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Analysis of Laurie and His Relationship to Charles in Shirley Jackson's "Charles"

Summary:

In Shirley Jackson's "Charles," Laurie creates the character of Charles to externalize and deflect his own misbehavior at school. This imaginary scapegoat allows Laurie to test boundaries and gauge his parents' reactions without directly implicating himself, highlighting themes of identity and the complexity of childhood behavior.

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What clues suggest that Charles is actually Laurie in "Charles"?

The biggest clue that Laurie is in fact Charles is how Laurie seems to change so quickly from his mother's "sweet-voiced nursery-school tot" to "a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me."

It is this swaggering character that they often witness at their dinner table. He spills his sister's milk, talks insolently to his father, uses bad grammar and gets up from the dinner table in the middle of a conversation without excusing himself. From the beginning, his behaviour and attitude is similar to the characteristics he describes in Charles.

There are less obvious clues in the text as well. For example, at the beginning of the story, he initially finds it difficult to look his parents in the eye when talking about Charles's behaviour, suggesting, certainly in retrospect, that he is trying to hide something. He then has to pause to think when they ask for Charles's name, suggesting that he is making the name up.

The final clue is how much a kick Laurie seems to be getting from the attention his parents are giving him. He may start off unable to look at them, but as time goes by he is either shouting Charles's name before he reaches the door or saying his name with an enormous grin. This all suggests that in recent times, since the arrival of his baby sister, his parents have not been so attentive to his needs.

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What clues suggest that Charles is actually Laurie in "Charles"?

The first clue that there will be some significant play on the idea of Laurie/Charles’s identity is in the opening paragraph when the mother tells us how significant a moment of change it is to see

my sweet-voiced nursery school tot replaced by a long-trousered swaggering character...

In other words, the first day of kindergarten brings a transformation that “replaces” the Laurie she thinks she knows with a “character” she barely recognizes.

Although this change is immediately apparent, once Charles enters the story the mother seems to notice Laurie’s behavior at home less and less. It’s as if the fictional Charles becomes much more interesting and attention-grabbing than the actual boy at home and school, which is typical of Shirley Jackson’s moral world in which the children put the adults to shame and the adults get the comeuppance for their assumptions and obliviousness.

Another hint comes when the parents ask about the identity of the troublesome classmate and Jackson tells us “Laurie thought” before replying, “It was Charles.” Jackson doesn’t suggest that Laurie has to recall or remember the name of the boy, but rather that he invents it, either pulling it out of the blue or having already decided before. Either way, we see Laurie is an excellent and natural liar but gets his parents so hooked on his daily reports of Charles’s mischief that they become increasingly blind to their actual child’s behavior.

Jackson is implying that it’s often impossible for parents to see their own children in a negative light, even when the clues are plainly evident. The deeper we see Laurie’s parents pulled into the Charles drama, the more Jackson heightens the suspense towards the big reveal which will contain the story’s tone of dark humor and puts some egg on the silly parents’ faces.

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What clues suggest that Charles is actually Laurie in "Charles"?

In Shirley Jackson’s story, the title character Charles becomes a fascinating subject for Laurie, a boy starting school. The author offers numerous clues to foreshadow the undeniable conclusion that the two boys are one and the same person. When Laurie first discusses Charles’s rudeness with his parents, he is hesitant and evasive. Soon Laurie’s behavior starts to change, as he goes from polite and caring to insolent and inconsiderate. Some specific things that Laurie tells his parents Charles had done are the same as or similar to his new attitudes and actions, such as yelling. Although this gradually accelerating transformation from peaceful to aggressive concerns his parents, they fail to realize their son’s deception.

The extreme changes in Laurie are out of proportion to the effects that starting school would typically have on a young child. Laurie seems to be very uncomfortable with the new environment in which he must function almost every day. Initially in telling his parents about the other boy, he is tentative and seems to be improvising. He does not immediately provide the boy’s name and avoids eye contact while lying to his parents. Laurie shows increasing boldness not only in misbehaving at school but in interacting with his parents. A once well-behaved boy becomes rude and aggressive, insulting his parents and physically assaulting other children at school.

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What clues suggest that Charles is actually Laurie in "Charles"?

The author included some clues in the story that help the reader to believe that maybe Laurie and Charles are the same person. For example, on the first page of the story, Laurie speaks to his parents about Charles however he is not looking at them, he is instead "addressing his bread and butter." When his parent's ask about the boy's name, the author states that Laurie has to think about it for a few minutes before answering. Immediately following this exchange, Laurie's dad asks him a question what the teacher did in response to Charles misbehavior but instead of answering, Laurie slides down off of his chair and walks ignoring his father's question. This evasiveness provides the reader with clues that something is not "right" with Laurie's story.

On the second page of the story, the author writes that Laurie came home late full of news about Charles. In Laurie's tales of Charles however, we find out that Charles was so bad that he had to stay after school. The mother does not appear to put these clues together but they are there for the reader. The final clue in the story is when Laurie's mother meets with his teacher, mentioning Charles and the trouble he causes in class. The teacher replies that there is no Charles in class.

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What are some characteristics of Laurie in "Charles"?

In "Charles," we can describe Laurie as being very keen to assert his independence. This is shown clearly in the first paragraph when his mother says that he "renounced" (gave up) his corduroys in favor of jeans and a belt. In other words, Laurie is eager to make the transition from a toddler, always at home with his mother, to an independent kindergartener.

Secondly, Laurie is very mischievous. We see this through his antics at school; he's "fresh," he hits the teacher, and he refuses to do exercises in class. Although Laurie blames Charles for this mischief, it is also made clear from his behavior at home, particularly the way he talks to his father, that Laurie is prone to bouts of bad behavior.

Finally, Laurie is deceitful and has no problem telling lies. Instead of confessing to his bad behavior, Laurie claims that it is all the work of Charles, another child in his class. Note that Laurie never tells his parents the truth. It is only through a meeting with his teacher that Laurie's mother learns the truth: Charles doesn't really exist.

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What are some characteristics of Laurie in "Charles"?

Laurie essentially is an undisciplined, disrespectful, deceitful, conniving, but clever and very intelligent child.

From the exposition of the story, it becomes apparent that Laurie is undisciplined and willful as he "renounced" his baby overalls and is now a "swaggered character" who no longer waves good-bye to his mother. When he returns home the first day he slam[s] the door open and shouts with a "raucous" voice, "Isn't anybody here?"

Yet, the parents are surprised to learn of a boy named Charles who is purportedly "fresh" when he speaks to his teacher, and then even strikes her. (Laurie smiles as he relates this.) One day when Laurie recounts that Charles has let the seesaw hit the head of a little girl, the mother naively asks her husband, "Do you think kindergarten is too unsettling for Laurie?" In another instance of irony, Laurie returns from school late, "yelling" all the way as he comes up the hill toward his mother that

"Charles yelled so in school they sent a boy from another class to tell the teacher to make him be quiet, and so Charles had to stay after school."

Laurie finally becomes so willful at home that his mother states,

Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen....

And, yet, Laurie's parents are still deceived about their child. Even after he tells them that Charles prompted a girl to say an offensive word in school, and then says the same word at home himself some days later, the parents do not make the connection.  Indeed, there is no question that Laurie is far more clever and creative than his gullible parents who must be told by Laurie's teacher that there is no Charles.

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What are some characteristics of Laurie in "Charles"?

Shirley Jackson's use of descriptive language offers readers a vivid view of the character Laurie in the short story "Charles." The following descriptors offer insight into the character of the narrator's son.

Swaggering- Seems to define Laurie as a little older than he really is. Readers may picture a boy with a chimp on his shoulder by this description.

His "voice suddenly become raucous." Here, readers can picture a boy running into the house, unconcerned with anything which is going on. Therefore, this shows his self-centered aura of the typical kindergartner.

At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

If readers are to infer, the previous passage states that Laurie was the one who took the Lord's name in vain given she uses the pronoun "we." Also, the spilling of his sister's milk and speaking rudely to his father show is lack of concern for others.

“He sure did,” Laurie said. “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.

In the dialogue above, one can infer that Laurie is disrespectful of his parents. A child should not call a parent dumb. While seemingly harmless, when put together with all of the other indirect characterizations, Laurie is far from the "sweet-voiced nursery-school tot" he used to be.

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What are some of the characteristics of Laurie and Charles, and how does Laurie let his parents know what kind of person Charles is?

Laurie is just beginning to attend first grade. His mother, who describes him as a "sweet-voiced tot" at the beginning of the story, watches him transform into an insolently "raucous... swaggering character." He picks up lots of bad habits quickly, and his mother assumes that many of these come from the new friend he has at school—the class bad-boy, Charles. Charles gets in trouble on a regular basis at school, and Laurie has a new story nearly every day concerning his friend's exploits. When Laurie's mom visits school and asks about Charles, the teacher tells her that there is no Charles in her class. It is only then that the mother—and the reader—discovers the truth: Laurie is the troublemaker, but he assumes the nom de plume of Charles when relating the stories to his parents.

Charles/Laurie is transformed into a rude, sassy brat right before his mother's—and the teacher's—eyes. Charles hits—and is then spanked by—the teacher. He hits a girl in class, causing her to bleed; kick's "the teacher's friend;" throws chalk; stamps his feet; curses; and is "fresh." His behavior at home also changes for the worse, and he speaks disrespectfully to both of his parents regularly. The father seems even more clueless than the mother, and he barely seems aware of the changes, even when he laughs "insanely."

Is Laurie displaying signs of a behavioral disorder? Is he showing overtly masculine behavior to overcompensate for his name? Why does he find the need to create this imaginary persona? These are things to consider as you read (or reread) the story.

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What is the role of Laurie's father in "Charles"?

Laurie’s father does not seem to notice that his son's behavior is inappropriate, which might explain Laurie’s behavior.

Laurie’s father is not much of a disciplinarian.  When his son is rude to him, he does not correct him.  You can draw a direct connection between this and his behavior at school toward his teacher.

At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

Laurie’s also calls his father dumb, playing a game with him and then stopping to “laugh insanely.”   It is typical kindergarten behavior, but it also shows disrespect and is somewhat manic.

Laurie’s mother is focused on Charles’s behavior, and Laurie’s comments about him.  She does not notice her own son and what he is doing in front of her own eyes.  In the meantime, her own husband is absent while being right there too.  He just doesn’t seem aware of his son or care what he is doing.  He finally asks Laurie about Charles.

“What are they going to do about Charles, do you suppose?”  Laurie’s father asked him.

Laurie shrugged elaborately. “Throw him out of school, I guess,” he said.

He may be displaying some presence of mind here, aware that Laurie actually is Charles.  Whether he is or is not, he is at least bringing the concept of consequences home to Laurie.  Nonetheless, he manages to get worse and worse, convincing a little girl to swear and telling his father what word she said.

“What word?” his father asked unwisely, and Laurie said, “I’ll have to whisper it to you, it’s so bad.” He got down off his chair and went around to his father.  His father bent his head down and Laurie whispered joyfully.

His father is definitely gullible.  Both of his parents are naïve and just a little too trusting.  This is why the Charles thing goes on way too long.  When Laurie’s mother goes to the PTA meeting and finds out about her son’s true character, they really should have known all along.  All of the warning signs were there.

The focus of this story is usually on the mother, but when you shift to look at the father, you notice that the mother is a little overwhelmed.  Both parents are gullible about Charles, but the father in particular seems to be manipulated by his son and his son's particular plaything.  The relationship between father and son actually goes a long way to explain Laurie's behavior.

Parents always want to believe what's best of their children.  You never imagine that your child is the one who is causing the trouble, or having the bad reputation.  One way or another, it is the parents who influence their child's behavior. 

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In the story "Charles," what are Laurie's feelings about Charles' behavior?

In Shirley Jackson's 1948 short story, "Charles," the main character Laurie is proud of the fictional Charles's behavior. 

Laurie invents the character of Charles on his first day of kindergarten. He comes home slamming the door, leaving his hat on the floor, and shouting. He spills his baby sister's milk at lunch and speaks disrespectfully to his father. When prompted, he tells his father he didn't learn "nothing" in school. Then he tells the tale of a boy being spanked for being fresh. In the quote below, one can see Laurie's enjoyment in telling the tales of Charles's insolent behavior at school. 

"The next day Laurie remarked at lunch, as soon as he sat down, “Well, Charles was bad again today.” He grinned enormously and said, “Today Charles hit the teacher.” 

The fact that he grins enormously while he tells of the heinous deeds shows that he is proud either of his actions, or of the deceptive tale he has weaved, or both. 

The next incidence of Charles' bad behavior is ironic. Consider the passage below: 

"On Monday Laurie came home late, full of news. “Charles,” he shouted as he came up the hill; I was waiting anxiously on the front steps. “Charles,” Laurie yelled all the way up the hill, “Charles was bad again.” “Come right in,” I said, as soon as he came close enough. “Lunch is waiting.” “You know what Charles did?” he demanded, following me through the door. “Charles yelled so in school they sent a boy in from first grade to tell the teacher she had to make Charles keep quiet, and so Charles had to stay after school. And so all the children stayed to watch him.”

Ironically, Laurie is reporting Charles' actions which mirror his own, as he has throughout the story, and yet his parents still don't make the connection that Charles and Laurie are one in the same. In the quote above, Laurie is late and he is shouting all the way down the street. He explains his lateness by telling his mother that all the students stayed after to watch Charles. Charles had to stay after for shouting. It is apparent that Charles was not raised to believe shouting was acceptable. His mother models more polite behavior by not answering his shouts until he comes close enough to speak at an appropriate level. 

In the following quote, Laurie offers what could be a clue to the motivation behind Charles's actions: 

“What are they going to do about Charles, do you suppose?” Laurie’s father asked him. Laurie shrugged elaborately. “Throw him out of school, I guess,” he said."

One could make a reasonable inference that Laurie didn't like school, and acted out in such a way as to get himself expelled.  

It is interesting to consider Laurie's physical description of Charles. When his mother asks him what Charles looks like, this is his response:

 “He’s bigger than me,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t ever wear a jacket.”

Considering Laurie's insolent behavior around his home, and his outlandish behavior at school, one could infer that he is a strong willed child. When he describes Charles, he says he is bigger than Laurie. It's possible Laurie wishes he was bigger. He also says he doesn't have any rubber boots and doesn't ever wear a jacket, which would be a concern for the child's welfare from an adult perspective. From Laurie's perspective, it's more likely that he doesn't like wearing jackets and rubber boots and so he includes this dislike in his fictional character. 

More evidence for the assertion that Laurie is proud of Charles's behavior is found in the following quote when "Charles" told a girl to say an obscene word at school and she complied: 

“What word?” his father asked unwisely, and Laurie said, “I’ll have to whisper it to you, it’s so bad.” He got down off his chair and went around to his father. His father bent his head down and Laurie whispered joyfully. His father’s eyes widened. “Did Charles tell the little girl to say that?"

The fact that Laurie whispers this word joyfully provides evidence that he is proud of the behavior, or at least that he is enjoying the reactions he is getting from his invented character's escapades. 

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What are three character traits that describe Laurie in Shirley Jackson's "Charles"?

Laurie is violent.  Many of the things he is described as doing seem to be incredibly violent for a kindergartener.  Laurie does not seem to care that he is hurting others, but he seems to want to tell his parents about it.  If they realized what he was doing, they would be shocked.

Quote 1

The next day Laurie remarked at lunch, as soon as he sat down, “Well, Charles was bad again today.” He grinned enormously and said, “Today Charles hit the teacher.”

This shows that Laurie is violent because he hit his teacher, and does not seem to care that he got spanked for it.  He says he hit her because “she tried to make him color with red crayons.”

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The third day—it was Wednesday of the first week—Charles bounced a see-saw on to the head of a little girl and made her bleed, and the teacher made him stay inside all during recess.

The fact that a little boy would hit a little girl with a see-saw is terrible.  I can’t imagine being Laurie’s teacher!

Laurie is defiant.  A lot of Laurie’s misbehavior is just defiant.  He refuses to do what he has been told do to, and he does things that he knows he should not do.  This is attention-seeking behavior.

Quote 1

“You know what Charles did?” he demanded, following me through the door. “Charles yelled so in school they sent a boy in from first grade to tell the teacher she had to make Charles keep quiet, and so Charles had to stay after school. And so all the children stayed to watch him.”

This quote shows that Laurie is defiant because he yelled and didn’t listen to the teacher.  He also does not seem to care about being held after school.  He probably made up the story of everyone staying to explain why he was late.

Quote 2

Laurie describes his reaction to the teacher’s “friend,” who came to show the class exercises.

“Charles didn’t even do exercises.”

“That’s fine,” I said heartily. “Didn’t Charles want to do exercises?”

“Naaah,” Laurie said. “Charles was so fresh to the teacher’s friend he wasn’t let do exercises.”

This quote demonstrates that Laurie would not even listen to other people who came into class. He was also violent again, kicking the man who tried to make him exercise.

Laurie is inventive.  After all, Charles is not real.  Laurie made him up to cover up his behavior. He wanted to tell his parents that he was getting in trouble at school, but did not want to own up to it.  He invented Charles so he could talk about what happened in a safe way.

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Laurie makes up a description of Charles.

“He’s bigger than me,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t ever wear a jacket.”

Charles is even defiant in the description!  He doesn’t have rubbers or a jacket, like Laurie probably does.

Quote 2

Laurie’s mother asks the teacher about Charles.

“Yes,” I said, laughing, “you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles.” “Charles?” she said.

“We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

This is where we find out, along with Laurie’s mother, that Charles doesn’t exist.  Laurie made him up.  It is obvious from the teacher’s reaction to Laurie’s mother that the behaviors are real, but it was Laurie and not Charles who was doing them.  Laurie's teacher says he had trouble adjusting to kindergarten.

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What differences between Laurie and Charles are listed in "Charles"?

Laurie describes Charles as how he wants to see himself.

When Laurie goes to kindergarten, he comes home every day talking about a bad boy named Charles who gets in all kinds of trouble.  His parents are concerned, but decide that he might as well meet people like Charles now.

One day his mother asks him what Charles looks like and what his last name is.  Laurie evades the last name question, but answers the first.

“He’s bigger than me,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t wear a jacket.”

Clothes are important to Laurie. They are a symbol of maturity,  This is why he describes the clothes Charles wears and nothing else.

 Of course, Laurie can’t really answer questions about Charles because he does not exist.  Charles is Laurie’s alter-ego.  He is the little boy that Laurie made up so he could tell his parents all the bad things he had done, without them realizing it was him.
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Why might Laurie invent Charles in "Charles"?

Laurie invented Charles because he is immature and unable to handle the socialization of kindergarten.

Young children often want to tell their parents things, but are not sure how to tell them.  So they invent things.  Charles was Laurie’s way of telling his parents what he did in kindergarten without actually telling them.  Every day, Laurie could come home and tell his parents what he did without actually facing consequences.

We know that Laurie was an immature child, not actually very good at inhibition.  He also really liked to shock his parents.  A good example of this is when he told his father the story of the bad word “Charles” made the little girl say.

“What word?” his father asked unwisely, and Laurie said, “I’ll have to whisper it to you, it’s so bad.” He got down off his chair and went around to his father. His father bent his head down and Laurie whispered joyfully. His father’s eyes widened.

Laurie seems to enjoy shocking his father.  He gets to get the girl in trouble, get in trouble in school, and say a bad word to his father, all without consequences.

Charles is really a cry for help.  Laurie is floundering in kindergarten.  He is unable to socialize to meet the rules and regulations that the school expects of him and behave the way a civilized person should.  School is basically all about socialization, especially kindergarten.  Laurie is failing.  His parents have never taught him manners.

At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

Yet as kindergarten goes on, Laurie seems to get a little better.  His teacher comments that he “had a little trouble adjusting” but is doing better with “occasional lapses.”  His mother, of course, is clueless.  She still has no idea that Laurie is Charles.  Talking about "Charles" helps Laurie cope, and is one of the reasons he is getting better.

Invention is normal for a child, and invention is a coping strategy.  When children invent stories, sometimes the reason why can be a window into what is really going on in their lives.  In this case, Charles is Laurie's alter ego, and an expression of his true self.  Inventing him makes it easier for him to adjust to kindergarten, and helps him share what he is going through with his parents.

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