The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999, during the time that major pop culture movements were taking place. The story refers to various pop culture references like rock bands and the cult classic, Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, part of the counterculture movement was the music and revived interest in punk and alternative rock. Many bands seen in the movement were referenced in the book, such as the Beatles and the Smiths. One of the main things that the characters and Charlie bonded over was their shared love and interest in the music that was making a movement in society at the same time.
Biographical Information about the Author
Stephen Chbosky was born on January 25, 1970 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Upper St. Clair, which is a suburb in Pittsburgh where he lived before going to study screenwriting at the University of South Carolina in 1995. The suburb that Chbosky grew up in was much like the setting he wrote about in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Chbosky graduated from the university around the same time he met Stewart Stern, the screenwriter for 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. Stern became a mentor for Chbosky and influenced his career significantly. This is similar with the relationship seen in The Perks of Being a Wallflower between Charlie and his teacher Mr. Anderson, who knows that Charlie is troubled and very intelligent, acting as a mentor for him by giving him extra books to read and being there to answer the questions Charlie finds himself asking about high school experiences.
Chbosky had written the line, ‘I guess that’s one of the perks of being a wallflower,” and he knew that it was the perfect line for a story that he could write. It was a while before he started to write the book, only realizing it was time to start when he was going through a hard time and needed something that would give him hope. Chbosky said that during that tough time it was as if Charlie had tapped him on the shoulder and said, “it’s time.”
Characteristics of the Genre
Bildungsroman: The main character, Charlie, faces many difficulties being a troubled kid entering high school for the first time and growing up through all these new experiences. Charlie finds himself making new friends, trying out relationships for the first time, and even experimenting with drugs at parties. The story shows Charlie growing up as he socializes and allows himself to blossom into someone more mature by the end. Instead of being this withdrawn individual just watching life from the sides, he becomes more involved with his own life and even faces the darkness within himself that he’s been ignoring for years.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows Charlie, who is entering high school as a freshman and portrays the character of a wallflower. While he is quiet and withdrawn, he is also shown to be thoughtful and observant of the things going on around him as he navigates through high school. When trying to deal with two traumatic losses of loved ones in the past, Charlie is met with two sources of acceptance when he starts school.
One was his english teacher, Mr. Anderson, who notices his talent for literature and takes him under his wing. The other was Charlie’s two new friends Patrick and Sam who bring him into their friend group and introduces him to many first experiences. Over time, Charlie begins to come out of shell and “participate” more in social events with his newfound friends.
The holidays bring about a tough time for Charlie, who lost his Aunt Helen on Christmas Eve when she went to get his birthday present and died in a car crash. Despite having friends now, this year was no exception as Charlie continues to deal with his depression during the holidays and seeing flashbacks of his aunt. However, despite being a tough time, Charlie finds that the acceptance from his friend group has helped with him finding peace with himself.
Towards the end of the year Charlie finds it harder to deal with the idea of all his friends inevitably leaving to go to college, especially Sam and Patrick. It isn’t until now that Charlie fully comes to terms with the loss of loved ones, especially Aunt Helen, and his new relationships with his friends, particularly his crush on Sam. Charlie has learned to deal with memories he’s tried to suppress and how to deal with the depression and finally start to truly participate in life rather than watching from the sidelines.
“Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve.” (24)
This quote is seen being told to Charlie by his english teacher, Mr. Anderson. It was one of the first time that Charlie had gone to him seeking advice about not understanding why good people choose bad people to date. Charlie was going through one of his first loves, he was growing up and having to deal with the rejection of his first love not returning the feelings. The significance of this marks one of the moments where Charlie is seen to mature and even foreshadows later on when he finally learns to give and receive true love.
“You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” (37)
Patrick says this to Charlie during one of the first parties that he attends as a high school student. This is the moment that connects to the title and how Charlie plays that role of being the wallflower and always seeing things from the sidelines. His new group of friends had raised their glasses to him, a significant moment of acceptance and friendship that resonates with Charlie and encourages him to continue participating in life and being a source of hope for happiness.
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” (39)
In regards to the theme, this quote signifies the way Charlie, Sam, and Patrick felt together as they drove through the tunnel at night. It was a moment that Charlie had again matured and made friends who were accepting and happy to have him around despite his troubled nature that they soon discover. Charlie has come to realize that participating in life means more than just being in the center of events, but to make real connections with other people and confront one’s own raw emotions, to live in the moment and feel infinite.
“The only person I would have to talk to would be my psychiatrist, and I don’t like the idea of that right now because he keeps asking me questions about when I was younger, and they’re starting to get weird.” (173)
This is significant because it is the first glimpse of knowing what Aunt Helen really did to Charlie when he was younger. As a shy and quiet boy, Charlie never fully acknowledged what happened to him and almost pretended like it never did, so when his psychiatrist started asking questions about it he would feel weird and not understand. The suppression of these memories is part of Charlie growing up into an adult and finally acknowledging what his aunt did to him and no longer trying to ignore it.
“All I cared about was the fact that Sam, got really hurt. And I guess I realized at that moment that I really did love her. Because there was nothing to gain, and that didn’t matter.” (179)
Charlie had finally realized his love for Sam after he learned that Craig had been cheating on her the entire time they were together. It was another one of his first experiences, his first true love and seeing someone he cares about have their heart broken. By now at the end of the story, Charlie had greatly matured and didn’t see Sam being heartbroken as a chance for him to gain anything or become her new boyfriend. He only cared for her as a best friend and knew that since he really loved her, he only wanted her to be happy and would be happy himself with whatever that was.
“Everything was in slow motion. The sound was thick. And she was doing what Sam was doing.” (204)
This is a significant turning point where Charlie finally acknowledges and admits to himself what his Aunt Helen had done to him. It was when Sam, someone he loved, touched him in a way that triggered the memories of his aunt touching him the same way. He knew it wasn’t just a dream or imagination and that the abuse he felt when he was younger was real. As soon as he discovers this, his previous feelings and emotions start to make sense from earlier in the story. Once he starts to become more intimate with Sam, it’s then that he realizes the last time he was like this with someone he cared about it was with him aunt.
Charlie is the narrator of the novel, telling his experience as a freshman in high school through written letters to an unnamed “friend.” The story is told entirely through his perspective as the quiet, withdrawn, and intelligent student dealing with traumatic loss. Through his high school experience, Charlie develops new friendships and slowly comes out of his shell. However, it isn’t until the end of the story that he truly faces the conflict and faces the abuse he experienced as a child instead of suppressing those memories.
Patrick is a high school senior and soon becomes one of Charlie’s best friends. After Charlie befriends him at the football game, Patrick introduces him to his friends group. Patrick is seen as a happy, humorous, and care-free person who is one of the first to openly accept Charlie as he is, embodying the kind of acceptance he wants but doesn’t always get, since he’s gay.
Sam is also a senior who also becomes one of Charlie’s best friends, as well as the first girl he falls in love with. An important part of their relationship is the relatedness between the sexual abuse they both experienced when they were younger. As a friendly, independent, but sometimes reserved character, Sam played a positive role for Charlie by showing him how to not only receive love, but also give it. This helped with him maturing by the end of the novel.
Bill Anderson is Charlie’s english teachers and one form of acceptance that he first meets during his freshman year. Mr. Anderson acts as a mentor and friend to Charlie who gives him extra books to study because he can see how intelligent the student is. He also is a person that Charlie can go to to ask for advice about things he wouldn’t ask his friends, like dating and other high school experiences he encounters. Mr. Anderson is seen as understanding, kind, and encouraging towards Charlie in regards to his participation in life and academics.
Brad is a jock who used to play football with Charlie’s brother and is now a senior. In the story, Brad is a closeted gay kid who secretly hooks up with Patrick for a long time before getting caught by his dad. His role was significant because by hiding that he was gay, he publicly hurts Patrick and starts a fight in the cafeteria. This is one of the first times that Charlie stands up for one of his new friends by stopping Brad’s friends from beating Patrick up. Instead of always watching from the sidelines, Charlie has stepped in to defend someone he cares for. Brad is seen as ashamed, embarrassed, and almost arrogant as he plays this role of a handsome jock rather than being true to who he is because of the fear of not being accepted.
Mary Elizabeth is part of the friend group with Sam and Patrick, and became Charlie’s first girlfriend. As a highly opinionated, self-determined, and intelligent girl, she always had a lot to say about her own interest from different books to the punk magazines she likes. Charlie goes on his first date with her to a high school dance but ends up not knowing how to break up with her once things started not working out. With a one-sided relationship, this pulls Charlie through several more first experiences from dates to breaking up and then finally kissing Sam in front of Mary Elizabeth during a game of truth or dare.
Aunt Helen plays one of the most important characters despite being dead and never actually in the story besides from the times Charlie mentions her in his letters. Charlie always says that she was his favorite person and at the beginning, his love for her was evident. Throughout the story, it is become known how she didn’t have the best life, dating bad boyfriends and even being molested when she was younger.
She passed away during the holidays in a car crash on the way to get Charlie’s birthday gift and he sometimes blames himself for her being dead. It isn’t discovered until the end that Aunt Helen had taken advantage of Charlie when he was younger and even sexually abused him. Charlie had mistaken this abuse as love and affection and tried to suppress those bad memories over the years. Aunt Helen was damaged, troubled, and depressed due to her bad life and these characteristics can be seen in Charlie all because of the way she mistreated him.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes places in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and mainly takes place in school or at the various places around the town where Charlie and his best friends end up going, like the parties, clubs, or music store. The story consists of an entire school year, but mainly lingers around the holidays where the conflict arises. This setting is significant because the main purpose of the story is to show the journey of a normal kid growing up and dealing with troubles that are relatable to many teens that could read the book. The timing of having the story spend more time during the holidays is also important to the plot and seeing Charlie struggle with depression and the loss of a loved one during that time.
The time that the story was set was appropriate and may not have worked as well if it had been later than the 90s, due to the societal discrimination against sexual preferences which greatly related to part of the story’s plot. Brad’s character is a closeted gay who secretly hooks up with Patrick in private because he fears the lack of acceptance and judgmental views of others.
The setting also helps with the audience that Chbosky was intentionally writing for. By having the story set amongst teens in the high school years, that appeals to the readers who he was intending to read and relate or identify with the novel.
Significance of the Opening Scene
“So this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” (2)
The novel opens with a letter that Charlie is writing to an anonymous friend. The significance of this is how it foreshadows and builds the base of the rest of the plot to come. The main point seen throughout the novel is how Charlie navigates his way through high school and first experiences, and the quote shows this by him acknowledging how he needs to figure it all out as he grows up. Him also allowing the readers to know that he is both happy and sad, indicates that later on it will probably be revealed what has him troubled and upset which has a huge part in the conflict.
In regards to the closing scene, it relates by showing how he has been able to figure these things out with the help of the new friends he made and finally maturing enough to come to terms with himself and the sadness that plagued him.
Significance of the Closing Scene
“I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” (211)
The closing scene is Charlie, Patrick, and Sam once again riding through the tunnel and listening to the radio way too loud. Its significant because they were here once before feeling infinite and joyous with the wind in their hair, but this time Charlie stands in the back of the truck. By the end of the novel Charlie has matured and faced the darkness with himself, acknowledging the abuse he endured and no longer dwelling on the past. Now he has these good friends and family surrounding him and has taken control of his own life and happiness.
A major theme in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is celebrating inclusivity and accepting people for being themselves. Charlie is the main character that doesn’t have this type of acceptance until he meets Sam and Patrick who welcome him into their friendship and bring him along with them on social events and journeys through town.
Another theme would be the friendships made in someone’s life and the support they give during tough times. The novel references many music groups, like the Beatles, who even have a lyric that states, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Sam, Patrick, and Charlie bond over their interest in music and Charlie realized that it’s easier to deal with sadness and tough times when you have those friends beside you as support.
The major conflict in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is Charlie having to grow up and face himself and the darkness he holds within. Amongst the breakups, drugs, and heartbreak, Charlie’s biggest problem is himself since he acts based on whether or not someone would like or dislike what he did, rather than doing what he thinks is right. Charlie has lived his whole life doing what he thinks others would want and never putting himself first.
In the end, Charlie has to face himself and acknowledge what he’s been trying to hide for years in order fully mature and grow into a young adult that’s capable of living a healthy life. This involves admitting his feelings for Sam and actually acting on that love instead of assuming she wouldn’t want him to. It also mainly revolves around the secual abuse he dealt with when he was younger, and no longer trying to suppress those memories but actually try to get better now.
Importance of the Novel
This novel serves an important message to society and to teens who read the story and are able to identify with the characters and what they are going through. The troubles depicted in the novel are relatable and could help someone going through something similar and needing something as a source of hope or momentary happiness.
The book shows that everyone is kind of same and tells the journey of a coming-of-age character who has now seen love and pain, happiness and sadness. The novel explores the darker side of teens experiences with drugs, sex, and alcohol and other issues that weren’t part of mainstream discussion in society at the time of publication. That’s only another reason for the importance of people to know the message that Chbosky was sharing and being someone to talk about the issues other weren’t courageous enough to write about. Chbosky also touches on teenage pregnancy and mental health as problems in teenagers lives that may not be widely known, but still serious and demanding attention.
It’s important that this book continues to be read and shared in schools or libraries because of the intended audience being teens and the hopeful ending that would help many readers identify with it.