I recently finished reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I was first interested in the novel when a student had mentioned it was the only book she read that she enjoyed. I was also taking a graduate course in which I had to choose a commonly challenged book (challenged by parents, administrators, and all those that oppose student exploration) and present to the school board my stance on the novel’s place within the school system.
I started my reading on the train and instantly became entranced. I have really mastered blocking everyone out while I read in public (the PATH and NYC subway system is a great place to practice this talent). The protagonist, “Charlie,” is writing to someone he doesn’t know and changes all of the names in the letters for privacy reasons, even his own. The novel is a series of these letters written throughout his freshman year in high school. Each one captures moments of his life that cause him to turn to pen and paper to figure them all out.
While he seems to begin the novel as an outsider with few friends, he is quickly befriended by two seniors, Patrick and his step-sister, Sam. Through this friendship Charlie is able to explore his place in life, love, and family with a poignant sense of self and those around him. While observing life, rather than participating, Charlie explores the issues of depression, suicide, drug abuse, and child molestation. Even though each of these issues are serious, Charlie doesn’t glorify them. Chbosky was interviewed about the controversy around his book in which he argued, “If we didn’t talk about sex and we didn’t talk about drugs, and all these other things that impact teenagers’ lives, literature would still reach teenagers. But the ones having problems in these areas would be totally left in the dark, and would unfortunately be more ignorant. I would think for parents, with the way that society is now, that they would prefer some of these issues to be discussed in a much more structured setting, as opposed to keeping them in the dark. The more you talk about it, the more you take away its power and its mystery, and people can make much more informed and mature decisions about these things” (Marty Beckerman, Full Interview). Chbosky highlights the heavy issues as a way in which to get adolescents to speak about troubles they encounter.
Along with the controversial topics there are a numerous positive influences in the story. Charlie advocates reading and promotes writing, which from an English Educator’s perspective couldn’t be more exciting. Weaved within the letters are the books Charlie is reading and connecting to his life experiences. A few examples of the stories he refers to are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, and This Side of Paradise. He also calls attention to how his writing is changing just by fluently reading and writing. Along with his promotion of reading and writing, Perks of Being a Wallflower also provides a positive role model, Bill, his English teacher. Bill takes an interest in Charlie and his inability to participate in life. Charlie also comes to Bill with relationship questions in which Bill responds, “We accept the love we think we deserve” (24). Not only does Bill support Charlie academically, he gives Charlie life lessons that the reader inherits as well.
It is impossible not to connect with Charlie, because his words are speaking directly to “you” through the use of his letters. His character provides a shared experience that relates to all ages. Along with the range of books he reads, he also references music and television from the 1960s through the 1990s making it possible for all readers to have something to hold onto. Charlie writes, “I guess what I’m saying is that this all feels very familiar… And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity’” (95-96). We read the same books, listen to the same music, and watch the same television shows; therefore, he partakes in the shared experiences of our common culture. As such, his narrative fits into the framework of many young readers.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV Books, 1999.
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