Review by: Harpreet Scott
F. Scott Fitzgerald once referred to the beauty of literature as being that moment when ‘you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ Charlie, the fifteen year old protagonist in Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’ seeks comfort in literature when he finds himself unable to relate or conform to the social cliques of his high school. With the encouragement from the extroverted characters of Patrick and Sam, Charlie makes the transition from shy introverted freshman to a person who is respected for embodying the quality that initially made him different; ‘He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.’ The anonymity of the friend whom Charlie addresses his letters to and confides in is a deliberate device perhaps chosen by Chobsky as a way to connect the reader to Charlie. It seems fitting that Charlie can tell his story in his own words rather than in a third person narrative, as he is often consoled by the words used in his beloved novels and is even told by his teacher Bill that he ‘would make a great writer one day.’ Moreover, the absence of replies from the addressee makes the novel take on a confessional tone which corresponds with the twist which is later revealed. The epistolary form enables the reader to understand a character that is having trouble understanding himself; ‘Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense.’
Chobsky somewhat submits to the conventional situation: outcast is befriended by the cool kids and then becomes popular. Whilst the first part of that stereotype is true, Chobsky ensures that ‘Perks of a Wallflower’ is more than just that age old story. Instead of the protagonist changing into a confident, popular, universally loved character, Charlie maintains his awkwardness and naive honesty throughout, which makes the reader love him even more (in a protective grown up sibling kind of way) and makes his character all the more believable. To end with Charlie becoming the popular kid at school and submitting to the norm, would go against the very foundations of Charlie’s persona and would make him less relatable to the reader. Chobsky ensures that his characters do not undergo any radical changes to their persona’s and remain true to themselves, whilst making them experience the changes that only time and age bring. Patrick and Sam are two characters that stand on their own against Charlie and all three are drawn together through their self proclaimed oddities with Sam embracing Charlie with the line; ‘welcome to the island of misfit toys.’ Along with Charlie, Sam is the character who undergoes the obligatory change that comes with a coming of age story. As Charlie’s letters progress the same movement is seen in Sam’s character, transforming her from one who is seen to be idealised by all; to one who exposes her own vulnerability- a secret which binds her and Charlie closer together. Sam is more than just Charlie’s love interest, she is a character that voices the desires and insecurities felt by both genders; ‘If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am.’
Patrick is seen to be the foil of Charlie, yet both are united with the animosity they receive in regards to their extroverted and introverted personalities. Although Patrick embodies the role of comic relief in quite a ‘deep’ (down with the kids type language) story, seen when he receives his grade; ‘C minus, ladies and gentlemen! I am below average!’ he is also at the centre of another taboo subject- homosexuality. As a 21st century reader, I am not shocked or unnerved by the topic of homosexuality. However, in the novel Patrick is faced with prejudice as a result of his sexuality, reflecting the attitude of society at the time in which the novel was set and written in. The inclusion of Patricks character is to show that beneath the confidence people sometimes exude, vulnerability is universal. Moreover, everyone faces obstacles in their lives and it is the way in which we get through them which define us, after all ‘Not everyone has a sob story, Charlie, and even if they do, it’s no excuse.’
The novel centres on the idea of conflicts- both internal and external. Whilst Charlie questions his surroundings and his personal development or lack thereof, external conflicts are constantly present. The violence between Charlie’s sister and her boyfriend brings the two siblings together, a unity which is tested by the end of the novel. The fight between Patrick and the boys at school showcases Charlie’s loyalty and brings an end to the animosity between his new found friends. Violence is shown to be an extension of the internal conflicts felt by the characters and whilst Chobsky does not condone it he does make the reader understand why it is happening.
Whilst some may say that ‘Perks of being a Wallflower’ is nothing more than an endless show of cheesy quotations, it is for this very fact that I and many others have fallen in love with the novel. The novel does not try and portray itself to be a form of literary greatness, the informal language and easy to read narrative differentiates it with some of the greater works in literature associated with that level of genius. No, the novel embodies the carpe di um mantra as ‘this moment will just be another story one day.’ ‘Just one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive’ is a line that resonates with me, as it brings the hope and the realisation that you are more than just your past. Chobsky’s novel is one which you will be quoting long after you have finished the final page which is further testament to Chobsky’s genius.
The novel covers a wide range of topics, such as introversion, violence, sexuality and drugs but the underlying theme is the one Charlie often reverts back to: life. Charlie goes from just surviving, remaining on the edge of society to actually living ‘Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique experience, but there's a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.’ Chobsky succeeds in articulating the feelings that many people feel yet are unable to describe in a simplistic way; ‘So this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.’ ‘Perks of being a Wallflower’ is not directed towards one gender, yet I feel boys would probably steer clear of such a philosophical story which is an absolute shame as both sexes can learn something from the novel. The intended reader? One who is open minded and willing to not prejudge or categorise Charlie, before the end of the story.
What makes this novel so great is the way in which it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. It’s a story which can take place anywhere to anyone in the world. It’s a story centred on the phase of life every person goes through- adolescence. The inclusion of Charlie’s wayward family answers some questions to his ambiguous background yet Charlie is hesitant to place blame on those who deserve it. The dynamics between Charlie and his siblings is strained due to Charlie’s ‘odd’ behaviour; ‘you’re such a freak!’ but without this, the novel would lack the realism it needs to support a story such as this. Brad, Patrick’s secret boyfriend is a textbook example of a young boy struggling to accept his sexuality; a task which the modern day reader would be aware of. Just as Sam tells Charlie that ‘you can’t just sit there and put everyone’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things’, I implore you to go out there and read this novel. The novel wants the reader to ‘participate in life’ just as Bill told Charlie to do so and I implore you to do the same. If you want a novel that will change your outlook on life and make you emphasise with the strangers around you, then this novel is for you. The subject matter is not light as Chobsky renders a world full of ‘imperfections’- which is a perfect representation of teenage life and thus a brilliant read.