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The story is told in a series of letters written by Charlie, a freshman in high school, to an unnamed “friend.” Charlie doesn’t know the person he’s writing to, and the friend’s identity is never revealed. Charlie is trying to cope with the recent suicide of his only middle-school friend, Michael, and with the death of his beloved Aunt Helen, which happened when Charlie was seven. At the time of Michael’s death, guidance counselors try to help Charlie, but he was still unable to react beyond screaming and crying.
Charlie feels lonely and outcast in high school: he doesn’t really have any friends, and he swings between being very quiet and beating up kids who tease him. Charlie’s sister is a senior in high school, and Charlie’s brother graduated last year and now plays football at Penn State. The family watches the brother’s games on television.
Charlie reads To Kill a Mockingbird in English class and loves it. Bill Anderson, Charlie’s English teacher, notices that Charlie is passionate about reading and writing, and he assigns Charlie extra books to read and extra essays to write. Charlie witnessed his sister’s boyfriend, who seems like a sweet, artsy guy, hit her hard across the face. But she makes Charlie promise not to tell their parents what happened, so he doesn’t, even when the boyfriend continues to come over and pretend to be nice.
Bill gives Charlie a C on his To Kill a Mockingbird essay, even though it’s clear that Charlie is a gifted writer, because Bill wants to push Charlie and help him improve. Charlie reminisces about watching television with his family, which reminds him of his Aunt Helen. The finale of M*A*S*H is emotional for Charlie’s family, since it marks the end of an era.
Two seniors befriend Charlie: Patrick, whose nickname is “Nothing,” and Sam, Patrick’s stepsister. Charlie immediately develops a crush on Sam, but he’s too shy to act on it. As it turns out, Patrick is secretly dating Brad, the closeted quarterback of the football team. Later that week, Charlie tells Sam that he had a sex dream about her, because he wants to be honest, and she laughs. Patrick gives Charlie advice about dating girls, including not telling them about one’s sex dreams. Charlie confides his insecurities about dating to Bill, and he tells Bill about the boy who’d hit his sister. Bill says, “Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve.” When Charlie goes home that night, he realizes immediately that Bill has called home and told his mom and dad about his sister’s boyfriend. Their parents forbid the sister to see the boyfriend, and the sister calls Charlie a freak.
Patrick has taught Charlie about masturbation, and Charlie’s been doing it more and more. Charlie tells the “friend” that he’s trying to participate more in life, as Bill had advised him to do. He goes the homecoming football game and sits with Patrick and Sam, who invite him to a party after the game. Charlie has a flashback to a big party that his brother had had at their house once, where he accidentally watched a girl get date-raped. Charlie hadn’t realized that it was date-rape until just now, when he talked about it with Patrick and Sam. After the homecoming dance the next day, Charlie punctures the offender’s tires, even though it’s several years later.
After the homecoming game, Charlie drives to the party with Sam and Patrick. When they’re listening to a song in the car, Charlie says, “I feel infinite.” At the party, Charlie has a pot brownie, which gives him the munchies. Sam makes him a milkshake, and in the meatime, Charlie accidentally walks in on Patrick and Brad kissing each other. But Patrick forgives him. He calls Charlie a “wallflower,” but in a loving, not a derogatory way. The next day, at the homecoming dance, Brad dances with his girlfriend, and he and Patrick don’t talk. Charlie’s sister dances with the abusive boy. On the way home from the dance, Sam stands up in the tunnel as they listen to Fleetwood Mac, and Charlie feels “infinite” again.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is written as a series of letters from Charlie, a troubled high school freshman, to a “friend.” But these letters are essentially like diary entries. Beyond the fact that Charlie thinks the “friend” is a good person whom he clearly feels he can trust, nothing is revealed about this mysterious person. Charlie writes every letter, and there’s no back-and-forth correspondence in the book. These early letters establish Charlie’s situation and his character. Charlie is writing these letter to help himself work through two extremely traumatic events in his childhood: the recent suicide of his best friend, Michael, and the death of his Aunt Helen when he was seven. Indeed, Charlie writes fairly matter-of-factly about speaking with doctors and psychiatrists, and as the letters progress, it becomes clear that Charlie is an emotionally troubled kid. Charlie’s diary-like letters quickly become a way for him to process his daily life and to have a place to confide his feelings. At first, Charlie seems to be completely withdrawn and appears to internalize all his emotions, which sometimes means that his emotions come out in uncontrolled bursts. When Charlie enters high school, he feels lonely and friendless, and Michael’s suicide makes him feel like a strange outcast.
Two important things happen near the beginning of the school year that change Charlie from disappearing into the background to feeling special in a good way. First, his English teacher, Bill Anderson, recognizes that Charlie loves reading and writing, and he becomes a mentor figure to him. Bill assigns Charlie classics to read outside class, and by giving Charlie extra essays to write and giving him critical feedback, Bill nurtures Charlie’s natural talents ahd helps him mature and come out of his shell. The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows in the footsteps of many classic coming-of-age stories, and the novels that Bill assigns Charlie are often self-referential winks to this novel’s predecessors. Second, Charlie befriends two seniors, Patrick and Sam, who take him under their wing and fold him into their friend group. Patrick and Sam treat Charlie like a little brother, but not necessarily in a patronizing way. If Bill enriches Charlie’s mind through exposure to literature, and Patrick and Sam enrich Charlie’s social life: they listen to music and drive around, but they also do some seedier things, like smoke and do pot. Bill makes Charlie feel special intellectually, and Patrick and Sam make Charlie feel special socially.
Charlie has a blunt, honest streak, and as he continues to write his feelings in these letters, the process seems to give him the confidence to speak up in his daily life. The letters help Charlie start participating in his own life, rather than remaining always on the outside looking in. Charlie writes about seeing his sister’s boyfriend hit her in a letter to his anonymous friend, and at first, he doesn’t speak up to anyone about it. But a month after he writes about it in a letter, he tells Bill about the incident. Charlie uses his verbalization in these letters to become a more active participant in his own life. Charlie has a lot of feelings to work through, and part of his growth throughout this entire novel is coming to terms with stuff that he’s kept locked up inside of him. Puncturing the date-rapist’s tires allows Charlie to have his own personal revenge years after the fact. Charlie didn’t have the strength to speak up at the time, and now, puncturing the tires finally provides emotional release. But occasionally, Charlie has to learn when it’s important to keep emotions to himself, and the letters provide a safe space for him to work through feelings, rather than acting out. For example, when he has a wet dream about Sam, he tells her about it in real life instead of just keeping it to himself. Patrick helps Charlie understand that there are some things that are better kept private.
Patrick is the first person who calls Charlie a “wallflower.” A wallflower is a person who doesn’t dance at a party, and Charlie’s literally a wallflower at the homecoming dance. But the term has more layers of significance in Charlie’s life. As a wallflower, Charlie feels shy and awkward, and he’s much more comfortable observing life than engaging in it. These letters offer Charlie the opportunity to tell the story of his life and think about his world without becoming directly involved in drama. But being a wallflower still means that Charlie’s part of a social scene, and that’s a vast improvement over not becoming involved at all. Charlie is figuring out how to be comfortable enough in his own skin to stick up for himself and be confident in his own actions. He has a lot of repressed feelings and memories, and his tendency is to watch the world around him and internalize. He’s starting to learn how he might be able to harness his powers of observations and allow himself to blossom.