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The night before Sam leaves for college, Charles goes to her house to help her pack. Sam asks Charlie how he felt when she and Craig broke up, and Charlie says that that’s when he realized how much he loved Sam, because all he wanted was for her to be happy. Sam tells Charlie to take charge and participate in his own life. They start kissing and making out, and Charlie loves it, but when Sam starts to go further, Charlie abruptly pulls away. He’s not sure what’s wrong, but he’s having a deep emotional reaction that he can’t really process. Sam takes him to the couch to lie down. For the first time in the whole book, Charlie remembers Aunt Helen molesting him as a child.
In the morning, Sam leaves for college, and Charlie drives himself home. He realizes he’d been repressing memories of Aunt Helen molesting him, and he starts to understand why his psychiatrist had been probing him so much about his childhood. When Charlie gets home, he sees TV shows, even though the TV isn’t on, and he feels like he’s falling apart. He thanks his “friend” for being such a good listener, and he says goodbye.
Two months later, Charlie writes another letter to his “friend.” His parents found Charlie on the couch, naked and catatonic, and brought him to the mental hospital, where Charlie has been for the past two months. Charlie had realized that his Aunt Helen had been molesting him every Saturday when they watched television together, and this realization caused him to snap. Charlie’s family comes together to support him, and distant relatives write letters and send flowers. All of his friends come to visit, too. Charlie writes that he forgives Aunt Helen because he recognizes how emotionally traumatized she was. Charlie was released yesterday, he writes, and he’s come to appreciate all the small things in life, like eating french fries with his mom. He and Patrick and Sam go driving in the tunnel like old times, and Charlie stands up in the tunnel, lets the wind rush over his face, and feels “infinite.” Charlie decides that he’s going to try to “participate” in his life, and so the letter-writing ends.
The last two letters that Charlie writes to his anonymous “friend” are extremely emotionally loaded. Emotions and events that he had repressed throughout the novel erupt like a volcano. Because Charlie is the narrator, the reader only knows as much as Charlie knows, and so these dramatic revelations are just as shocking to the reader as they are to Charlie. Reading between the lines, the letters definitely show that Charlie is a deeply troubled kid, but since Charlie hasn’t let himself know the extent of his emotional wounds until now, the reader hasn’t been able to come to grips with them, either.
Read more about why Charlie addresses his letters to an unnamed “friend.”
Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the reader and Charlie both thought that he has been traumatized by memories of Aunt Helen because he blamed himself for her death in a car crash. However, as it turns out, Charlie’s trauma regarding his Aunt Helen goes far deeper than this guilt. Charlie has been repressing the fact that Aunt Helen molested him when he was a child, and it is only when he enters into a passionate sexual experience with Sam that these memories come bubbling to his consciousness. The repressed molestation helps explain a lot of Charlie’s confidence issues and difficulties expressing his own desires. This event also helps explain why Charlie has been so passive about sexual experiences throughout the book. Charlie has been trained in childhood that love equates with people performing their will on him, and so he is used to being taken advantage of. But when he tries to engage in a loving, mutual relationship with Sam, he doesn’t yet know how to do this, because he hasn’t yet come to terms with the trauma of his past.
Even though the novel doesn’t exactly end on a cheery note, the Epilogue allows the book to end with a positive outcome. The end of The Perks of Being a Wallflower also echoes the end of The Catcher in the Rye, since Holden ends that book in a psychatric hospital in California. In many ways, Charlie has to be reborn in order to move on.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age novel because Charlie emerges from his childhood and leave it behind, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. The image of Charlie driving through the tunnel and standing in the wind is a visual metaphor for the process of working through his past and emerging into the freedom of his future. The tunnel image at the end of the novel echoes the tunnel in Part One, when Charlie first drives through with Patrick and Sam and begins to experience what it might feel like to be happy. The repetition of driving through the tunnel shows that working through the past is a long process, and might have to be repeated over and over. Ultimately, however, the only way to get to the other side is to go through: not to avoid the past, or to repress it, or to pretend that it’s okay, but rather to face the music and be brave enough to embrace the truth, since the truth is the only thing that will set one free.
Read more about the motif of driving.