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Charles by Shirley Jackson: Summary, Theme & Analysis Video

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  • 0:01 Summary of 'Charles'
  • 1:52 Theme & Situational Irony
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

Charles was written by Shirley Jackson in 1948. It is the story of a young boy's search for identity and his mother's struggle to accept his new role. This lesson will focus on the theme of the story, as well as the use of situational irony.

Summary of Charles

Charles is a short story by American author Shirley Jackson. Although she is best known for her supernatural stories, Jackson also created humorous tales that focused on realism, plausible situations from everyday life. In 'Charles,' the main character, Laurie, and his alter ego, Charles, are loosely based on Jackson's son Laurence. It is told from the mother's point-of-view and focuses on Laurie's search for identity.

The story begins with Laurie's mother describing her son's first day of kindergarten. This is the day that he swore off his childish corduroy overalls and began wearing grown up blue jeans with a belt. Kindergarten changes him in other ways, as well; he becomes loud and insolent, slamming doors and talking back to his parents.

Laurie is also full of stories about Charles, the class rebel. In the first few weeks of school, Charles is rude to the teacher, hurts some of the other students, and yells so loudly that it disrupts other classes in the school. He even hits the teacher and kicks a presenter who comes in to show the students how to exercise. During those same weeks, Laurie's behavior also grows worse, mirroring Charles' problems at school. Laurie's mother takes this as a worrisome sign of Charles' influence over her sweet son. Soon Charles' influence begins to take over the whole household; whenever someone misbehaves or something goes wrong, the family refers to it as being a Charles.

Finally, Laurie's mother goes to a PTA meeting, hoping to see an exhausted, apologetic woman that she assumes will be Charles' mother. None of them, she decides, look haggard enough. Eventually she meets Laurie's teacher and is surprised to hear that her son has had trouble adjusting to kindergarten. However, she brushes the news off as just another sign of Charles' influence. But Laurie's teacher is confused and announces that there is no Charles in kindergarten. It is implied that it was Laurie, not the fictional Charles, who has caused all the trouble at school.

Theme and Situational Irony

The main theme of Charles is identity, specifically the conflict between the identity Laurie has, the one he wants, and the one his parents think he has.

Jackson begins the focus on identity by leaving out important information: the names of the other characters. The only two characters that have names are Laurie and his alter ego, Charles. Every other character is identified in terms of their relationship to Laurie: Laurie's mother, Laurie's father, his baby sister, and Laurie's teacher. Names are the first and most common way we identify ourselves; leaving the names out shows that it is Laurie's identity that is important.

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