The narrator tells the story of Laurie’s first month at kindergarten. Laurie comes home each day to report on the doings of a fellow student, Charles, who behaves in an extraordinary manner. For the first two weeks, Charles is spanked or otherwise punished almost daily for being “fresh,” for hitting or kicking the teachers, for injuring fellow students, and for a host of proscribed activities. Charles proves so interesting to the kindergarten class that whenever he is punished, all the students watch him; whenever he stays after school, all the students stay with him.
As a result of this behavior, Charles becomes an institution at the Hyman house. Whenever anyone does anything bad, inconsiderate, or clumsy, he or she is compared to Charles. During the third week, however, Charles undergoes a conversion. For several days, he becomes a model student, the teacher’s helper. Reports of this transformation astonish the Hyman household. Then, Charles seems to return to normal, first persuading a girl to say a terrible word twice, for which her mouth is washed out with soap. The next day, Charles himself says the word several times and receives several washings.
When the day of the monthly Parent Teacher Association meeting arrives, Laurie’s mother is anxious to go and to meet the mother of the remarkable Charles. At the meeting, she learns from Laurie’s teacher not only that Laurie has had some difficulty adjusting to kindergarten, but also that there is no student named Charles in his class.
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“Charles,” a short story by Shirley Jackson, was originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in July 1948. The story was later included in The Lottery and Other Stories published in 1949. Every day Laurie comes home from kindergarten with tales about his classmate Charles’s misbehavior.
Laurie is a young boy who has just begun kindergarten. This short story is told in the first person from Laurie’s mother’s perspective. Now that Laurie is in kindergarten, she misses her sweet young boy who is growing up and approaching the end of an era.
Laurie changes after he starts kindergarten. He is no longer her formerly angelic son. He no longer waves goodbye. He no longer accepts his mother’s affection. He slams the door on his return. He has become disrespectful to his father. All these changes worry his mother.
When Laurie returns home from school, he tells his parents about his day during lunchtime. After school on his very first day, he tells that his classmate Charles was spanked for being fresh. Charles’s behavior gets worse and worse. The next day Charles hits his teacher. The day after that Charles made a little girl bleed by bouncing a see-saw on her head. Charles throws chalk. He pounds his feet during story time.
Every day Laurie shares outlandish tale after tale about the bad behavior of Charles. These stories amuse the narrator and her husband. But the narrator also wonders if Charles is a bad influence on her son. The narrator also wonders whether Charles will get kicked out of school.
After several weeks of school, Charles becomes an institution in the narrator’s family. Whenever anyone misbehaves at home, the family calls the person a Charles. The narrator tries to learn more about Charles by asking his family name and what he looks like. She wants to meet Charles’s mother. She hopes to meet her at the first Parents-Teacher meeting, but has to miss the meeting because her baby has a cold.
For more than a week, Charles begins to behave better at school. He helps his teacher by handing out crayons and picking up books. His teacher even rewards Charles with an apple. The narrator wants to meet Charles’ mother at the next PTA meeting. She is curious to learn what caused the positive change in the boy’s behavior.
Charles reverts to his old behavior pattern by having a girl repeatedly say a bad word in school. Charles laughs while the girl is punished by having her mouth washed with soap. Charles escapes punishment.
The evening of the PTA meeting finally comes. The narrator’s husband, who is also curious about Charles’s mother, encourages his wife to invite her to their house for tea after the meeting. At the meeting, the narrator tries unsuccessfully to figure out who is Charles’s mother. But Charles’s name is never mentioned.
At the meeting, the narrator speaks to Laurie’s teacher. The teacher says that Laurie had some problems adjusting to the classroom but is now a helper with only occasional lapses. The teacher’s report of Laurie sounds like it could be a description of Charles. The narrator does not notice this. The narrator mentions that the teacher must have her hands full with the mischievous student Charles. The story ends with the teacher saying that there is not a student named Charles in kindergarten.
This funny story can be interpreted in several ways. The most common explanation is that Charles is Laurie’s alter ego. Laurie created the classmate Charles to tell his parents about his day at school without getting into trouble for his bad behavior. His bad behavior may have been Laurie’s way get attention at both school and home. Even though Laurie’s behavior has gotten worse at home, his parents do not put two and two together. Laurie’s parents remain naively unaware that the bad behavior is not coming from someone else’s child, but from their own son. Parents do not want to believe anything bad about their own children.
Shirley Jackson’s use of dramatic irony enables the reader to guess the true identity of Charles before the narrator of the story. The conversation with the diplomatic kindergarten teacher at the end confirms our suspicion. As the narrator looks for Charles’s mother, she does not realize that she is the mother.
Another interpretation is that Charles is a supernatural being whom only Laurie can see.
American author Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), was an influential author of the twentieth century. She earned critical acclaim for her short story The Lottery published in 1948. She is known for her stories and novels featuring the supernatural, including her best-selling novel The Haunting of Hill House. Additional novels include The Sundial, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, The Road through the Wall, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.