Analysis of “Charles” by Shirley Jackson: Summary & Theme

“The Lottery” is Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, but “Charles” might be the second best known. It’s frequently anthologized and popular for its ending. It tells the story of a young boy who regales his parents with tales of Charles, a boy from school who’s always in trouble.

Summary of “Charles”

Laurie has just started kindergarten. He comes home for lunch, slamming the door and throwing his cap on the floor. He’s rude to his father and spills his younger sister’s milk.

His mother asks about school. The teacher spanked a boy named Charles, for being fresh. Laurie doesn’t get any more specific than that, and leaves the table while his parents are talking to him.

The next day, Laurie comes home with more stories of Charles’s misbehavior. He hit the teacher and was spanked again. The other kids all played with Charles.

On the third day, Wednesday, Charles hurts a little girl. On Thursday, he pounds his feet on the floor, and on Friday, he throws chalk. Laurie’s mother is concerned that kindergarten is unsettling for him, and that Charles, in particular, is a bad influence. His father thinks things will be fine.

On Monday, Laurie comes home late and excitedly tells his parents that Charles was given detention for yelling. All the kids stayed behind with him. That night is the first Parent-Teacher meeting, but Laurie’s mother can’t go because the baby is sick. She really wanted to meet Charles’s mother.

On Tuesday, a man came to class to run the students through some exercises. Charles refused to participate and kicked him. He’s involved in further incidents on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday he gets held back after school, and the other kids stay with him again.

Charles becomes an institution in their home. Whenever someone does something wrong, they call it “Being a Charles.”

On the third and fourth weeks of school, Charles seems to reform. He becomes the teacher’s helper, and doesn’t get any more detention. Another Parent-Teacher meeting is coming up, and Laurie’s parents want to talk to Charles’s mother.

On Friday, Charles told a classmate to say a bad word. She did and had her mouth washed out with soap. On Monday, Charles says the bad word himself and gets the same punishment. The meeting is tonight.

Laurie’s mother goes and looks distractedly at the other mothers. She can’t identify Charles’s mother, and is surprised that no one even mentions him.

After the meeting, she finds Laurie’s kindergarten teacher. She says Laurie had some trouble adjusting but has made significant improvement, albeit with occasional lapses. His mother says Charles’s influence is probably to blame, and she must have her hands full dealing with him. The teacher says there is no Charles in the class.

Theme: Identity

Laurie has three identities in the story:

  • who his parents think he is,
  • who he thinks he is,
  • and who he really is.

Laurie’s parents think he’s a good boy who’s recent behavior (he’s now a “swaggering character”, rude and loud) is the result of Charles’s bad influence. His father ironically contrasts Laurie with Charles, saying “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.”

Laurie thinks of himself as more independent and grown-up than he really is, by exaggerating what he does in the character of Charles.

Laurie actually seems to be a disrespectful and unpleasant boy, but probably not outside the range of what’s normal, at least for a time. He’s neither as good as his parents think, nor as bad as he would like to be.

At the story’s end, when Laurie’s parents know what he’s been doing, they’ll be able to address it. They’ll have the chance to help him as he further refines his identity. Being that he’s only in kindergarten, there’s no reason to think that Laurie’s identity is set. This is simply one of the many phases he’ll go through.

What hints are we given that Charles is actually Laurie?

There are many things about Laurie that foreshadow Charles’s identity:

  • Laurie is ill-mannered, inconsiderate and loud: “He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous. . .”
  • He walks away rudely while his parents are speaking to him. He also belittles his father more than once.
  • He comes home late when Charles is held after school.
  • He fills a wagon with mud and pulls it through the kitchen.

Charles also isn’t mentioned at all at the P.T.A. meeting.

Does Laurie do all the things that he credits to Charles?

I don’t think so. Charles seems to be a hero-figure alter-ego for Laurie. He describes him as “. . . bigger than me. And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t ever wear a jacket.”

The teacher acknowledges that Laurie had a rough adjustment and still relapses. So, there’s no doubt he’s been misbehaving, but probably not to the extent that Charles has. For example, it seems likely Laurie’s parents would have been contacted if he had been in trouble for hitting his teachers and classmates. Laurie probably exaggerated Charles’s misdeeds to the things he wished he could do.

Why is Laurie misbehaving so badly?

Starting kindergarten is a turning point for Laurie. He stops dressing like a little boy, in “overalls with bibs”, and starts wearing “blue jeans with a belt.” He feels more grown-up (he doesn’t wave good-bye to his mother anymore). Along with this comes his misbehavior, possibly as a way of saying no one tells him what to do.

Another strong possibility is that Laurie is acting out and seeking attention from his parents, because there’s a baby in the family now. This would explain why Laurie loves talking about Charles. His parents are very interested in hearing about him. Their reaction to Charles could make Laurie feel important.

Example of Irony

One of the most satisfying bits of irony in the story is how curious Laurie’s parents are about Charles’s mother. They both really want to meet her. Ironically, Laurie’s father has met her—he’s married to her—and his mother is her. They thought meeting this woman would explain something about Charles’s behavior, but they don’t seem to see any link between their own parenting and Laurie’s behavior.