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.
In the last post, we explored the quality of empathy we find in Charlie early on in the novel. We’re still in the second letter, and he’s just wrapped up discussing an old middle school friend, Susan, who has become pretty and popular, leaving Charlie behind in high school. Typical story, but it leaves Charlie more concerned with her state of happiness than anything else.
In the next portion of this letter, Charlie tells us about another stereotypical person that’s making his high school experience less than favorable—a school bully named Sean who has taken notice of him. The connection to Susan is that Charlie notes how “unhappy” Sean seems, just as Susan is now unhappy in her popularity. In what might not have been the best decision on Charlie’s part, he decided to tell Sean that he looked unhappy. It escalates into a physical bullying:
“Then, he got mad and started hitting me, and I just did the things my brother taught me to do. My brother is a very good fighter.
‘Go for the knees, throat, and eyes.’
And I did. And I really hurt Sean. And then I started crying. And my sister had to leave her senior honors class and drive me home. I got called to Mr. Small’s office, but I didn’t get suspended or anything because a kid told Mr. Small the truth about the fight.
‘Sean started it. It was self-defense.’
I think the word choice here is interesting—“self-defense”. To play devil’s advocate, but also to highlight the failure in even the most sensitive and empathetic people, it is fair to argue that Sean’s actions were in self-defense as well. Though by hitting Charlie his reaction was extreme, it certainly doesn’t mean that Sean didn’t feel under attack when Charlie called him out on his unhappiness.
The most honest people have trouble being honest with themselves, which includes admissions about their happiness or lack of happiness. Even someone constantly aware of others’ emotions and feelings, someone who is constantly attempting to regard people openly and without judgment, can fail to realize something as simple as the motives behind an angry person’s actions.
In looking to the value this book held for me when I first encountered it, I’d have to say I was probably much the same as Charlie (and often still am) throughout high school and the bulk of my early twenties. I am the type of person who, while I may not be under physical attack, feels constantly under attack in some way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize struggles with depression and anxiety contribute to these types of feelings. However, back when I encountered this novel, I imagine I was 100% on Charlie’s side, never imagining Sean’s actions to be a type of self-defense.
I didn’t recognize this possibility until this reading, and Charlie never recognizes it at all:
“And it was [self-defense]. I just don’t understand why Sean wanted to hurt me. I didn’t do anything to him. I am very small. That’s true. But I guess Sean didn’t know I could fight. The truth is I could have hurt him a lot worse. And maybe I should have. I thought I might have to if he came after the kid who told Mr. Small the truth, but Sean never did go after him. So, everything was forgotten.”
Charlie feels his actions were justified. Sean did get physical first, but Charlie considers going after Sean even a second time an appropriate response if it comes down to it (if “he came after the kid who told Mr. Small the truth”). Charlie moves on from here, and he never thinks about Sean himself, or Sean’s feelings. We’ve established in the first letter that Charlie is a sensitive, emotional kid who desires a lot of protection. He can’t see that Sean desires a certain type of protection, as well. This is something I see now, but could not have discovered before, especially in the context of my first reading of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
I guess what makes this important to my entire purpose for this close-reading of the novel, as well as this series in the blog, is the fact that Charlie doesn’t connect with me as well now as he did before. We share a lot of similarities, of course, even still. However, having matured and grown up considerably, I am in a place now that I can see Charlie has some serious flaws himself. This is the first one I’ve encountered during this particular reading, but I suspect it will not be the last.
So, as I read and attempt to define the value this novel holds in my life, as I continue to seek a reading that justifies my keeping the physical copy of this novel even in the wake of my exponential growth as a minimalist, I must consider this separation between Charlie and I, no matter how small it may seem. I must consider if the value it has currently is as strong as it the value it used to have at the first reading, in my late teens, or in my early twenties.
Of course, that’s the entire reason for the project, and I am determined to make no final conclusions until the end.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. Print.