This post is a continuation of an ongoing subject. If you’re just tuning in, you should start at the first blog post on this subject, which you can read here.
Today, I begin my continuation of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower by looking into Charlie’s self-professed “favorite person in the world.” This person is his aunt Helen, who he describes as his Mom’s sister, a girl who did well in high school (much like Charlie and his sister), and a woman who has supplied him with countless books to read as a young boy. Charlie also explains that aunt Helen came to live with the family in the last “few years of her life because something very bad happened to her.”
Of course, there is importance to note here simply because Charlie’s favorite person is apparently dead. It seems Charlie is frequently losing the few individuals he cares about, if Michael (death) and his brother (gone to college) are any indication. Now we also have this news about Charlie’s aunt.
I also sense an emerging theme or motif in the form of crying or tears. Crying comes up again, now, as Charlie discusses aunt Helen:
“Nobody would tell me what happened [to aunt Helen] then even though I always wanted to know. When I was around seven, I stopped asking about it because I kept asking like kids always do and my aunt Helen started crying very hard.”
It may not matter that everyone in this novel is consistently crying, avoiding crying, or asking others not to cry, but I am willing to bet there is something to it. Even if it was an unconscious addition on the part of Chbosky, it is prevalent in only five pages of text so far. If we were talking percentages, it would make up a major percentage of the text at this point. Even further, this is not only the moment when “crying” as an important theme really starts to beg for my attention as a reader, but it is also the moment it escalates to a physical climax:
“That’s when my dad slapped me, saying, ‘You’re hurting your aunt Helen’s feelings!’ I didn’t want to do that, so I stopped. Aunt Helen told my father not to hit me in front of her ever again and my father said it was his house and he would do what he wanted and my mom was quiet and so were my brother and sister.”
Now, here is a tangled web of literary perfection for us. I’ve maintained that Charlie is a character that needs to feel protected, and in a strange distortion of normal family life (at least as I perceive family life from the perspective of an only child from an unbroken, nuclear family), he doesn’t usually receive that protection from his parents, but his brother. Who is protecting who in this moment, though? To what extent are they willing to protect one another?
Charlie’s dad slaps him for making his aunt Helen cry, which implies a need on Charlie’s dad’s part to protect Helen. This is an emotional protection delivered through physical contact, yes, but it is protection nonetheless. Charlie doesn’t tell the person he is writing to he is shocked or hurt that his dad slapped him. Instead, he explains he has no desire to hurt aunt Helen (this in itself is a form of protection), so he stopped the action that was delivering the hurt. In this case, that action is asking aunt Helen was “bad thing” happened to her. Charlie is so concerned with protecting aunt Helen, in fact, he never mentions the harm his dad did beyond explaining it took place.
Meanwhile, aunt Helen seemingly ignores Charlie’s dad’s chivalric attempt at protecting her and instead chooses to protect Charlie. She tells Charlie’s dad never to hit him again, but interestingly enough, she chooses the words “in front of her.” This seems to imply not only does she value protecting Charlie more than she values protecting herself, but she questions her real authority in the household considering she is not a direct member of the family, but simply staying there after whatever “bad thing” happened to her. In essence, she has little faith she can protect Charlie unless she is physically present, and doesn’t pretend she has the power to extend that protection beyond her presence.
Just to make everything a wee bit more dramatic than it already is on page six, Charlie’s dad goes on a rant about “his house” which shows me as a reader he has no problem throwing his power around whether he is physically present or not. In this way, he establishes authority over aunt Helen without having to physically harm her. It makes me wonder why he needs to resort to physical violence to show this same authority over Charlie? No matter what the issue there, it doesn’t at all influence what we learn about Charlie’s mom, brother, and sister in this same moment.
Charlie’s mom, in what is becoming a normal reaction for her even before the end of the first letter, is silent. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t defend her son or her sister, and she doesn’t try to interfere with her husband’s reactions either. Her character is one that is beginning to reek of weakness, at worst, or something far more sinister we can’t yet know, at best. Best yet: how interesting is the lack of reaction from the brother, though? The brother has been set up as Charlie’s primary protector in the family, yet when it comes to physical violence against Charlie at the hand of their father, he is not willing to step up and play his usual role. This tells me as a reader he must respect his dad’s authority or fear involving himself in the situation, even if it means leaving Charlie out in the cold.
At this point, Charlie has a crying fit, what is becoming a commonplace type of meltdown for him, and his father basically tells his mother to get the crying kid out of the room. Here we are again, back at avoiding crying. With Charlie upstairs but inconsolable, Mom needs to do something to make the situation better. She has to get plastered on wine (how suburban housewife of her, getting drunk on wine, at least in my experience) before she can open up to Charlie enough to explain what happened to aunt Helen, an explanation Charlie hasn’t yet extended to us as readers.
At long last, Charlie closes the first letter:
“I don’t know why I wrote all this down for you to read. The reason I wrote this letter is because I start high school tomorrow and I really am afraid of going.”
Well, Charlie, I’m not buying it at this point. Either you’re in serious denial, or you don’t want the reader of the letter to perceive you as weak. Charlie says he doesn’t know why he wrote everything down. I’m not sure. It seems obvious he is alone and needs someone to talk to, right? Even as sensitive and emotional as Charlie is, or more son, because of that sensitivity, he should be able to recognize that his brother (and protector) has gone off to college, his aunt Helen is dead, and his best friend killed himself. If he doesn’t write this letter to this random person he barely knows, who else is he going to talk to? His physically abusive father who doesn’t ever want to see him cry? His mother who quietly submits to any perceived authority around her?
Charlie has to write to this person because otherwise, everything is going to implode in dangerous ways. Oh, and as a brief side note, he starts high school the next day. So, there’s that little nugget of information. After the first admission, the information about high school appears to be a last ditch effort to explain revealing so much personal information to a stranger. Even if this was my first read, I would know Charlie’s melodrama is about to get even more interesting than it already is after a mere six pages.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. Print.