What Is Shirley Jackson’s “Charles” Theme?

The two themes in Shirley Jackson’s short story “Charles” are parents’ propensity to ignore their own children’s flaws and kids’ intense need for attention. Both his parents and his kindergarten teacher are perplexed by the antics of the young Laurie.

As Laurie begins kindergarten, his mother notices some worrying symptoms in him. Laurie has stopped waving to his mother when he leaves in the morning and instead slams the door when he returns home. He also talks to his father aggressively.

Although Laurie has been acting out in kindergarten as well, this story is obviously set before the days when teachers would email or call home at the drop of a hat. That’s because the only indication that anything is wrong are the tales Laurie tells each night about “Charles,” a misbehaving pupil in his class.

Charles allegedly slaps both his teacher and fellow students, and he also rants in class, but gradually he realises his error and even starts helping the teacher. Before the teacher spills the beans at the next PTA meeting, Laurie’s mother can only speculate that Laurie is misbehaving as well and might be under the influence of this troublemaker in his class.

Even though there are numerous hints that the stories are fiction, it is obvious that Laurie’s parents do not know their son well enough to recognise this. Although Laurie is obviously enjoying the attention, both at school and at home, he finally realises that he prefers the kind that is positive.

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