Short Story Essay on Charles by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is an American author who is famous for her wild imagination and odd stories that twist reality in the most unexpected ways. The short story “Charles” which Jackson wrote in 1948 is no exception. The narration presents no dramatic events and seems to reveal to its readers more than ordinary days of an average American family. However, the last few lines turn the story upside down and make the audience see the events anew from a strikingly different perspective. Such unexpected ending fascinates the readers and prompts them to reflect on the subjects of children’s behavior, human nature and, last but not least, people’s urge to judge others without knowing them.

The plot of the story is simple enough: a child starts kindergarten and his parents are nervous of any bad influence that he can happen to have. Their worries prove grounded when their son, Laurie, begins telling them about a boy named Charles. The latter is an absolute disaster — a child who makes the life of the teacher hell. The plot is straightforward and leads the readers directly to the climax when Laurie’s mother goes to the Parent-Teachers meeting. She cannot wait to see the mother of the terrible Charles. To her great surprise, the teacher informs her that there is no Charles in the class.

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From this unexpected turn of events, the reader guesses that the mischievous boy and Laurie are, probably, one and the same person. However, the open ending, as well as the absence of an explanation of any kind leave the reader wondering. Besides the obvious possibility that Laurie was talking about himself consciously, there are other intriguing scenarios. It is not impossible that Charles is an imaginary friend that Laurie’s mind invented to cope with the stress of going to the kindergarten or because he had no friends. An even more depressing option is that the child suffers a psychological disorder. Thus, the author leaves room for imagination and triggers the readers to continue the story in their minds, looking for causes, as well as for the possible remedies.

Besides Charles, the story has two main characters — his parents. Jackson pays no attention whatsoever to their physical traits. By eluding the description of their appearance, the author shifts the focus to their words. It is from their conversation that the readers recognize a typical overprotective mother who finds it hard to see her little boy grow up. She misses her “sweet-voiced nursery-school tot” and is worried that kindergarten will be a bad influence on her son. The father, on the other hand, is a calm and reserved character who does not rush to meet the boy in the afternoon. He sees life troubles as something inevitable, something that one needs to get used to and be prepared for.

Despite this difference in viewing life, both the mother and the father have one thing in common. They readily judge Charles’ parents for what the boy does and are happy to feel superior. There is not a trace of compassion or empathy. On the contrary, they are amused and want to see the boy’s mother who is sure to be “haggard”. Consequently, the fact that this Charles was a conscious or unconscious invention of their son seems to be a proper lesson of humbleness that both spouses deserved.

Moreover, it may be not only the characters who needed that warning. The author chooses the first-person narrative and tells the story from the mother’s point of view. Consequently, the readers find out everything at the same pace as she does. They have the time to think the situation over and judge as well. While reading, some may remember a ‘Charles’ from their childhood or a pair of bad parents who neglect their child. In any case, the ending makes everyone stop and think about the difference between what one imagines and what is true.

Even though the readers meet no secondary characters besides the teacher, they get a glimpse of them through the main characters’ conversations. The author presents other children from Charles’ class as a united group who has no problem with the mischievous boy. They readily play with him even though the teacher forbids it and stay after school to watch him when Charles is made to stay. Even though one wonders whether these stories are also a figment of Laurie’s imagination, the picture is very realistic. It is the parents who worry about the bad influence, who want their child be a brilliant student and have friends from good families. Kids, on the other hand, find any rebellious character to be fascinating. Whether such reaction is due to their misunderstanding of life priorities or to being yet unlimited by social constraints is beside the point. What should be remarked is that Jackson manages to portray the emotions and behaviors that are characteristic of children through simple conversations of one family.

All in all, Shirley Jackson’s “Charles” is an excellent example of a classic short story. It is short in length, has a limited number of characters, and takes place in mainly one setting. Nonetheless, it explores the topic of people’s relationships and focuses on groundless judgments that people tend to make without so much as seeing a person. The first-person narrative allows the readers to be in the shoes of the anxious mother, listening to the stories about the troublesome boy and, most likely, judging him and his parents, too. The open ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered which allows each reader to consider the issues that he or she finds to be most important, controversial or fascinating. All of the above makes the story a compelling read that will undoubtedly offer everyone food for thought and a good laugh.

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