After my first post about The Handmaid’s Tale, I wanted to move on to a book that was more grounded in reality. Ever since they made a film adaptation for Perks of Being a Wallflower, I’ve wanted to read the book. This is a natural habit I have about books/movies which also explains why I haven’t gotten around to seeing the Lord of the Rings movies (please hold surprised outbursts for later).
I borrowed the novel by Stephen Chbosky from a friend a few months back and could not write on the margins or highlight as I please. But I’m just a good friend like that!
Similar to Handmaid’s Tale, Perks is a first person narration where the reader is presented the narrator’s direct perspective of the world around him or her. Another similarity is that each narrator’s true identity is hidden because Charlie writes on the first page that names have been changed so his identity could not be discovered.
Chbosky frames each chapter as a letter written directly to the reader as Charlie is coming of age and transitioning into high school. I feared that I would be too disconnected from the narrator’s experience at my old age of 27. But I was very wrong.
I began this book on a Tuesday and finished the following evening and was disappointed on Thursday during lunch because I did not have a book to read in the lunchroom (nearly forcing me to be social in the workplace). Although a fast read, I was very impressed by the book and found myself very invested to the plot and the characters.
The character/narrator Charlie is a breath of fresh air because he seems to lack prejudice and preconceived notions about the world. At moments, he thinks things like “I look at people holding hands in the hallways, and I try to think about how it all works. At the school dances, I sit in the background, and I tap my toe, and I wonder how many couples will dance to ‘their song.’ In the hallways, I see the girls wearing the guys’ jackets, and I think about the idea of property. And I wonder if anyone is really happy. I hope they are. I really hope they are” (23-4).
When Charlies writes that he really hopes they are happy, the reader cannot question his sincerity. He seems to lack ill intent, the ability to be sarcastic, or his hidden identity creates a trust in his honestly. Why would he lie?
Other times, the reader is treated to the woes of adolescence and the confusing nature of it. Charlie describes moments in life where he seems to be going in circle:
...my sister was very quiet and moody. I tried to talk to her, but she just told me to shut up and leave her alone. So, I watched the show for a few minutes, but it made even less sense to me than the book, so I decided to do my math homework, which was a mistake because math has never made any sense to me... So, I tried to help my mother in the kitchen, but I dropped the casserole, so she told me to read in my room until my father came home, but reading is what started this whole mess in the first place. Luckily, my father came home before I could pick up the book again... but I couldn’t stop asking him questions... So, he told me to go watch television with my sister, which I did, but she told me to go help my mother in the kitchen, which I did, but then she told me to go read in my room. Which I did... (108)
I was shocked to see how often Perks of Being a Wallflower is challenged in school districts and communities throughout the United States (Marshall University). The book is narrated by a 15-year old boy transitioning in High School, so personally, had the book not contained sexual themes and content, I would have been disappointed and labeled it as unrealistic.
But of course that is why it is challenged so often. The themes of sexuality are not basic or presented in one dimensional way. Instead it presents both sexuality and identity as a complex and ever-evolving process. The narrator who does not question his own heterosexuality kisses a male friend and feels both secure and calm about that action. That same male friend deals with a secret homosexual relationship with the football quarterback of their high school.
The narrator passes no judgment on his friend’s sexuality, and I have to wonder, would Perks have been challenged so much if the narrator reacted negatively to homosexuality? Condemned or fear his behavior or the kiss with his male friend?
The fact that Perks of Being a Wallflower is challenged as a young adult book isn’t really too surprising. Most conservative thinkers believe that the way to handle young adult sexuality is through repression and silence. Perks describes exactly why that method does not work.
The novel accurately describes the confusion around ideas like rape, abortion, and sexuality with a narrator that lacks a political agenda. It becomes apparent that there is a disconnect between Charlie and the adults in his life. The young adults have bonded together to help each other wade through their issues. Charlie and his sister bond over her experience getting an abortion even though Charlie is clueless how to react and speak to his sister in the situation.
The real tragedy of the novel is the cycle of silence and denial. The novel opens with the tragedy of Charlie learning about his friend’s suicide. Without any real explanation, Charlie is left questioning why. At the end of the novel, Charlie discovers his own tragedy of sexual abuse by an Aunt who passed away while Charlie was still young.
The revelation at the end of the novel changes the meaning of Charlie’s early entries. He writes, “My Aunt Helen lived with the family for the last few years of her life because something very bad happened to her. Nobody would tell me what happened then even though I always wanted to know. When I was around seven, I stopped asking about it because I kept asking like kids always do and my Aunt Helen started crying very hard” (5).
It isn’t revealed until later that Charlie’s Aunt Helen was sexually abused as a child and then later abused as a married woman and then struggled with drugs and alcohol. First, it is scary that the silence of his Aunt’s abuse becomes the silence of his own abuse. Silence allows the cycle to repeat itself and create new victims.
But what is really revealing about the novel is that Charlie participates in the silence as well. While he represses the abuse and is not conscious of it himself, he avoids revealing too many details to his reader early on about his aunt and her abuse. His first mention of his Aunt describes how his mother later tells him the “very bad” thing that happened to her. Charlie begins to unconsciously mimic the behavior that silences the truth about tragedy.
To add a third dimension to the silence, the novel itself was challenged in numerous libraries and school reading lists. I wonder if those challenging the novel itself realize how they contribute to the cycle of silence in these respects. Thankfully, Charlie’s story is still here and available.
Charlie is the perfect narrator: trustworthy, open-minded, and down right honest with his reader. However, Charlie’s story requires a readership that is equally open-minded to his experiences. This does not mean that his readers are that much more impressionable (making the book a dangerous influence on young minds, insert sarcastic tone and eye roll).
What this book needs is readers that share his confusion about their identity and relationship to the modern world. As someone who probably overthinks sociological problems like me, there is no age limit on it.
I find that this book would make a great companion to any young adult or teenager growing up in our modern world. If the schools won’t address sexuality with the same honesty and lack of agenda, then I will definitely have my children reading this book as they grow in teenagers and young adults.