Tag Archive: Stephen Chbosky


One thing that I really enjoyed about THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is that was an easy read with some very philosophical thoughts.  At first, I questioned Charlie’s voice.  He’s only supposed to be fifteen years old and sometimes he comes off as so much younger.  For example, consider this exchange between Charlie and his gay friend Patrick after Charlie has eaten his first marijuana brownie at a party and caught Patrick kissing the high school quarterback.

Patrick then took me out of the room and closed the door.  He put his hands on both of my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye.

“Brad doesn’t want people to know.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s scared.”

“Why?”

“Because he is…wait…are you stoned?”

“They said I was downstairs.  Sam is making me a milkshake.”

Patrick tried to keep from laughing.

“Listen, Charlie.  Brad doesn’t want people to know.  I need you promise you won’t tell anyone.  This will be our little secret.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

When I read this, my mental image of Charlie became that of a ten or eleven year old.  The way Patrick speaks to him, calling the incident our little secret, making the sentences very simple, is the way one might speak to a confused child.  Charlie’s perceived youth and inexperience is further reinforced by the way that Sam tries to help Charlie through being stoned by getting him ice cream.

The age gap between Patrick and Charlie seems so vast.  But it isn’t really.  Charlie is fifteen and turns sixteen during the school year.  Patrick is a senior, making him seventeen or eighteen.  Two to three years difference and yet Patrick and most of his friends treat Sam like their babysitting a very precocious child.

At the same time, the whole book is told from Charlie’s point of view.  We know what he’s thinking and we know that he’s very capable of understanding things.  He seems to have a particular interest in the motivations of the people around him.  Consider this scene where Charlie is watching his grandfather as the family views a VCR tape of his older brother playing college football:

My grandfather was crying.

The kind of crying that is quiet and a secret.  The kind of crying that only I noticed.  I thought about him going into my mom’s room when she was little and hitting my mom and holding up her report card and saying her bad grades would never happen again.  And I think now that maybe he meant my older brother.  Or my sister.  Or me.  That he would make sure he was the last one to work in a mill.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I don’t know if it’s better to have your kids happy and not go to college.  I don’t know if it’s better to be close with your daughter or make sure she has a better life than you do.  I just don’t know.  I was quiet and I watched him.

So the writing style is very simple, right?  No crazy vocabulary.  No complex sentences.  In fact just about every other sentence is a fragment.  Simple words.  Short, clipped thoughts.  Huge, deep idea.

We could have a whole philosophical discussion on those two paragraphs alone!  And these sorts of conundrums and questions are peppered through the whole book.  These are some astute observations from someone who is at a time of life when so many thoughts are turned inward.  In fact, despite the way people treat him, Charlie seems to have the maturity of someone much older than sixteen.

This representation of Charlie’s interactions juxtaposed against his thoughts does something very interesting: without ever telling you that Charlie is a brilliant, innocent, unique teenager, you get that strong impression.  He brings out the protective nature of the people around him.  He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.  He empathizes.  Rather than putting Charlie in gifted classes and having adults talk about how smart he is, the reader experiences the reality of Charlie’s intelligence through the way he thinks about his friends and family.  This book was one of the most poignant examples of showing instead of telling that I’ve read in a long time.  And for this, I applaud Mr. Chbosky.

I hope you enjoyed this deconstruction.  If you read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, I hope you’ll let me know how you enjoyed it and if you got any insights that I didn’t think of.  Until Wednesday!

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I got it from freedigitalphotos.net.

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Like I mentioned in my last blog, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky has a plot that I’ve been having a lot of trouble dissecting.  It’s very similar to SPEAK, in the sense that it’s one year out of a teenager’s life.  In both books, the storyline encompasses their first year of high school. However, unlike SPEAK, PERKS doesn’t have a well-defined story question.  There isn’t that compelling sense that something bad (or good) is going to happen or a lingering aggravation that the author is withholding information to keep you reading.  There is a little ambiguity about some trauma in the main character’s past but it isn’t the driving force of the book.  The school year goes along the way that most school years do: punctuated by holidays and weekends.  As a writer that likes to analyze things, it’s MADDENING.  Why on earth did I keep reading this book?  Beyond that, why did I devour it in one four hour sitting?

I can only come up one idea: I kept reading this book was because it reminded me that people don’t always suck.

Charlie is a vulnerable little guy.  He’s gifted and he’s sensitive.  To me, that sounds like bully fodder waiting to happen.  When Charlie falls in with this older crowd that’s waaaay more experienced than he is, I was sure they would break him. Briefly I thought that was exactly where the story was headed.  But it wasn’t long before I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  He found friends–real friends.  The kind of people that Charlie might still know into his adulthood.  They took care of him and he, in his small way, took care of them.  It was beautiful.

Charlie is also very introspective.  He looks at what people are going through and relates that to the way they behave.  For instance, Charlie’s step-grandfather beat Charlie’s dad and aunt.  Charlie knows that’s the reason why his late Aunt dated men who liked to hurt her and why she drank too much.  He also knows that’s why his father is stern and unemotional.  Charlie doesn’t blame them for the way they act; he tried to understand them.

But, that isn’t a plot, is it?

So, after wrestling with this for a couple of days, I can’t figure out the plot.  Why does it work?  Why do I keep turning the pages?  It was beautiful writing.  It had round, compelling characters.  But the thread that holds this story together? I just don’t know.  It really feels much more like I had stumbled on to a shoebox full of letters and just happened to be reading them.

Perhaps it’s the voyeuristic pleasure that made me eat up this little morsel.  Maybe it’s the fact that I loved the characters and wanted to spend more time with them.  Maybe it’s just that a person’s life is interesting enough without explosions or vampires to keep this reader completely enthralled.  Whatever it was, this book was compelling and can’t put my finger on why.

I’m glad that next time I’m going to be looking at the writing style on Monday.  This book is deceptively easy to read.  The vocabulary and the sentence structure stay simple so that the ideas can be complex.  Until then!

That very cool photograph is by artist Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net.

One of the interesting things about THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is that I can’t really talk about any one character as a stand-alone entity without considering how they relate to others.  This hasn’t been true in most of the other books I’ve analyzed.  I believe that adolescence is a time that feels so solitary that crating loner characters is almost reflexive.  We see that in SPEAK, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, INDIGARA, TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, and even THE HUNGER GAMES to a point.  Not so in PERKS.

The main character is Charlie and since I described him a little in the last post, I’m going to talk about the secondary characters first.  Patrick is Charlie’s, closest friend.  I can give a list of descriptive that would give an image of the character: friendly, loyal, gay, outrageous, intellectual, and sensitive.  However, the character really becomes round and real when we watch him relate to others.  He’s a joker around his step-sister.  He’s a sensitive romantic around the high school quarterback.  He’s an over-the-top ham when he’s playing Frank-N-Furter from THE ROCKEY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (Which, if you’ve never seen live, I highly recommend).  Furthermore, when the guy Patrick’s in love with turns on him, he has a very realistic and very painful breakdown.  I don’t know about you, but these are emotions that are very familiar to me.  And it’s not just how Patrick reacts, but it’s also the way his personality seems to shift depending on who he’s around.

On the other hand, Sam, Patrick’s step-sister and Charlie’s crush, is a stronger character.  She’s consistent no matter who she is around.  Like Patrick, I could describe her in a few words: attractive, protective, tough, and loving.  But, yet again, the author best reveals Sam through her relationships with others.  She kisses Charlie because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him, even though they are not romantically involved.  She’s patient and honest with Charlie when he confesses his crush.  And when she feels that someone has been wronged–whether it’s Charlie being mistreated or Charlie doing the mistreating–she has the same outraged reaction.

Here’s something interesting: Charlie has a brother and a sister in this book and they aren’t given names.  They are solely defined by their relationships as “my brother” and “my sister”.  I usually don’t like gimmicky things like this but honestly, it’s so well done that I didn’t even notice until I did a re-read.

So that brings us to Charlie, who is like water: he fits whatever container he’s poured into.  His sister needs a shoulder to cry on?  Charlie can do that.  Sam just wants to be friends?  Charlie can do that.  Patrick needs someone to go to the gay hook-up site with him.  Charlie can do that.  The only character that notices is steadfast Sam who says at the end of the book:

You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of your own and think that counts as love.  You just can’t.  You have to do things.

She tells him to be active and the moment he does, he has a life-altering break-through.  He discovers that all of his strange little quirks–his uncontrolled crying, his obsession with gifts, and his unusual attitudes around sex–are a reaction to events from his past.  And the puzzle that is Charlie starts to make a whole lot more sense.  So much so, that it makes you want to read the book all over again.

Finally, it’s worth it to mention that this book is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Although it could have been set just about anywhere, there is one feature to Pittsburgh that Mr. Chboski used beautifully as a metaphor in the story.  As you travel to Pittsburgh from the north, it’s pretty bleak.  Then you come to the Fort Pitt Tunnels.  When you exit the tunnels, the city of Pittsburgh is right in front of you.  It’s like you’re in Oz; the world is suddenly in color again.  That’s like Charlie’s journey in this book.  It’s bleak until he bursts out of his own tunnel and then the world is in color again.  It’s pretty cool.

Clearly, I could go on and on (and on and on) about the characters in the book.  In fact I would like to because the plotting may very well have me stumped.  Let’s see what I can come up with before Friday.  Until then…have a great week.

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net

I haven’t really mentioned this on my blog, but I hate CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know.  It’s a classic.  It captures the adolescent trauma of being alienated and misunderstood.  Nonsense, I say.  Holden Caulfield was a whiner and no writer ever got so much acclaim for the portrayal of a less interesting teenager.  I have tried reading this book every five years or so since high school thinking I might grow into it.  Nope.  I still hate it.  So, when I heard that Stephen Chbosky drew from CATHER IN THE RYE as his inspiration for THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, I was all set and ready to hate that book, too.

How wrong I was.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky (shortened to “PERKS” by the students who have loved the book) was published in 1999.  Since then, it’s been on the top 10 list of most frequently challenged books by the American Library Association five times.  In Fayetteville, Arkansas it was challenged, along with 34 other books, as objectionable in an attempt to remove it from the school libraries there.  I’m not going to lie.  This book has some adult themes.  I would recommend this for the older end of young adult.  But I do recommend it.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is told from the point of view of a character who calls himself “Charlie”.  It’s an epistolary story, told in a series of anonymous letters.  Charlie is assumed name and he makes it clear that he only knows the recipient of the letters by reputation.  And if you think this is odd, Charlie is just getting started.  PERKS is the story of Charlie’s first year of high school.  His best friend committed suicide the year before, his social group has dissolved, and he finds himself lonely and confused in this new high school setting.  The thing that makes this story so charming is that Charlie is one of the most likeable main characters I’ve ever read (I almost wrote “met” there).  He’s too smart for his own good and incredibly sensitive.  He has a strongly developed sense of honor and fair-play.  He’s the kind of kid you’d like to know.

In his loneliness, he luckily falls in with a free-thinking, drug-using, pre-college group of friends who appreciate him for the strange little guy he is.  As the school year passes he struggles with the pain and hardships he sees going on around him: his sister’s abusive relationship, his closest friend’s traumatic gay relationship, his family’s complicated problems, and the painful relationships of the girl he loves.

About ten pages into this book my heart started to literally ache for Charlie and it hasn’t stopped yet.  I was grateful that he finds friends who accept him.  It hurts me that his family doesn’t get him.  I wanted to befriend this character because I wanted to have the experience of knowing him better.  And I still sit here and wonder what I would think if I had been the recipient of those anonymous letters.

So, next time I’m going to tackle the characters and setting of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.  I’ve already told you a bit about Charlie, so I’ll probably focus on the more peripheral characters.  Each one is interesting and I can’t wait to explore this book with you!

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net.