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Charlie feels lonely and outcast in high school, as he doesn't have any friends and alternates between being quiet and beating up kids who tease him. His sister is a beautiful high school senior, and his brother plays football at college.
Charlie likes reading books twice and is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for English class. His family watches his brother playing on TV, and Charlie admits he misses his brother terribly, even if they don't talk much.
Charlie loves To Kill a Mockingbird, and his English teacher, Bill Anderson, noticing his passion for reading and writing, assigns him extra books and essays. Charlie witnesses his sister's apparently nice boyfriend hit her, but he promises not to tell their parents about it.
Charlie says his classmate Patrick, nicknamed Nothing, did such a funny impersonation of the teacher in shop class, even the teacher laughed.
Bill gives Charlie a C on his To Kill a Mockingbird essay to push him. Charlie reminisces about his Aunt Helen.
Two seniors befriend Charlie –Patrick "Nothing" and his stepsister, Sam – at a football game. Charlie develops a crush on Sam.
Charlie tells Bill about his dating insecurities and his sister's boyfriend beating her. Bill tells Charlie's parents, and they forbid their daughter from seeing him, and she calls Charlie a freak.
Charlie hears about his father talking to the family of the boy who hit his sister.
Bill advises Charlie to participate more in life, so he goes to the homecoming football game and sits with Patrick and Sam, who invite him to a party. Charlie recalls a party his brother threw at their house, where he accidentally saw a girl get date-raped, tells Patrick and Sam about it, and after the dance the next day, punctures the offender's tires. After the game, Charlie drives to the party with Sam and Patrick and, listening to a song, feels "infinite." At the party, Charlie eats a pot brownie, accidentally sees Patrick and Brad kissing, and is called a "wallflower" in a loving way. At the homecoming dance, Brad dances with his girlfriend and doesn't talk to Patrick, and Charlie's sister dances with her boyfriend.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 1
Charlie begins to hang out with Patrick and Sam's friends, including the pretty and smart Mary Elizabeth. Patrick tells Charlie how he and Brad met, how Brad was sent to rehab for getting high and drunk, and how they only saw each other in secret.
Bill gives Charlie a B on an extra essay, and he feels he's improving. Charlie starts working for a fanzine that Mary Elizabeth oversees. Sam goes out with Craig, a male model in his twenties, and Charlie feels jealous.
Charlie discusses an experiment that proved rats put up with more pain for pleasure than for food.
Charlie thinks about his brother's glamorous college experience and his father's glory days playing baseball and hopes to have old photographs to show his own happy memories.
Charlie's brother doesn't come home for Thanksgiving as he is behind on his schoolwork, upsetting their mother. She takes Charlie shopping for clothes and suggests having Sam and Patrick over for dinner. Charlie recalls how Michael was the last friend who came over and how they used to watch people through their windows.
During the holidays, each member of Charlie's family deals with the sadness over Aunt Helen's death in different ways: his grandfather usually gets drunk and makes racist comments, and his dad gets drunk and quiet. This Thanksgiving, they watch a tape of Charlie's brother playing football.
Charlie discusses the mix tape he is planning to give Patrick as his first present in a Secret Santa exchange.
Patrick loves the mix tape, and Charlie plans to give him magnetic poetry as the second gift. Charlie thinks Mary Elizabeth is his Secret Santa because only she would give him socks.
Charlie gets pants, a tie, a white shirt, shoes, and a belt from his Secret Santa and expects to get a jacket at the party. He gives Patrick watercolor paints, some paper, a harmonica, and a book about playing it. He is planning to give him a book about Harvey Milk, who was a gay leader.
At the Secret Santa party at Sam and Patrick's house, Charlie meets their nice parents. As the last gift, Charlie reads Patrick a poem Michael had copied for him. Patrick gives Charlie the suit jacket saying all great writers used to wear suits. They exchange presents with their other friends, and Sam whispers that she loves Charlie, giving him a typewriter and his first kiss.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 2
Charlie's birthday is December 24, and he wants the holidays to be over as they are usually very emotional. Bill gives Charlie The Catcher in the Rye to read.
On the way to Ohio, where they will spend the holidays with Charlie's father's family, Charlie's brother says his girlfriend, Kelly, would never let a guy hit her. Charlie’s sister argues with him, and his father tells Charlie to drive the rest of the way. That night, Charlie remembers his father feeling guilty for leaving his own mother and sister at home with an abusive man.
On the drive home, the family visits the grave of Aunt Helen, who had been molested by a family friend, started drinking and taking drugs, and on Charlie's seventh birthday, died in a car accident after telling him she was going to buy his birthday present, which makes Charlie blame himself for her death.
Over the holidays, Charlie reads The Catcher in the Rye four times, drives by himself, visits his Aunt Helen's grave, cries a lot, and feels he might need to see a psychiatrist again.
At a New Year's party, Charlie gets high, vacillates between being philosophical and dizzy, and implies suicidal thoughts.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 2, continued
On January 1, Charlie vomits, lies down in the snow, is found by the police, and is taken home from the ER by his parents. Charlie recalls how he used to wander off and fall asleep in strange places as a kid, and he discovers he has hacked off his hair with scissors while on LSD.
Charlie gets scared about the long-term effects of LSD, but Patrick and Sam reassure he will be OK, and he starts smoking. Bill praises Charlie's The Catcher in the Rye paper and gives him On the Road to read.
Charlie's mood begins to improve, which might be due to his new psychiatrist. Charlie feels thrilled for having philosophical conversations on music and Kurt Cobain with his friends.
Bill discusses the book On the Road with Charlie and gives him Naked Lunch, which he can't initially understand.
Mary Elizabeth invites Charlie to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
Sam gives Charlie tips on how to act around Mary Elizabeth at the dance.
At the dance, Charlie lets Mary Elizabeth talk about herself the whole time and wishes to comfort Sam, who is sad because Craig didn't go to the dance. Charlie's sister has a fight with her boyfriend at the dance, and then tells Charlie she's pregnant. Charlie agrees to drive her to the abortion clinic.
As Charlie waits for his sister at the clinic, he remembers she was the one who taught him where babies come from, and he smokes. His sister comes out and threatens to tell their parents about his smoking, but they laugh as Charlie reminds her she won't.
Mary Elizabeth goes on another date with Charlie and talks the whole time.
Charlie's mother invites Sam and Patrick over, but Mary Elizabeth invites herself over for dinner and monopolizes the conversation, upsetting Charlie.
Mary Elizabeth gives Charlie a book of poems and makes him parade his gratitude. Annoyed, Charlie returns the book to the bookstore but, feeling guilty, buys it back. He gives her a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, but she dismisses it. A few days later, playing Truth or Dare, Patrick dares Charlie to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and he kisses Sam. Mary Elizabeth storms out, Sam follows and scolds Charlie, Charlie cries, Patrick drives him home, and Charlie tells him everything.
As none of his friends talk to him after the Truth or Dare event, Charlie spends spring break reading Hamlet, as assigned by Bill, tries to apologize to Mary Elizabeth, hears from Patrick he should stay away from them for a while, and smokes pot.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 3
Charlie misses his friends and spends his time people-watching at the mall. For the first time since Michael died, Charlie asks Susan, a friend from middle school, if she misses Michael. She doesn't respond, and someone calls Charlie a freak.
Bob tells Charlie that Brad hasn't been to school since his father caught him with Patrick and beat Brad in front of Patrick. After seeing his sister with a new boyfriend, Erik, Charlie goes up to his room and starts reading The Stranger.
Brad comes back to school, ignores Patrick when he tries to talk to him, and then uses a slur against gay people to insult him in the cafeteria. When Patrick punches Brad and is jumped by Brad's football friends, Charlie enters the fight and beats them up. Patrick and Brad's friends get suspension, but Brad and Charlie get detention, and Brad thanks him for stopping the fight. After detention, Sam picks up Charlie, tells him she's angry at what he did to Mary Elizabeth, but thanks him for letting her cool off, and says they can be friends again.
Charlie and Patrick go to the golf course, drink wine, and gossip. Patrick kisses Charlie, but Charlie understands it's just because Patrick misses Brad.
Patrick takes Charlie to a park where gay men hook up and goes into the bushes with someone. Charlie recognizes a local sportscaster, who talks to him about his brother. Patrick takes Charlie to other underground gay locations and, one day, Patrick sees Brad with another guy. Patrick takes Charlie home and thanks him for being his friend.
Bill tells Charlie he planned to move to New York to become a playwright but has decided to stay, as he likes teaching high school. He gives Charlie The Fountainhead, instructing Charlie to be a filter and not a sponge. Charlie writes he really enjoys school now and that Patrick has stopped drinking and cleaned himself up.
Charlie writes the first sentence of his own story. He mentions all his friends are busy with prom, graduation, and schedules, and thinks about his own future graduation.
Charlie's friends make prom and college plans. Charlie finishes The Fountainhead and talks to his psychiatrist about the book and his friends, but he only wants to ask Charlie about his childhood.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 4
Patrick, Sam, and Charlie run up a hill on the golf course into the sunset, and Charlie is happy. Charlie goes to a party at Craig's, serves as the DJ, and loves it as he can both participate and observe at the same time.
On prom night, Charlie is sad about his friends graduating and not having anyone to talk to, but he hopes it will be a happy prom for everyone.
Bill invites Charlie to spend a Saturday afternoon with him and his girlfriend at Bill's house.
Sam and Craig break up after he tells her he had been cheating on her for a while. At Bill's house, he and his girlfriend give Charlie lunch and play records, and Bill tells Charlie he is special.
As Charlie's brother comes home, Charlie tells him about the great things the sportscaster said about him. Charlie's relatives come for his sister's graduation. Charlie goes to a dance club with Patrick and Sam, waxes poetic about driving through the tunnel, and dances with Sam. They go to Peter's, and Charlie gives his friends gifts. He gives Patrick and Sam the books he has read all year, saying he wants them to have his favorite books because they are his favorite people. Sam confesses she is scared to go to college but says they can call each other if things get overwhelming.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 4, continued
Charlie goes to Sam's house to help her pack for college and tells her he realized how much he loved her because all he wanted was for her to be happy. She tells him to take charge and participate in his own life. They kiss, but when Sam starts to go further, Charlie pulls away, and when she takes him to the couch, he remembers Aunt Helen molesting him as a child. In the morning, after Sam leaves for college, Charlie realizes he has been repressing his memories of Aunt Helen molesting him. He feels he's falling apart. He thanks the friend he writes to for being such a good listener and says goodbye.
Charlie writes that his parents found him on the couch, catatonic, and brought him to the psychiatric hospital, where he has been for the past two months. His family and friends come to visit and support him, and Charlie forgives Aunt Helen, recognizing she was emotionally traumatized. Charlie was released the previous day and has come to appreciate all the small things in life. He, Patrick, and Sam go driving through the tunnel, Charlie stands up in the tunnel, feels "infinite," and decides to try to participate in his life.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Part 4, continued & Epilogue