August 25, 1991
Part 1 begins with a letter written by the protagonist, Charlie (a pseudonym to hide his identity), and addressed to an unknown recipient, someone that Charlie has heard of but never met. This letter is dated August 25, 1991. Charlie does not reveal his identity - he simply wants to reach out to someone he regards as a good person. After all, the recipient "didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though (they) could have" (10). He begins the letter by explaining that he is both happy and sad, and he's trying to figure out how this could be. He points to his family as a potential explanation, particularly with their behavior after his friend Michael committed suicide. The suicide was particularly hard on Charlie, and he attended guidance counseling sessions where he could not stop crying, only to be picked up by his older brother in the middle of one session.
Charlie explains his family to the reader: he has an older brother, who is a football star and loves his Camaro; an older sister, who is both an excellent student and a heartthrob who tortures boys; his father, a hard worker who is "too proud to have a midlife crisis" (18); his mother, who cries a lot while watching television; and his Aunt Helen, who is his "favorite person in the whole world" (18). Aunt Helen lived with Charlie's family for the last few years of her life because something bad had happened to her. Charlie does not reveal what happened, but he does tell the reader that he knows what happened - his mother told him after she had drunk too much wine. The only comment that Charlie offers regarding the incident is that "Some people really do have it a lot worse than I do. They really do," a statement which foreshadows some of the major themes in the novel. In the final paragraph of this first letter, Charlie tells the reader that he is writing because he starts high school the next day, and he notes that he is very scared of going to school.
September 7, 1991
The second letter, dated September 7, 1991, describes Charlie's first few days at school and the people he meets. One of his friends from middle school, Susan, is in Charlie's advanced English class, but she's embarrassed to tell others of her high academic standing. She had once been very fun to be around, and she was one of Michael's best friends. Over the summer, however, Susan "had her braces taken off, and she got a little taller and prettier and grew breasts," and now "acts a lot dumber in the hallways, especially when boys are around." Charlie is disappointed, especially because Susan no longer says hello to him.
Charlie then describes an incident with a bully named Sean, who is the only one who has paid any attention to Charlie. After gym class, Sean threatens to give Charlie a "swirlie," or put Charlie's head in a toilet, but Charlie fights back using techniques he learned from his brother. He successfully defends himself and hurts Sean, but then starts crying hysterically. Reflecting on all this, Charlie realizes that he could have hurt Sean much more seriously, and he is very confused as to why Sean would have wanted to hurt him. Charlie receives strange looks from the other students after the fight, but he continues to work hard in school so he can receive an academic scholarship for college. His brother had received an athletic scholarship for football at Penn State, and his parents will need to pay for his sister's education, but Charlie does not believe that they have enough money to send another child to school.
September 11, 1991
When he writes this letter, Charlie is midway through reading To Kill a Mockingbird for his advanced English class. Even though this book was assigned in parts, Charlie likes to read books in larger segments and also likes to read each book twice. His busy school commitments have resulted in a shorter letter, in which he notes that he saw his brother on television playing football - a very happy moment for his family. Charlie does not tell the reader which position his brother plays in order to preserve his anonymity.
September 16, 1991
Charlie has finished To Kill a Mockingbird and declares that it is one of his favorite books of all time. Bill, his English teacher, has begun to assign him additional reading and writing exercises because he believes that Charlie has a great aptitude for English. The rest of the letter involves descriptions of his sister and of her relationship with boys. She is particularly mean to one boy, who is in the Earth Day Club with her and has a ponytail. He is always renting movies for them to watch and making her mixtapes, tapes that she gives to Charlie - and which Charlie greatly enjoys. When the boy with the ponytail asks Charlie's sister about the tapes, she recycles Charlie's comments about the music without ever having listened to it.
One night while watching a movie, Charlie's sister relentlessly questions the boy about why he did not stand up to Sean, the same boy that Charlie had beaten up, and the ponytailed boy becomes so enraged by this conversation that he hits Charlie's sister. Charlie was shocked but remains quiet, and his sister simply asks him to leave. Charlie struggles to understand what has transpired with the boy, commenting, "I guess he stood up to his bully. And I guess that makes sense" (33). His sister begins to spend more and more time with the boy, and over the weekend Charlie accidentally walks in on them while they are having sex. His sister forces him to keep all this a secret from his parents.
September 18, 1991
Charlie describes his experiences in shop class in this letter. The shop class contains a senior boy named "Nothing." Nothing received his name when he was a new student in middle school, where other students had shortened his name from Patrick to Patty. He told them, "Listen, you either call me Patrick, or you call me nothing." The name "Nothing" stuck from then on, and Charlie finds Nothing hilarious. During one class, Nothing does an impression of the teacher, Mr. Callahan, and even incorporates fake facial hair drawn on with a grease pencil. Charlie wishes that the reader could have been there because "it was the hardest (he's) laughed since (his) brother left" (37). In the meantime, Charlie has continued to meet with Bill, often discussing his essays with him during lunch periods. His sister has also asked for the "Autumn Leaves" mix tape back, and she now listens to it constantly.
September 29, 1991
Charlie attempts to bring his "friend" up to date on what has occurred during the past two weeks: "a lot of it is good, but a lot of it is bad" (38). Charlie received a C on his English paper because of run on sentences and because he didn't use the vocabulary words he learned in class. Charlie didn't feel that the words were appropriate to use in the paper, which leads him to the topic of movie stars who are terrible to watch. He writes about their horrible interviews and about the people who spend too much time conversing about them.
Charlie and his mom had recently visited his Aunt Helen's grave, and Charlie remembers how Aunt Helen always let him stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live with his siblings when his parents were out of the house for the night. He has a lot of fond memories of Aunt Helen, some of which include the television, but he only shares one television-related memory. Charlie, his mom, dad, sister, and brother were all watching M*A*S*H together, and every member of the family was crying except for Charlie's father, who rose in the middle of a scene and left to make a sandwich. Charlie followed him into the kitchen, where he saw him crying while making his sandwich. His dad said, "This is our little secret, okay, champ?" and Charlie spent the rest of the episode sitting on his father's lap. Charlie felt incredibly close to his family in this moment. Even though Charlie struggles to understand his mother and father, he still loves them for the simple things, like how his mom drives him to the cemetery or how his father called him "champ."
Charlie's writing is simple, and his language throughout the letters feels very intimate. The person he is addressing is never revealed, so the reader of the novel can easily place himself or herself in the position of Charlie's confidante. Chbosky easily channels the persona of a 9th grade boy, and his fluid writing creates the image of a troubled yet hopeful character: Charlie. Over the course of the novel, Charlie reveals more and more about himself and his life through the letters. Everyday events and conversations spark tangents in which Charlie recounts memories or experiences that have influenced him. The intimacy of the letter format provides a window not only into Charlie's mind, but also into the minds of high schoolers more broadly, allowing readers to relate to Charlie by drawing on their own experiences in high school.
Sex and sexuality are also crucial to the novel, and these themes begin to appear in the initial letters. Charlie has determined that the "friend" he is addressing the novels to is a good person because this individual refused sex at a party, even though the "friend" could have taken advantage of the situation. This simple, early sentence in the book reveals the centrality of sex to the rest of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Sex is something that Charlie regards as desirable, but his respect for someone who could turn away from sexual activity when the moment was not right or appropriate is clear. His admiration for the "friend" he addresses foreshadows later stages of the novel in which he discusses masturbation, rape, and child abuse.
Coupled with Charlie's discussion of sex is a commentary on manhood and what it means to be a man. The two male examples in his life - his father and his brother - don't seem to match Charlie in terms of behavior. His father is stubborn man and a hard worker, but he doesn't talk much or reveal many of his emotions, and his brother is obsessed with football and cars. In one sense, Charlie embodies an essential characteristic of manhood: aggression, which comes to the forefront after he stands up to a bully, Sean, and seriously injures him. Charlie has a difficult time conceptualizing manhood, and that is particularly evident after his sister is hit by the boy. Despite this disturbing action, she accepts the boy and views him as a stronger person, signaling a perverse transition into manhood. While Charlie acknowledges that the boy "finally stood up to his bully," he struggles to understand the events that he has witnessed (33).
Charlie's desire for understanding is presented in these letters and continues to play a major role in the novel's development. He desperately wants to know how his life can be both good and bad and how these forces can coexist with each other. Charlie is beginning to come to terms with the fact that bad things happen to good people, and that "problems at home" can lead a good person to do something bad and destructive. (Michael's suicide is one example of this bleak irony.) Charlie looks for understanding in literature, and he cultivates a relationship with his English teacher, Bill, who assigns him extra reading and writing assignments. But outside the pages of books, Charlie is always watching people and taking notice of them. He yearns to understand why people are the way they are, and he always attempts to look beyond the superficial traits that people present to the public. A constant internal dialogue, represented in his letters by tangents and run-on sentences, shows how his brain is always churning and always processing his surroundings.
With his desire to understand people individually, as well as the forces of good and evil generally, Charlie seeks to understand happiness. What makes people happy, and how do people communicate their happiness? He often cannot understand his parents, but he can articulate particular moments when they were all happy together as a family - such as when they watched the final episode of M*A*S*H and either cried or fought back tears. Is happiness found in tears? Laughter? Sex? These are all questions that Charlie asks himself and tries to answer as he experiences his freshman year of high school.