What is the theme of Shirley Jackson’s “Charles”?

The short story “Charles” by Shirley Jackson explores two themes: parents’ tendency to ignore their children’s flaws and children’s great yearning for attention. Laurie’s antics as a kindergarten student perplex both his parents and his instructor.

Laurie is showing some concerning symptoms to his mother as he begins kindergarten. Laurie has stopped waving to his mother when he leaves in the morning and instead slams the door when he gets home, acts angrily to his father, and slams the door when he gets home.

Laurie has also been misbehaving in kindergarten, but this story is definitely set before the days when instructors emailed and called home at the drop of a hat, because the only hint of trouble is Laurie’s nightly stories about a misbehaving student in his class named “Charles.”

Charles allegedly slaps his classmates as well as his instructor and rants in class, but he finally learns the folly of his ways and even becomes the teacher’s assistant. Laurie’s mother comes closest to guessing the truth, at least until the teacher exposes everything at the next PTA meeting, is that Laurie is also misbehaving and may be receiving a negative influence from this bad seed in his class.

Laurie’s parents clearly do not know their son well enough to recognise that the stories are false, despite the fact that there are numerous indicators. Laurie certainly enjoys the attention he receives at school and at home, but he gradually realises that he prefers the positive variety.

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Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.


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