'Charles' by Shirley Jackson: Introduction
'Charles' is a compelling short story written by American author Shirley Jackson, who lived from 1916 to 1965. The story was first published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1948 and later included in her 1949 collection titled The Lottery and Other Stories. In 'Charles,' Jackson explores the transformation of a young boy as he starts kindergarten and begins to exhibit troublesome behaviors, attributing them to another student named Charles.
'Charles': Plot Summary
The story is narrated from the perspective of a mother who notices changes in her son Laurie's behavior when he starts attending kindergarten. As Laurie embarks on this new phase of his life, he adopts different clothing styles and forgets to wave goodbye to his mother when he reaches the end of the street.
Rude Behavior and the Influence of Charles
Following his first day at school, Laurie displays rudeness at the dinner table. Concerned, the narrator reprimands him, and Laurie explains that another boy named Charles was rude to the teacher and received a spanking as punishment. The next day, during lunch, Laurie continues sharing stories about Charles misbehaving, including incidents where he struck the teacher. This pattern of disruptive behavior persists throughout the week, leading the narrator to question the influence of Charles on their son. However, the parents convince themselves that everything will be fine.
Escalating Troubles and Charles' Behavior
In the subsequent week, Laurie informs his family that Charles misbehaved again and received detention, resulting in the entire class having to stay behind. Charles's disruptive behavior continues when he kicks a friend of the teacher who enters the classroom to demonstrate exercises. As a result, the family adopts the name 'Charles' as a reference to any family member who engages in naughty behavior.
Reformation and Revelation
Surprisingly, Charles appears to reform his behavior and even becomes the teacher's helper in the following weeks. However, his reformation is short-lived. Laurie eventually comes home and tells his parents that Charles got into trouble for persuading a classmate to say a rude word to the teacher. Troubled by Charles's behavior, the narrator resolves to find his mother during a parent-teacher meeting in order to understand what is happening with her son.
The Revelation and Final Twist
During the meeting, the narrator is unable to identify any woman who could be Charles's mother. When she speaks with Laurie's kindergarten teacher, she discovers that there is no child named Charles in the class. Shockingly, the behaviors Laurie had attributed to Charles were actually his own.
This revelation forces readers to reconsider the nature of Laurie's behavior and raises questions about perception, self-awareness, and the complexity of childhood development.
'Charles' by Shirley Jackson: Analysis
Shirley Jackson's mastery lies in her ability to transform domestic situations into unsettling and uncanny experiences. In 'Charles,' she introduces an ambiguity that leaves readers questioning the true nature of events, blurring the line between reality and imagination.
One interpretation of the story is that 'Charles' is merely an invented alter ego of Laurie's, created to explain his own misbehavior and punishment at school. Children often invent imaginary friends as a way to express their inner impulses or protect themselves from admitting their own wrongdoing. This rational explanation aligns with Laurie's invented persona.
However, Jackson cleverly inserts moments of uncertainty throughout the story, planting seeds of doubt in the reader's mind. For example, Laurie describes Charles as "bigger than me" when asked about his appearance. This detail raises questions about Charles's nature—whether he is a projection of Laurie's desires or an actual supernatural entity, such as a ghost or spiritual companion.
Similarly, Laurie's parents' lack of reaction to Charles never wearing a jacket adds to the ambiguity. If Charles is merely Laurie's invention, the absence of concern seems odd. This detail suggests that Charles is conceived as distinct in Laurie's perception, even if he lacks a tangible reality.
While the rational and supernatural interpretations are two possibilities, there is a third option to consider. In rare instances, children can become so deeply immersed in their fantasies of imaginary friends that the boundaries between reality and play blur, resulting in hallucinations or delusions. It is possible that Charles exists in Laurie's mind as a vivid but unreal presence.
What makes 'Charles' a brilliantly constructed story is Jackson's ability to provide enough details to support multiple interpretations without definitively confirming any one explanation. This ambiguity leaves readers questioning the true nature of Laurie's behavior and the existence of Charles.