funhouse

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”: A Postmodern Critique of the Developmental Narrative

“Lost in the Funhouse” is a short story in John Barth’s book of the same name, originally published in 1968.  The stories within this collection are typically approached as postmodern due to their self-reflexivity, their self-awareness, and their use of self-reference. The short story “Life in the Funhouse,” in particular, is known for its active destabilization of truth, linearity, and structure, and it is an ideal text to study when engaging in the frustrating exercise of defining postmodernity as it pertains to the study of literary texts.

Plot-wise, not much occurs within this narrative. In a nutshell, a teenage boy named Ambrose travels with his family to Ocean City, Maryland, where they spend most of their time sunbathing at the beach, going on amusement park rides, and entertaining themselves with games at the Ocean City boardwalk. Ambrose is nervous because he really likes this girl named Magda, and wants to develop the courage to confess his love for her. Although he eventually invites Magda to go into a funhouse with him, Magda eventually trails off with Ambrose’s brother, Peter, leaving him alone and isolated within the dark confines of the funhouse. The rest of the narrative traces Ambrose’s thoughts and dissatisfaction caused not only by his inability to express his feelings, but also  by his inability to escape from the funhouse.

This plot, however, constitutes a really small part of the narrative. “Lost in the Funhouse” is peppered with moments of self-reflexivity and meta-awareness, and the narrator often deviates from the plot in order to make claims regarding the intricacies of language, the difficulties of writing, and the impossibility of literary innovation. Within this narrative, we have a triangulation of three perspectives: the perspective of the protagonist, the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the speaker/narrator (who also shares most of the meta-fictional elements within the short story). Given the fact that this text is a meta-fiction, the elements within the story should be approached not only by how they develop the plot, but also by their commentary as pertaining to the acts of writing and reading fiction. This is particularly why close-reading and deconstruction are crucial in terms of determining what the text is trying to achieve. In an attempt to highlight the complexity and richness of this story, let me turn my attention to unpacking the following passage:

One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-funhouse story is that either everybody’s felt what Ambrose feels, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person feels such things, in which case Ambrose is a freak. “Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?” And it’s all too long and rambling, as if the author. For all a person knows the first time through, the end could be just around the corner; perhaps, not impossibly it’s been within the reach any number of times. On the other hand he may be scarcely past the start, with everything yet to get through, an intolerable idea. (88)

Although plot-wise there is an actual or concrete funhouse, the term is also being invoked as a symbol for narrative, fiction, or perhaps even the mind of the protagonist. “Lost in the Funhouse” is an exploratory narrative that delves into the woes that Ambrose faces when analyzing his own precociousness, and when confronting the confusing and contradictory issues that arise when one grows up–making the story, in essence, a coming-of-age narrative. In the passage above, the narrator uses quotation marks to bring up the tired and overwrought nature of the coming-of-age genre. Furthermore, the quote asks readers to reflect on how sensitive protagonists within this genre suffer from the woes of over-thinking, and how they often share thoughts that are deemed to be too advanced or “unrealisitic” given the protagonist’s age.

It becomes important to question why Barth shares this critique of the “lost-in-the-funhouse” narrative when the story itself incorporates every single element that is critiqued: the protagonist of the story is a sensitive character, who often offers long, rambling, and contradictory interpretations of himself and the people that surround him. The text explores the perceived incongruity of sensitive adolescents expressing ideas that surpass their faculties, at least within fiction: “Is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?” (70). Despite this questioning, the protagonist still  engages with intense philosophical and existential ideas, leading the reader to come with their own answers to the aforementioned question. Not only can this be approached as an attempt to destabilize stereotypes in terms of what adolescents are or are not capable of deliberating, but it also pushes the reader to question the foundations that generate these so-called truisms and verisimilitudes.  Is it possible for a teen to conceive of sophisticated ideas? Is there a specific age that a person must reach before being able to formulate complex ideas?

It can be said that the narrator considers the coming-of-age genre to be important or useful given its universality, but at the same time, the text makes overt critiques on the use of conventions and patterns to portray universal themes. Growth, development, and linearity (both from a textual and non-textual perspective) are thus prominent themes that are scrutinized within the depths of the funhouse.

Narrative

Figure 1. This graphic is a replication of the diagram found in page 91 of “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which the narrator discusses the general pattern that most fictional narratives follow: exposition, conflict, complication, climax, and resolution.

The narrator of the story makes a critique of patterns by illustrating the conventions that narratives usually appropriate in order to assure that they are effective. The text painstakingly depicts the usual structures and conventions that narratives employ to deliver a story (see Figure 1). “Lost in the Funhouse” deviates immensely from the conventional and linear plot, and it is self aware of this deviation: “The beginning should recount the events between Ambrose’s first sight of the funhouse early in the afternoon and his entering it with Magda and Peter in the evening. The middle would narrate all relevant events from the time he loses his way; middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it” (74). Although the narrator stresses that this is how stories should be structured, “Lost in the Funhouse” deliberately refutes these conventions by delivering a narrative with a prolonged exposition that is contradictory and that does not follow typical patterns of resolution. Details of the plot’s so-called climax, introduction, and conclusion are also scrambled throughout the text, and are not found within the expected locations. Although the narrator admits that this deviation forsakes “the effects of drama” that are possible in the short story, he also makes it clear that this deviation of narrative conventions “can better effect” the dramatic possibilities of the story (91).

With this in mind, it can be argued that the narrator is not necessarily refuting the importance of fiction with sensitive adolescents, but rather, he is contesting the usefulness of a linear narrative to do justice to the multifaceted, complicated, and fragmentary nature of the issues that are faced during the coming-of-age process. I thought this notion was particularly apparent as Ambrose ventures through the maze of mirrors in the funhouse. As Ambrose sees multiple selves being reflected as he tunnels through those mirrored paths, he realizes the futility of trying to approach the self as a single, atomized unit:

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, all his wretched life, so fearful were the alternatives. (90)

The passage above is one of the most overt critiques on linearity, development, and the conventions that are usually invoked when writing developmental narratives. It attacks the notion of teleology and fulfillment, going as far as to argue that development is not always achieved by following points A to D. Furthermore, this passage refutes the notion of self-fulfillment by highlighting the cyclic nature and the folly of trying to pin down a clear and clean definition of the self. The self is always more fragmented and unreachable than narratives of development usually convey, and the self is always found in a state of constant change and growth. Thus, “Lost in the Funhouse” offers an alternative way of thinking about and approaching the process of development. The narrative implies that it would be foolish to approach an individual’s development through how well he or she complies with conventions of growth, maturation, and development–just as it would be equally foolish to judge this text by how well it adheres to narrative conventions.

When it comes to truth, perhaps the narrator is right when asserting that “we will never get out of the funhouse” (74).

Work Cited

 Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. Print.

curiousincidentcover

Structure and Development in Mark Haddon’s [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time]

Front cover of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Front cover of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The publication history of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the God in the Night-Time (2003) is indeed very curious, mostly because it was deliberately marketed as both a children’s book and an adult novel. This leads me to invoke a pressing issue among scholars and readers who are concerned with narratives of youth: is it possible, nowadays, to have a text (novel, film, etc.) with a child or teenage protagonist and not have it classified as a children’s or young adult work? The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a useful question to keep in mind when approaching Haddon’s novel. The novel portrays themes that both teens and adults can appreciate, and the prose is direct and simple due to the narrator’s direct and no-nonsense approach to the world. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is in essence a fictional story intended to be perceived as the non-fictional narrative of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old teenager with autism. The narrative style and structure of this novel is interesting for many reasons:

  1. The text itself is intended to be approached a mystery novel written by the protagonist, initially focused on his attempt to figure out who murdered his neighbor’s poodle.
  2. Although Christopher acknowledges his role as an author, his teacher/therapist, Siobhan, plays the role of the enigmatic editor. Not only does she offer Christopher suggestions in terms of content, but she also scans his writing to assure that the prose is grammatically correct.
  3. Due to Christopher’s autism, he is incapable of lying (due primarily to his inability and discomfort with imagining scenarios and ideas that are not tethered to reality).
  4. The prose within the novel is accompanied by a series of diagrams and illustrations that facilitate Christopher’s ability to explain key (and at times mundane) aspects of the novel’s plot (see image below).
  5. The novel is a work in progress, and it can be considered epistolary in nature (to some extent).
  6. Christopher uses footnotes to add further explanatory valance to his claims.
Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

The structure of the novel mirrors Christopher’s approach to the world, which is based on logic, deduction, truth, and objectivity. Christopher doesn’t express his emotions easily, and he has a difficult time reading the feelings of others. Christopher avidly hates being touched, he has a penchant for animals and dark enclosed spaces, he is a genius when it comes to math and puzzles, and as suggested previously, he has difficulty in envisioning scenarios that have not occurred in his actual life. Something that surprised me (and that surprises other characters in the novel) is that despite his logical approach of the world, he partakes in actions and thoughts that might be considered whimsical or downright superstitious, such as his immense hatred of the colors yellow and brown, and how he believes that certain color patterns of cars that drive by him are able to predict how good or bad a day will be: “In the bus on the way to school next morning we passed 4 red cars in a row, which meant that it was a Good Day, so I decided not to be sad about Wellington [the neighbor’s dog that was killed]” (24). Despite the fact that this may seem illogical, this seemingly arbitrary influence is actually a way for Christopher to give order to the chaos that surrounds him–and later on, he points out that other people’s days frequently become good or bad due to arbitrary circumstances (such as weather).

What intrigued me the most about this book is how Haddon is masterfully able to depict a voice that deviates from the norm without having Christopher lament his own pathology–an effect that is achieved by writing the story in a first-person point-of-view. He does not view himself as disabled, but rather, he views normalcy as incongruous, contradictory, and illogical. Christopher portrays himself as a beacon of light within a world of stupidity. I will be honest by saying that I don’t know many autistic people, so it is impossible to tell whether Haddon is able to accurately capture the thought-processes, attitudes, and feelings of an autistic person. According to an article posted in Huff Post Books, many people, especially those have autism or who know autistic people, believe that the book is an inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal of Asperger syndrome or autism due to its overemphasis on Christopher’s “strangeness” and his inability to cope with society at large.  Haddon himself claims that the central topic of the novel is not autism, but rather, the trials of a young genius with behavioral issues.  I do know, however, that autism varies in terms of degree and in terms of expression, so it is obvious that the case presented in the book will not necessarily match the case or the experience of every autistic person out there.

While I do believe that there are major issues of representation in this novel, I do not think that this should hinder one from focusing on the emancipatory potential this novel possesses, especially when it comes to highlighting the clash between essentialist and constructivist views of disability. While at times the novel does present autism as a neurological condition that presents symptoms that are beyond Christopher’s control, there are also many instances where people in his environment tend to pathologize him in excess. This is evidenced by how the father approaches the sudden absence of Christopher’s mother: rather than acknowledging the fact that the mother ran away with another man, Christopher’s father decides to tell him that his mother died of a heart attack, wrongfully assuming that Christopher would be unable to understand why his mother abandoned him. Although Christopher does exhibit seemingly “strange” habits and approaches to his surroundings, I think the novel pushes us to question whether this “strangeness” is something inherent within him or something that we project onto him.

What we have here is a coming-of-age novel that challenges what it means to develop, and what it means to come-of-age in the first place. We encounter a protagonist discovering who he is, what he wants, and what he desires. However, he also becomes aware of the limitations he has, the limitations that society imposes on him, and how to transgress said limitations. The novel is not about assimilating to society, but rather, it is about challenging it. We usually think of development as a linear and standard process with normative goals in mind, yet what we witness in Haddon’s novel is a protagonist trying to identify alternative modes of growing in a society that only expects so much growth from this person in the first place. This growth is achieved not through conventional behavior and not through an embrace of love and virtue, but rather, through the art of writing, through mystery solving, through travel, and through logic.

You can purchase a copy of Haddon’s novel here.

Work Cited:

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.

Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ [Flowers for Algernon] – On Disability, Animality, and Structure

Flowers for Algernon

I think I’ll begin by stating that Flowers for Algernon is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books that I’ve read recently. In the narrative, Algernon is the name of a laboratory mouse who successfully underwent an operation to increase its intelligence. The main focus of the novel, however, is Charlie Gordon,  a man suffering from Phenylketonuria with an IQ of around 70. Charlie undergoes  the same procedure done to Algernon, and consequently becomes a genius and a ployglot within a short period of time. However, the procedure is found to have a major flaw, which leads to the mental detriment of both characters.

There were many things I loved about this novel. It is delivered in an epistolary fashion by Charlie, so his musings are quite candid and honest, and his struggle to become a “normal” human being is frequently highlighted throughout the narrative. Even when Charlie becomes a genius, he realizes that there is a difference between being intellectually mature and emotionally mature. Although he is able to quickly learn languages and conduct difficult thought experiments with ease after the operation, he finds it difficult to make friends and connect with people emotionally, and even sexually. What we have here is a novel of development, or a Bildungsroman, that takes place after the character has reached adulthood, which I find completely fascinating.

I thought the epistolary structure of the novel added much dimension to it, for through Charlie’s writing we are able to observe his intellectual progress and detriment. Charlie’s first epistles contain many grammatical errors, words are usually spelled according to their pronunciation, and the vocabulary is relatively simple. The first sentence of his writing, for instance, is: “Dr Struss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on” (Keyes). As the narrative progresses, and especially after Charlie undergoes his procedure, he begins to improve his punctuation, his grammar, and the complexity of his words and ideas dramatically increases. This change of writing style really adds to the character’s ethos and our ability to connect to his words.

Flowers for Algernon was very rich thematically, and it covered issues such as the role of mentally disabled human beings within our society, and other complex issues, such as the relationship between humans and animals and the effects of psychological and physical abuse to children with expressions of intelligence that deviate from the norm. The novel really tried to deal with the differences that exist between mental and physical disabilities, an issue that I have personally grappled with in terms of my past work with representations of disability within contemporary fiction. In one instance, the protagonist questions how mentally disabled persons are viewed and approached by people who have neutral bodies and minds:

How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes–how such people thing nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I–like this boy–had foolishly played the clown. (Keyes)

Flowers for Algernon stressed the ludicrous nature of the hierarchies and the restrictions that are imposed upon certain types of disabilities. The protagonist points out how quickly people can accept and lament physical disabilities because they are easily seen and readable. People with physical disabilities are thus considered marked by other people. The issue with mental handicaps, as interpreted by the protagonist, is that since they are not readable through the body, but rather performed, it gives people the right to consider mental illness as an inferior type of disability.

It’s easier to understand that which can be seen and felt, is it not? Of course, the protagonist actively challenges this idea. Most people, prior to his operation, didn’t even consider Charlie to be a person or a human being–as if intelligence was the spark that ignited his humanity or his spirit. This, of course, is where issues of animality are present within the novel, and it is also the reason why the protagonist identifies so strongly with Algernon. Algernon’s mental deterioration foreshadows Charlie’s eventual intellectual regression, and  Charlie thus makes it his mission to understand the causes for Algernon’s sudden and rapid loss of intelligence.

In perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel, Algernon dies. Rather than getting rid of the laboratory mouse via incineration, Charlie buries him in a yard, giving Algernon the validation that few people bestowed upon him as a living creature. As Charlie’s mental health deteriorates, he continues to visit Algernon’s grave and places flowers over it, treating the mouse as more of an individual than any other person ever did. This of course, is due to Charlie’s strong association with the mouse: they are both Others, and they both deviate not only from expectations of normalcy, but also expectations of humanity. Charlie’s lack of intelligence makes him more animal than human according to the views of those who surround him, and thus, he is locked within the categorical cages that they imposed on him.

As a final remark, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this novel and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflowerwhich leads me to believe that Flowers to Algernon was undoubtedly an influence for Chobosky’s novel. The protagonists of both novels are named Charlie, both illustrate the developmental themes of the novel through the protagonist’s writing and writing style (see my essay on Perks’ use of writing to illustrate development here), both illustrate honest and open characters, and Perks even contains an epistle that discusses a laboratory rat, an obvious tribute to Keyes’ novel. I would further like to explore how Perks is ultimately part of the Algernon genealogy… I think there’s a lot of interesting things to be said when juxtaposing both books together.

All in all, Flowers for Algernon was an amazing read that stimulated me both intellectually and emotionally. I’m glad that years after the novel’s publication (1966), people continue to give Charlie and Algernon the validation and the importance that was never given to them within the novel itself.

References:

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1994. Ebook version.

Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” – On Disability, Animality, and Structure was originally posted on http://angelmatos.net on May 25th, 2013.

Ethics

My Syllabus for Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric – Notre Dame – Spring 2013

Here is the syllabus that I designed for the Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric course that I will teach during the spring 2013 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I think this will be the most daring and innovative writing course that I’ve ever taught. As you will notice, I include a lot of non-traditional assignments that really push students to take advantage of the possibilities of new media and current multimedia platforms. Students will write movie reviews, analyze and create memes, design an original product and create an infomercial for it, and they’ll even create their own audio-narratives. I really think this course will be fun for both my students and I, and I’m sure plenty of effective learning will take place!

I’m using a popular culture theme once again, but this time, we’re focusing on this theme from an ethical perspective. Students will not only explore the virtues of popular culture, but through their writing and creation of multimedia artifacts, they will discover the importance of ethics and virtues in the exchange and circulation of knowledge and information. As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Enjoy!

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower

Growth and Development in Stephen Chbosky’s [The Perks of Being a Wallflower]

Update: The content of this blog post was developed into an academic article that was published by The ALAN Review. I’m thrilled to announce that this article obtained the Nilsen-Donelson award for the best academic article published in 2013. Click on the following link to download a PDF version of the full article: Writing Through Growth, Growth Through Writing: [The Perks of Being a Wallflower] and the Narrative of Development

Original cover of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (1999)

I remember the first time that I held that bright green cover in my hands early in the morning during the Christmas of 2002. In all honesty, I had no concrete clue of what the novel was about. I just remember surfing through the web, looking for young adult books to get me through the holidays, and the title of this novel caught my attention: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Now, it was an unusually complex title for a young adult novel, but seeing as I myself felt like a wallflower at times, something about the title spoke to me. Little did I know that I was about to read the book that led to a shift in my being… a book that affected me on levels beyond comprehension… a book that almost 14 years later continues to shape who I am.

When people ask me what is my favorite text of all time, they would probably expect me to say something that any other literary scholar would say: Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s poetry, Dickens’ novels, or maybe even Thoreau’s philosophies and discussions. However, my answer would undoubtedly be the aforementioned book titled Perks of Being a Wallflower, written by Stephen Chbosky. Sure, the book is not a book for everyone. Many people become “nauseated” with the protagonist’s overly sentimental musings, and others simply get angry with the protagonist’s lack of action (these were reactions that some of my past students had when first reading the novel). Others accuse the book of being a rip-off of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; true, it is unsurprising to see that Salinger’s text was indeed an influence for Chbosky’s work (it is even one of the many novels that the protagonist encounters throughout the narration), but comparing the two works would be like comparing apples and pears: they have similar textures and flavor profiles, but in the end they are different fruits that possess different forms.

I consider the novel to be one-of-a-kind. Charlie, the protagonist, is one of the most vulnerable, raw, real, and honest literary characters that I have encountered within the realm of young adult fiction (and arguably, all genres of fiction). The novel is one of the few instances in which readers have the opportunity to witness the uncensored perspectives of a male character who is not afraid to share his thoughts and sentiments. As of now, it has been the only book that has been capable of making me cry. True, I read the novel during a vulnerable time: like Charlie, I was lost, and confused, and I was looking for someone to speak to. Charlie, the protagonist of the novel, ultimately became that person. But, even when reading Perks numerous times after escaping my own period of vulnerability, it still continues to “listen” to me, and to speak to me. It still continues to haunt me. And every time I read it, it says something different to me.

The film was superbly acted by Emma Watson as the vivacious and complex Samantha, and Logan Lerman as Charlie, the film’s heart-breaking and fractured protagonist.

The reason I’m bringing this book up is because I finally was able to see the film adaptation of this novel, which was written AND directed by Stephen Chbosky himself. The movie was only being shown in select theaters, but this weekend, it finally was shown in theaters across the nation. Truth be told, I was rather afraid to see the film. When our favorite books are adapted to the silver screen, there is always the fear that the adaptation won’t live up to our expectations, and that the film will never reach the standards of the original source. However, after seeing the movie last night, I realized that my feelings were misguided. The film adaptation of Perks was endearing, touching, and thought-provoking. But even more so, the movie was crafted for a generation who grew up with the ideals and thoughts manifested in Chbosky’s original text: originality, uniqueness, and loyalty. The movie invites us to ultimately find a sense of belonging in “the island of misfit toys.”

Overall, the film has received very positive reviews. It currently has a score of 8.4/10 in IMDB, and it was certified as a fresh film in Rotten Tomatoes, with a current approval rate of 86% among critics and 95% among audience members. And in all honesty, those who don’t understand the movie, or that consider it another bland coming-of-age story either fail to sympathize with the hurdles that the protagonist had to overcome, or they find it hard to connect with the notion of being an outsider (after all, not everyone is aware of the unique perspective that one develops when “standing on the fringes of life”).

In due course, the film left me inspired, and it pushed me to submit an article that I wrote on the novel last semester to the ALAN Review, the nation’s leading journal on the study and teaching of young adult literature. Frankly, I had reservations in terms of submitting the article for review, mostly because I feel like I cannot effectively do justice to my favorite novel of all time. In addition, I am aware that the article is far from perfect. However, just like Charlie had to learn how to participate, I needed to step out of the shadows and take an academic risk. I have no idea whether or not the article will be accepted for publication, but I guess there was no harm in trying.

Anyway, to conclude today’s post, I will include an excerpt from the article that I submitted. Wish me luck!

Excerpt of “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” written by Angel Daniel Matos:

[…]

Although Perks is certainly considered epistolary in terms of its form and delivery, its content and function are definitely attuned towards the aims of developmental fiction. Given that the protagonist depicts his own developmental process through his writing, and given that the novel is written via a series of letters, it is imperative that the reader becomes attuned to how the process of writing and the process of Bildung work together to fulfill and challenge the nuances of development within the literary scope. The process of writing in Perks manifests primarily in two ways: through the letters that Charlie writes to the anonymous recipient and through the assignments and tasks that he completes for his English class in high school. Fascinatingly, Charlie’s writing is very much reflective of his own development as a person, and the writing that we encounter in the first letters of the book is more scrambled, disorganized, and “immature” in comparison to the prose found in his final letters.

For instance, here’s an example of Charlie’s writing at the beginning of the novel: “Aunt Helen told my father not to hit me in front of her ever again and my father said this was his house and he would do what he wanted and my mom was quiet and so were my brother and sister” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 6). This sentence exemplifies the writing style that is predominant during the first letters of the novel: the prose is peppered with run-on sentences, he has not mastered the art of punctuation, and his ideas many times lack coherence and cohesion. We see that his writing style, and even the topics that he discusses in his letters, begin to evolve and mature as Charlie gains more experience with the art of writing, and as he begins to delve in increasingly complicated efforts to understand himself and the people around him. Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, assumes the role of Charlie’s mentor not only from an educational standpoint, but from a formational one as well. Charlie also takes Bill’s advice and suggestions quite seriously, and although he always gives Charlie A’s on his report cards, he always labels his essays with a lower grade as a way of challenging him:

First of all, Bill gave me a C on my To Kill a Mockingbird essay because he said that I run my sentences together. I am trying now to practice not to do that. He also said that I should use the vocabulary words that I learn in class like “corpulent” and “jaundice.” I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 14)

After Bill’s recommendations, Charlie’s letters increasingly avoid the use of run-on sentences, and his prose becomes much clearer and more efficient, saying more using less words. It is also interesting to note that when Charlie writes about the books that Bill assigns to him, he manages to use writing as a way of evaluating the actions of the characters in the books he reads, and he always tries to establish parallels between his own life and the “life” portrayed in the books.

This notion of comparing and contrasting becomes important in terms of the content depicted in Charlie’s letters, for it is in this instance that he begins to situate himself more prominently in the actions that are represented in the letters. At first, most of what he writes about is concerned with the observations that he makes of his family. This notion of writing “empirical” observations of the people he observes becomes the main focus of Charlie’s letters until Bill begins to notice that Charlie constantly stares at people and scrutinizes them obsessively. He then asks Charlie what he thinks about when he observes people, and after he tells Bill everything he thinks about, the teacher remarks that although thinking a lot is not necessarily a bad thing, “sometimes people use thoughts to not participate in life” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 24). This remark pushes Charlie to further assess his own life and the degree to which he participates in events, talks with other people, and tries to make friends. However, the very process of writing his thoughts obliges him to become introverted and pensive, and he continues to write letters as a way of assessing his own life: “when I write letters, I spend the next two days thinking about what I figured out in my letters. I do not know if this is good or bad” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 28). The effort that Charlie puts in trying to understand his meditations is a clear indicator that Bill was right to some extent, for so much effort is put into trying to understand, that there is little room to actually live and enjoy life.

Despite the mental effort and time required in the crafting of his letters, there seems to be a radical shift in terms of the content being portrayed after Bill warns Charlie about the perils of overthinking. The focus of the letters shifts from a focus on family to a focus primarily on Charlie’s efforts to socialize and make friends. In due course, Charlie becomes very close to a group of seniors at his school, known for not being the most popular and loved people within the premises. The first friend he makes in high school is Patrick, a gay senior with a penchant for jokes and mischief, and who introduces Charlie into the world of drinking, smoking, and the unwritten rules of sexual behavior. He also befriends Sam (short for Samantha), who is Patrick’s stepsister and on whom Charlie develops an obsessive crush. The bulk of the letters depicted after this point discuss the differences that exist between Patrick, Samantha, other friends, and himself, his strivings to understand the motivations behind their thoughts and actions, and more importantly, the arduous process of integrating himself with Patrick and Samantha’s circle of friends.

Charlie develops a clearer sense of the world through this arduous process of integration, and through his immersion in new experiences such as drug use, masturbation, visits to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and through his exposure to different literatures. His analysis of the content of his letters, and the feedback he gets from his essays at school, demonstrate that Charlie is developing the ability to make his writing more concrete and understandable due to the fact that he is undergoing experiences that provide him with a substantial analytical platform. Even more so, Charlie’s development of his writing prowess leads him to the discovery of the craft he wants to hone as a professional endeavor: “I have decided that maybe I want to write when I grow up. I just don’t know what I would write” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 46). Although at first the letters prevented him from participating due to their introspective and slightly amateurish nature, it is when Charlie combines his writing skills with the experiences that he has obtained that allows him to develop a richer image of who he is and who he wants to be. Interestingly, the more Charlie writes, the more he understands himself, and the easier it is for the recipient of the letters to develop a more defined snapshot of Charlie’s mind. In other words, the more Charlie begins to understand himself, the more others also begin to understand him.

It is unclear whether Charlie keeps copies of the letters for himself; however, Charlie consistently makes reference to past letters. Charlie compares and contrasts experiences illustrated in his letters, and he also revisits previous points of discussion in order to reevaluate his thoughts using the knowledge that his experiences have thrust upon him. For instance, Charlie once reads a poem to his friends titled “A Person/ A Paper/ A Promise Remembered,” written by Patrick Comeaux and given to him by Michael (the friend who committed suicide), which portrays the growth of a boy into a man, and concludes with the speaker’s suicide due to his disillusionment with life. At first, Charlie is unable to understand the poem clearly, and he is unwilling to understand why a person would commit suicide. But, during New Year’s Eve, Charlie writes a letter in which he confesses that a particular experience has unfortunately helped him to grasp the intended meaning of the poem:

I just remembered what made me think of all this. I’m going to write it down because maybe if I do I won’t have to think about it. And I won’t get upset. But the thing is that I can hear Sam and Craig having sex, and for the first time in my life, I understand the end of that poem. And I never wanted to. You have to believe me. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 96)

It is important to note that in this instance, Charlie is using writing for a new purpose: rather than using the letters as a means of interpreting himself and his world, he uses writing as a way of distancing himself from his thoughts, as if writing were a way of draining his worries away from his mind. Even more so, it is through looking back at his own writing that he is able to comprehend how he loses innocence, and how he is able to understand concepts that used to escape his cognizance. It is after this point that Charlie becomes a “rebel” in many aspects: he begins to smoke and drink more than ever; he begins to explore his sexual identity by hanging out more often with Patrick and kissing him every so often, and he secretly offers his sister assistance when she believes she is pregnant.

Charlie begins to realize that life does not have to be lived according to others’ expectations, and if he is to achieve any degree of happiness, he has to find a way to balance his desires and social demand. This stepping away from society’s parameters also manifests within Charlie’s writing, seeing as he begins to experiment with different styles of writing and of conveying ideas: “I wrote a paper about Walden for Bill, but this time I did it differently. I didn’t write a book report. I wrote a report pretending that I was by myself near a lake for two years. I pretended that I lived off the land and had insights. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the idea of doing that right now” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 128). Thus, rather than complying with a formula or a set of rules on how to tackle his literary interventions through writing, he delves into an experimental endeavor in which he filters the information he decodes in the book through his own set of experiences. Rather than simply being a sponge that absorbs and regurgitates ideas, Charlie begins to view the act of writing as a mediation between a conversion taking place, turning him into an active writer rather than a passive one. Thus, the parallels between emotional and mental development, or Bildung, become increasingly tied to the act of writing throughout the progression of the novel. Furthermore, notice that Charlie seems rather pleased with this new direction that he is taking.

Charlie’s progression from a passive to an active participant is not an overnight change, but rather, it is a very difficult and gradual process. Despite his small victories and attempts, Charlie still remains a wallflower towards the concluding letters of the novel. However, in the climactic letter of the novel, Samantha confronts Charlie and obliges him to face the consequences of his lack of action. Sam has broken up with her boyfriend because he was cheating on her, yet Charlie never made an attempt to date Sam now that she was newly single. In a fit of frustration, Sam confronts Charlie with the truth after he confesses that he did not take action because he was more concerned with her sadness than with trying to be with her:

It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 200)

And rather than replying to her accusations with words, Charlie approaches Sam and starts to kiss her. They soon end up on the bed, kissing passionately, but just as they are about to go all the way, Charlie begins to have a nervous breakdown. To make a long story short, Charlie slowly but surely remembers the fact that he was sexually abused as a child by his diseased aunt Helen, which explains why Charlie was so repressed and had difficulties participating in life. After a few months in the hospital after his breakdown, Charlie begins to come to grips with his repressed past, and he proposes to move on and change the direction of his life. […] Indeed, the surprising and unprecedented moment in which Charlie reawakens his repressed past is indeed heartbreaking and difficult to tolerate emotionally, but it is the moment in which Charlie truly begins to feel free from the unbearable burden of trying to figure out why he is the way he is, and why he so desperately craves to understand the world around him. And although action leads him to achieve his moment of breakthrough, it is the act of writing that helps him put his life into perspective, and that provides the missing puzzle pieces that complete the image of the self.

[…]

The main characters of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” From left to right: Charlie (Logan Lerman), Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson)