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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower champions and celebrates inclusivity and tolerance by showing both how people can blossom when they are accepted for who they are and how painful life can be for people who are ignored or mistreated. When Charlie enters high school, he is withdrawn. He does not try to connect with people because he is actively grappling with the pain of the two traumatic deaths he has had to undergo. Charlie feels like an outcast and a misfit, and he does not have people whom he can trust. Soon, however, Patrick and Sam fold Charlie into their group, and Charlie learns what life can be like with strong friends. Charlie’s friends’ participation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show clearly demonstrates how necessary it is to have a venue in which everyone can feel both completely included and utterly uninhibited.
Read more about alienation versus inclusion in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
The effects of being rejected by a person or by society are devastating. Charlie’s grandfather is racist and homophobic, and even though Charlie can chalk up his grandfather’s intolerance to old age and bad habits, the comments still pain him and make family functions very awkward. Charlie learns how to navigate his grandfather’s abuse by deflecting and making the family focus on Charlie’s brother’s football game, therefore allowing everyone to feel included. Patrick also feels deeply excluded when Brad rejects his homosexuality and therefore his relationship with Patrick. The two have carried on a closeted relationship throughout the novel. Patrick’s friends include him and accept him, but Brad does not have a similar support network, and with the lack of people who will accept him in his life, Brad cannot learn how to accept himself. At the beginning of the novel, Bill tells Charlie, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and this mantra proves to be true throughout the book. The more inclusive and honest people are, and the more accepting they are of each other, the more harmoniously everyone will be in the long run.
Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, people can only fully develop into the fullest versions of themselves when they take charge of their lives and learn how to stand up for themselves, rather than either standing off to the side all the time or lying down and letting others walk all over them. In the very beginning of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, tells Charlie that he has to start participating in his own life, rather than simply observing and taking in what others are doing. Charlie’s friendships with Patrick and Sam arise as a result of him trying to participate in events instead of standing aside and observing. Charlie participates in his friendships by becoming an extremely empathetic listener. But Charlie discovers that true participation in one’s own life has many layers. Participation does not only mean placing himself in the middle of events. It also means standing up for himself and asserting his own needs, rather than letting people walk all over him.
Participating in one’s own life is not necessarily always a happy experience. Indeed, participation in life often means confronting deep, raw emotions. Many characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower use coping mechanisms to try to escape from the harsh realities of life rather than facing the truth. For example, Brad does not want to admit his homosexuality, so he dates a girl and hooks up with Patrick on the side. When Brad is finally confronted with the choice to confess the truth, he does not do so, instead choosing to suppress his emotions. Patrick, in turn, tries to numb himself from the pain of rejection by drinking, kissing Charlie for emotional support, and having sexual encounters with strange men in the park. Participation in life means facing hard situations and working through them, rather than avoiding the issues or relying on emotional crutches to limp by.