA meeting to meet the teacher.
With the chronology of events the most vivid aspect of story and the ambiance of a 1950s family lunch the most salient sense of place, in the background hovers the school where Charles does all the naughty things Laurie talks about. In this way, his reports indirectly construct a setting of a typical school. He mentions details such as a chalkboard, crayons, a playground with a seesaw, and so on. The PTA meeting provides a third setting, for here the mother asks the teacher about Charles and receives the news that there is, in fact, no Charles in her son’s class, leaving her to infer (to her astonishment as well as to every reader’s) that Laurie has done all that he had attributed to Charles. Again, the details of this setting are sparse: mothers and teachers drink tea, eat cake, sit down, and walk about. In short, whether the setting is a home, school, or PTA meeting, the effect of this vagueness is to create a sort of “every place” to the story—its lack of specificity suggests that these events could...
(The entire section is 1,121 words.)