At its core, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age story, in which Charlie questions what it means to be a man. Chbosky's protagonist has three possible role models - his father, brother, and Bill - but finds it difficult to emulate any of them and discerns that he is very different from his own family members. When Charlie's sister is hit by her boyfriend, Charlie struggles to understand why she suddenly greets her lover with acceptance and apparent affection. How is the boyfriend now no longer considered soft? Is self-control or self-assertion what is required of a man? Charlie sees this sort of violence again in his grandfather, who once hit his mother and aunt. And Charlie himself harbors a deep and dark aggression, something that he tries to suppress even though fighting and physical prowess are typically considered "manly."
Charlie's coming of age story is particularly interesting because he must overcome and deal with the fact that he was sexually abused by his aunt, a gender reversal of the most common incidents of abuse. How can Charlie view himself as a strong man after being taken advantage of by a woman that he loved? Charlie's quest for manhood also relates to the theme of sexuality, since Charlie tries to connect with Sam on a level deeper than friendship. Overall, Charlie's quest for growth and adulthood drives the plot of the novel.
In many instances, secrets bring Charlie closer to the people in his life. At first, Charlie is the one who is asked to keep the secrets. He holds small secrets, such as his father's crying incident during the final episode of M*A*S*H, and he holds immense secrets, such as Patrick's relationship with Brad. Secrets form the framework of his life, and in many cases provide an unexpected stability. When Charlie reveals some of the secrets, like when he tells Bill that his sister's boyfriend hit her, his life crumbles slightly. After arriving home from that conversation with Bill, Charlie can instantly tell that Bill has called home, and Charlie's sister tells him that she hates him. Charlie is shocked, and he can only muster the words "I love you" in response. Not until the end of the novel do we realize that Charlie is holding onto his own secret: namely, his Aunt Helen had molested him when he was a child. As this secret is revealed, Charlie's life falls apart much more dramatically than before. He is even hospitalized and treated by a psychiatrist. Just as secrets form a structure for Charlie's life, they also tear it down and act destructively.
There is a focus on sexuality throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and this emphasis takes many forms. Charlie is fascinated by sex, and many of his letters detail how his sexual desires revolve around Sam. Ashamed of these yearnings, Charlie at first considers hiding them, but he eventually confesses to Sam how he feels about her. As his feelings grow, he also begins to talk about masturbation frequently - and about how he spends large portions of his day masturbating. The book's open discussion of sexuality has garnered criticism and is credited with the book's frequent placement among the top 10 most frequently challenged books, as determined by the American Library Association.
In addition to the discussion of Charlie's heterosexual sexuality, there is also an engagement with LGBTQ issues in Chbosky's novel. Even though Patrick is openly gay, he is forced to keep his sexual identity a secret in order to adhere to Brad's wishes. Brad's struggle to come to terms with his own identity is itself a moving account of a gay individual negotiating the harsh world of high school.
Finally, the theme of sexuality precipitates in the book's discussion of sexual abuse and molestation. Many of the characters have been molested in their pasts, including Aunt Helen and Charlie; this aspect of the theme indicates the cyclic nature of sexual abuse.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been heavily criticized for its scenes involving hard drug use, and the American Library Association believes that this theme is a primary factor in the book's frequent banning. The altered state of mind that Charlie experiences after using LSD and some of his encounters with pot all point to the chaos that operates within his brain on a daily basis. Charlie has a difficult time recovering from his LSD trip because he finds it hard to stabilize his mind and focus on one thing - something that he admits causes him difficulty even on good days. While many commentators have focused on Chbosky's descriptions of drug use as potentially corrupting material for young teens, Chbosky's novel as a whole does a marvelous job of highlighting the larger mental issues that Charlie struggles with day-to-day.
In addition, the theme of drug use is key to Charlie's self-discovery and personal development. When he is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Charlie is more open and honest about his feelings, even if he doesn't communicate these feelings in an extremely productive manner. Tied in with the drug use is the theme of secrecy, and Charlie often uses illicit substances to come to terms with the many secrets he holds.
As Charlie walks around the halls of his high school and the spaces in his home, he frequently fixates on the happiness levels of the people around him. He is not satisfied with knowing just how happy these people are perceived to be; rather, he wants to know how they are really feeling. He does not settle for how people present themselves; he is always digging deeper. Charlie is also always reflecting on his own happiness - both his happiness in the moment and contentment in the future. When he thinks about the stories that he will tell his children about "the good old days," he is first and foremost concerned with whether or not his children will consider him happy as a teenager.
Although Charlie is constantly observing the people around him, this perceptiveness at times inhibits his ability to participate actively. Bill worries about Charlie's tendency to step back and watch, rather than engage his peers. In particular, Bill becomes concerned when he sees Charlie looking around in a distracted manner during class, and after class he asks if Charlie always spends so much time watching others. Charlie spends so much time observing because he seeks understanding: he is still not sure how he fits into the high school scene, and he is constantly trying to get a better sense of the societal structures he comes across.
With Bill's, Sam's, and Patrick's help, Charlie becomes more comfortable participating. He begins by attending football games, the Homecoming Dance, and parties. Yet as Charlie participates more, his position as a wallflower is simultaneously validated. Patrick offers a poignant toast to Charlie, celebrating the "perks of being a wallflower." It is important to note, however, that this celebration of Charlie only comes from increased, and in some cases energetic, participation.
The idea of not quite fitting in is one of the central themes of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As a misfit operating on his own, Charlie is powerless and overly self-reflective, often paralyzing himself and refraining from taking any action. However, after he is adopted by a larger band of misfits, he is alerted to new possibilities as he becomes more comfortable with his own identity. When Charlie and his group of friends come together, they can be honest with one another, and Charlie thrives on this communication. He is able to come to terms with many of his past experiences, and he is also better able to process his emotions. In fact, whenever Charlie is away from this group of misfits, he begins to suffer and his letters become more hectic and chaotic.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.