Although Stephen Chbosky’s novel is set in the early 1990s, this coming of age tale remains relevant to the lives of teenagers.
“the protagonist’s thoughtful and introspective account of his first year in high school and perception of the world make the book such a pleasure to read”
The novel may be familiar, with a star-studded film adaptation of the same name released in 2014. Yet the protagonist’s thoughtful and introspective account of his first year in high school and perception of the world make the book such a pleasure to read, and the wording of his letters cannot be visually captured on film.
“Chbosky successfully challenges many characterisation tropes found in other ‘Young Adult’ books”
Recounting the first year of high school seems a simple if not tedious plot. Yet Chbosky successfully challenges many characterisation tropes found in other ‘Young Adult’ books. His use of the epistolary style strengthens the relationship between protagonist Charlie and the reader, who becomes the reader of the letters. Chbosky’s first place narration also places the novel within an American literary tradition of ‘coming of age’ novels.
Throughout the novel, the introverted Charlie is encouraged to read books outside of class by his English teacher. Many of these, notably Catcher in the Rye, Walden, and On The Road, aside from being American classics, feature introspective narratives and protagonists outside of social norms. Charlie’s teacher may be recommending such books to make Charlie feel like less of an outsider. On a intertextual level, such references signpost the novel as ascribing to an American literary tradition beyond mere ‘Young Adult’.
The narrative involves Charlie navigating his freshman year by befriending older pupils who get him out of his shell through 70’s music and The Rocky Horror Show. Interwoven into the exploration of teenage love and friendships are depictions of how characters are affected by mental illness, sexual and physical assault, trauma and abuse. These are portrayed in a sensitive and non-romanticised manner. The emotional and psychological complexities of relationships, whether familial or romantic, are explored. Most memorable is Chbosky’s defiance of stereotypes in the illicit relationship between Charlie’s new found friend Patrick, the class joker, and one of the jocks, Brad.
“The Perks of Being A Wallflower stands out is in realistic characterisation”
Whilst the synopsis does makes the novel sound like yet another cliché-ridden coming of age book, The Perks of Being A Wallflower stands out is in realistic characterisation. None of the main characters are two-dimensional, nor is there the overused ‘self-discovery via a road-trip’ trope. Instead, Chbosky uses an array of characters, taken from tropes of the misfit, jock, supportive teacher, and gives each genuine motivations, backgrounds and character development.
“To have a shy and sensitive male protagonist challenges popular conceptions of masculinity”
You could argue that Charlie is a little too mature and contemplative about the way people interact to portray the genuine thoughts of a fifteen year old boy. Yet to have a shy and sensitive male protagonist challenges popular conceptions of masculinity. For anyone who knows what it’s like to be on the sidelines, to feel deeply and be perplexed by the world around you, Charlie is a sympathetic character. There are several instances in the novel in which his actions are highly questionable, yet such mistakes and disputes between characters further represent what it is to grow up.
Overall, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is novel that depicts what it is to be a teenager. Charlie’s heartfelt exploration of falling in love, making mistakes, and trying to find out who he is bring back moments from our own teenage years.
Featured Image courtesy of Lauren Winson.