Charles By Shirley Jackson Essays

The short story "Charles", by Shirley Jackson, has two prevalent themes: identity and gender.

The theme of identity is identified by the fact that Laurie's mother has no clue that the child, Charles, her son is talking about is, in fact, her own son. The theme is compounded by the way that Laurie's parents fail to see his behavior as inappropriate, but they both see the problems with the behaviors of Charles. The parents cannot identify the behaviors of Charles with those of their own son. Therefore, the parents have no clue who their child really is.

Another way to examine this theme is through examining Laurie. He does not seem to have a full grasp on his own identity (not surprising given he is only in Kindergarten).

The second theme defined in the story is one of gender. Many people would align the name of Laurie with a girl. The name Laurie is not typically associated with that of a boy. The name which Laurie uses as his alternate ego is, by far, much more masculine. Therefore, one could justify that Laurie has issues with his own assumed feminine identity and needs to create a more masculine one. He does this by creating Charles, a boy who speaks inappropriately and behaves like the "typical boy."

The narrator tells the story of Laurie’s first month at kindergarten. Laurie comes home each day to report on the doings of a fellow student, Charles, who behaves in an extraordinary manner. For the first two weeks, Charles is spanked or otherwise punished almost daily for being “fresh,” for hitting or kicking the teachers, for injuring fellow students, and for a host of proscribed activities. Charles proves so interesting to the kindergarten class that whenever he is punished, all the students watch him; whenever he stays after school, all the students stay with him.

As a result of this behavior, Charles becomes an institution at the Hyman house. Whenever anyone does anything bad, inconsiderate, or clumsy, he or she is compared to Charles. During the third week, however, Charles undergoes a conversion. For several days, he becomes a model student, the teacher’s helper. Reports of this transformation astonish the Hyman household. Then, Charles seems to return to normal, first persuading a girl to say a terrible word twice, for which her mouth is washed out with soap. The next day, Charles himself says the word several times and receives several washings.

When the day of the monthly Parent Teacher Association meeting arrives, Laurie’s mother is anxious to go and to meet the mother of the remarkable Charles. At the meeting, she learns from Laurie’s teacher not only that Laurie has had some difficulty adjusting to kindergarten, but also that there is no student named Charles in his class.

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