‘Charles’ is a short story by the American writer Shirley Jackson (1916-65), first published in the women’s magazine Mademoiselle in 1948 and included in her 1949 collection, The Lottery and Other Stories. The story is about a young boy who, upon starting kindergarten, picks up bad habits which he attributes to the presence of Charles, a boy in his class.
‘Charles’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a mother, who observes that her son, Laurie, began to grow up when he started kindergarten. He wore different clothes and forgot to turn and wave to her when he got to the end of the street.
When Laurie is rude at the dinner table after his first day at school, the narrator calls him out on it, and he says that a boy at school, named Charles, was rude to the teacher and was spanked as punishment. The next day, he tells his parents at lunch that Charles has misbehaved and struck the teacher. This pattern of bad behaviour continues throughout the week, until the narrator asks her husband whether this Charles is proving to be a bad influence on their son. But they convince themselves it will be all right.
The following week, Laurie comes home and reports that Charles has misbehaved again, receiving detention: everyone in the class stayed behind with him. Then, Charles kicks a friend of the teacher who comes into class to show the children how to exercise. The family come to use the name ‘Charles’ to refer to anyone in the family who has done something naughty.
But over the next few weeks, Charles appears to reform his behaviour and becomes the teacher’s helper. But then he relapses, and Laurie comes home and tells his parents that Charles got into trouble for persuading a girl in the class to say a rude word to the teacher. The narrator resolves to find Charles’s mother at the parent-teacher meeting and find out what is going on with her son.
But at the meeting, she is unable to identify any woman who might be Charles’s mother, and when she gets talking to Laurie’s kindergarten teacher, she learns that there is no child named Charles in the kindergarten and that the behaviour Laurie had ascribed to ‘Charles’ was really his own.
Shirley Jackson is a master at turning the domestic into something undecidably uncanny or unsettling. This uncanny quality is often founded in an ambiguity about the precise nature of what has taken place: so, for instance, ‘The Witch’, a story in which a young boy tells his mother that he has seen a witch outside the train on which they’re traveling, may detail a conversation between a boy and a mischievous man, or it may feature an encounter with an actual witch. We are left wondering whether to believe the boy’s version of events (he believes he has just spoken with a witch) or the more rational, ‘adult’ explanation.
‘Charles’ is another variation on this theme. It probably makes the most sense to deduce that ‘Charles’ was nothing more than Laurie’s invented alter ego, a way of explaining why he had to stay behind at kindergarten as punishment for his own bad behaviour.
Children are fond of inventing imaginary friends which somehow resemble themselves while also providing an outlet for them to channel their inner id or wayward impulses; alternatively, Laurie may have created the ‘Charles’ persona as protection for himself, as he is too scared to admit to his parents that he himself is the one who’s been acting up.
This is the rational and logical interpretation of Jackson’s story. And yet Jackson cunningly provides moments of slippage within the story which sow seeds of doubt within our minds, even as we insist on following the rational explanation for the story’s events. For example, why does Laurie, when asked by his father to describe Charles’s appearance, say that he is ‘bigger than me’? Is this projection (he wishes he were bigger, or somehow imagines himself to be so, in his own mind), or does it point to Charles being not a mere avatar for himself but some other being, whether a ghost or spiritual companion of some sort?
And on a similar note, why do Laurie’s parents not react either way to the detail that this Charles never wears a jacket? If this is Laurie’s own behaviour, it should set alarm bells ringing, and if it isn’t, it suggests Charles is at least conceived as different in Laurie’s mind’s eye, even if he has no tangible reality.
Of course, these two explanations – the rational (Laurie is simply lying about Charles to excuse his own bad behaviour) and supernatural (he’s some ghostly companion) – are not the only options. It is also possible that Charles is not a ghost but that Laurie isn’t lying about him either. In rare instances, children can sometimes become so invested in their fantasies of an imaginary friend that the line between reality and play becomes blurred, if not entirely lost; these friends then take on the illusion of being real to the child, even though they are mere hallucinations or delusions.
What makes ‘Charles’ such a well-constructed story is that Jackson provides us with enough detail to float all three possibilities, without giving us quite enough detail to pin any one of them down as the definitive explanation.