The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This contemporary drama is written by Stephen Chbosky and published by MTV Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and is written for ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
The story is set up as a series of letters that the main character, Charlie, writes to an unnamed friend. Charlie has chosen to write to this person because this person didn't sleep with someone at a party, even though he could have. Charlie needs someone to "listen" to him, to try and help him figure out his life. He thinks maybe his family has a part to play in the reason he is both happy and sad. The previous year, his good friend Michael shot himself, and a counselor said it was because he had problems at home.
Charlie writes about his home. He has an older brother who is a freshman in college and an older sister who is a senior in high school. Charlie is beginning high school and is afraid of what it will be like. His Aunt Helen used to be his favorite relative. She lived with his family for several years because of something bad that had happened to her. Charlie didn't find out until much later that she had been molested as a child.
Charlie has difficulty fitting in with the other students in high school. He is smart, quiet and socially awkward. When another student tries to bully him, Charlie defends himself as his older brother taught him to do. He ends up severely hurting the bully, but he isn't suspended because another student explains that Charlie was defending himself.
One night, Charlie's sister tells a boy that likes her that he is a coward because he didn't stand up to the class bully in the past. She uses Charlie as an example of a quiet kid who stands up to bullies. The boy is upset and hits her. Charlie's sister gets quiet and asks Charlie to leave the room. She tells him not to tell their parents what happened. She later says that she and the boy are going out. Another night, Charlie walks in on them having sex.
Charlie gets up the courage to attend a football game by himself. He approaches a kid he recognizes from his shop class. The boy, Patrick, invites Charlie to sit with him. He introduces Charlie to the pretty girl at his side, Sam. They let Charlie tag along with them after the game to Big Boy and ask him questions about himself. Charlie is excited to learn that they aren't dating but are stepbrother and sister. Later, he is ashamed because he has a dream in which he and Sam are naked on the couch, just as he'd seen his sister and her boyfriend.
Charlie doesn't like that he's seen Sam naked without her permission. He apologizes to Sam. She laughs, but not in a mean way, and gives him a hug. She tells him not to think of her that way because she is too old for him. Patrick tries to explain how relationships work, but Charlie becomes confused.
His English teacher notices Charlie studying people at a dance and later asks him if he always thinks so much. He worries that Charlie is only watching life, not participating in it. He then asks Charlie if he is having any problems at home. Charlie tells his teacher about the boy who hit his sister. The teacher calls Charlie's parents, and they forbid his sister to see the boy again. Charlie's sister tells Charlie that she hates him.
Charlie's friendship with Sam and Patrick grows. They invite him to a party after the homecoming dance. It is his first party. The kids are all older, and many are drinking and doing drugs. The host gives Charlie a brownie laced with marijuana. While waiting for Sam to make him something to eat, Charlie walks in on Patrick and Brad — the high school quarterback, kissing. Patrick makes Charlie promise not to tell anyone.
For the first time, Charlie feels accepted. Understood. Later, when he tries to remember the night, he recalls how Sam stood up in the back of Patrick's pickup truck as they drove through a tunnel. At that moment, Charlie felt infinite.
Back in school, Patrick tells Charlie about his secret relationship with Brad. It used to be that Brad had to get drunk or stoned before they could fool around, but now, as long as they meet in quiet places where no one really knows Brad, they can make love. Charlie's English teacher challenges him with extra reading and essays, which Charlie enjoys. He begins to think that maybe he'll be a writer and volunteers to work on a fanzine about punk rock that some of his new friends run.
Charlie is falling deeper in love with Sam. He wishes she would break up with her boyfriend, Craig. He doesn't believe Craig listens to Sam or appreciates her beauty. Charlie talks to his sister about his feelings. She tells him Sam suffers from low self-esteem. When she was a sophomore, Sam was known as the "blow queen." His sister admits that — behind her parents' back — she is seeing the boy who hit her. She says they are in love and will get married when they finish college.
Charlie laments to his friend about how stressful the holidays are in his family. His grandfather usually drinks too much and loudly complains about black people, family secrets and how dry the dinner is. Charlie's great aunt then locks herself in the bathroom and cries. All the men in the family have to urinate in the bushes outside while the girls just have to suffer. Charlie's father drinks a lot when he's around his father-in-law, but he remains quiet, even on the ride home.
This Thanksgiving is different, however, because Charlie's brother is playing football for Penn State, and they all watch a VCR tape of the game. For the first time, no one fights. Charlie's grandfather cries quietly. Charlie suspects it's because he was is thankful that no one else in his family would ever have to quit school and work in the mill as he'd had to do as a teenager.
Charlie is excited about participating in a "Secret Santa" tradition with his new friends. Charlie gets Patrick's name. Charlie gives Patrick several artistic gifts. For his final present he buys a book about Harvey Milk, a gay leader in San Francisco. Charlie's first Secret Santa gift is a pair of socks. As the days go on, Charlie receives all the pieces to a suit, except the coat, and is told to wear them at the upcoming Christmas party.
Charlie is surprised to learn that Patrick was his Secret Santa until Patrick explains that all writers need a good suit and Charlie will be a great writer someday. Sam gives him an old typewriter with a note to write about her someday. She also gives him his first kiss because, unlike her experience, she wants Charlie's first kiss to be with someone who loves him.
Charlie sinks into depression over the Christmas holiday. It is something he does every year since his Aunt Helen died. She died in a car accident on his birthday, which falls on Christmas Eve. Charlie feels guilty because she went out in a snowstorm to buy him a present. When Aunt Helen died, Charlie was hospitalized for his depression. He missed the rest of the school year while he underwent therapy.
At a New Year's Eve party, Charlie tries LSD and ends up falling asleep in the snow. The police don't suspect drugs as Charlie used to do this kind of thing after his aunt died. The doctor at the hospital suggests Charlie start seeing a psychiatrist. Charlie continues to have lingering effects from the drug — trees move, voices are distorted. He worries until Sam explains that some people are very effected by LSD. She gives him a few tricks to help the hallucinations stop and then warns that he should never do acid again.
At a school dance, Charlie sees his sister argue with her boyfriend. Later, he finds her crying in the basement. She admits she's pregnant. The following week, Charlie drives her to an abortion clinic. Charlie starts to cry while he waits for his sister, wondering if this will change her. He hides in the car so no one will see him. When his sister finds him, she's angry that Charlie is smoking. This makes him happy because he knows that the procedure hasn't changed her. He promises not to tell their parents.
Charlie begins dating a friend of Sam's, Mary Elizabeth. She is nice, but talks too much, always about herself. He is upset when Mary Elizabeth invites herself over to a special dinner he'd planned with Sam and Patrick. Charlie becomes very confused about his relationship with Mary Elizabeth, as she seems to change, becoming more needy and less self-assured the more they date and especially after they make out one night.
Later, at party, Patrick dares Charlie to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. Charlie decides to be honest and kisses Sam, not Mary Elizabeth. In the uproar that follows, Patrick takes Charlie home. He tells Charlie that they will call when things settle down. When several weeks go by with no call, Charlie stops by a mutual friend's house to buy some marijuana. The friend tells him that Patrick is in a bad state because Brad's father caught him and Brad together. He severely beat Brad.
When Brad finally returns to school, he won't acknowledge Patrick. They fight in the cafeteria after Brad calls Patrick a faggot. Brad's teammates get involved, and Charlie jumps in. He injures two of the football players before the fight stops. Charlie warns Brad that if he ever tries to hurt Patrick again, he will tell his secret. Charlie isn't suspended, but he has to serve a month of detention.
After the fight, Charlie and his friends make up. Charlie spends a lot of time with Patrick to try and help his friend through the loss of his boyfriend. Patrick takes him to gay bars and to a park where gay men meet in secret. Mostly Patrick talks about how much better college will be. Charlie lets Patrick kiss him, but they go no further.
As the school year ends, Charlie must deal with many changes. His sister and his friends are graduating. Sam breaks up with her boyfriend when he admits that he's been seeing other girls. Charlie realizes that he truly loves Sam because he isn't happy that she is free now. He only cares that she is sad and hurt.
Before she leaves for a summer class at college, she talks to Charlie. She encourages him not to put everyone's needs in front of his own, not to let people do things to him because he thinks it will make them happy. He has to be true to himself and make himself happy. Only then will he be able to find someone to love him for who he really is, not an image he thinks they desire. She asks him point blank what he wants and needs. Instead of answering, he kisses her.
The two end up on her bed. Charlie is enjoying touching Sam until she puts her hand down his pants. Then he stops her. He doesn't explain his feelings, just that he is upset. He's in such bad shape that Sam won't let him drive home. Charlie dreams that night about a time when he was younger and watching television with his Aunt Helen. In the dream, she touches him like Sam did.
The following day he falls into a catatonic state. The next letter, addressed some two months later, explains that he stayed unresponsive for a week, but then began to get better. He stayed in the hospital for two months, working through his memories with a new doctor. His family and friends rally around him, and Charlie is eventually released. Charlie realizes that it does no good to blame anyone for what happened to him. In the end, everyone must deal with what happens in his own life and take responsibility for the choices he makes.
The day after he is released from the hospital, he, Sam and Patrick go out together. This time, Charlie stands in the back of the pickup truck as they drive through the tunnel. For the moment, Charlie feels infinite again. He tells his unnamed friend that this will probably be his last letter. He starts his sophomore year of high school the following day and will probably be too busy trying to live his life, rather than just watching it. He hopes things go well for his friend.
Charlie's parents were raised Catholic but are no longer practicing. Another student says that suicide is a sin. Charlie mentions that at a movie, a lot of the kids are still wearing their suits from Good Friday mass. It reminds him how on Ash Wednesday some kids come to school with marks on their foreheads. Charlie's family celebrates Christmas with presents.
Other Belief Systems
Charlie says he believes in a god, but that he's never given him a name. Mary Elizabeth is a Buddhist. She says that Zen connects you to the world, a part of nature.
God's name is used in vain as is Jesus' name. A--hole, b--tard, bulls--- and s---- are used. The f-word is used in various ways. Other objectionable words include dyke, faggot, p---ed and p---y.
The reader learns in the opening pages that Charlie's friend shot himself in the head. Charlie's father only hit him once, when Charlie made his Aunt Helen cry. His father swore not to hit his children because his stepfather had beaten Charlie's father when he was a child. The stepfather had also beaten his mother and sister.
Charlie's great Uncle Phil eventually found out about the beatings. He and several friends attacked the stepfather. The man died several days later in the hospital. No one was ever charged because in those days, people in the neighborhood didn't call the police about things like that. Charlie beats up a bully who says he's going to give Charlie a swirly (stick his head in the toilet and flush so that his hair will swirl around). Charlie's brother had taught him to defend himself, before going away to school, by going for an attacker's knees, throat and eyes. Charlie does that. The bully is badly hurt, but he never bothers Charlie again. Charlie's grandfather tells how he once beat his daughters because they brought home C's on their report cards. A boy Charlie's sister likes hits her in the face after she berates him for being a coward.
Patrick hits Brad in the cafeteria after being called a name. After the two wrestle each other to the ground, while throwing punches, four of Brad's teammates get involved. Charlie enters the fight to save his friend. Charlie hits one boy's knee with a metal chair. He swipes another in the eyes. It's not clear if he did this with his hands or the chair. The other boy holds his face so Charlie can't see how bad he hurt him.
Throughout the book, there are several references to girls being forced or intimidated into having sex. Brad's father walks in on Brad and Patrick having sex and beats his son so he is unable to attend school for several days. Patrick thought Brad's father was going to kill Brad.
Charlie relates how his friend Michael's girlfriend said she'd kissed him. Sam gives Charlie his first real kiss because she wants it to be from someone who loves him. When she was 7, she was first been kissed by her father's friend.
Before he goes on a date with Mary Elizabeth, Sam gives him advice on kissing. She tells Charlie that the trick is to kiss your partner back the way they are kissing you. On a later date, he and Mary Elizabeth kiss. Eventually, she leads him to take off her shirt and bra. He says they do everything they can do from the stomach up.
Charlie walks in on his sister and her boyfriend having sex on the basement couch. After he meets Sam, Charlie has a dream in which they are in the same position on the couch — both naked and with him on top and Sam's legs draped on either side of the sofa.
Charlie writes that Patrick taught him about masturbation, explains what it is and claims to masturbate a lot, even though he feels like God might disapprove. Charlie relates how when he was younger and his parents weren't home, his brother had a party in the house. Charlie was told to stay in his room. A couple entered. Charlie explained that he had to stay in the room, and they asked if he'd mind them using it. Charlie watched them kiss. The boy convinced the girl to let him take her shirt off. Charlie observed the boy kissing her breasts and putting his hand down her pants. She protested, so the boy took his own pants off and forced her to give him oral sex.
Sam wears her underwear in front of a theater full of people as part of a ritual involving The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another of the movie's rituals is a dance off. The loser has to pretend to have sex with a blow up Gumby doll. Charlie's sister tells him that Sam was known as the "blow queen" during their sophomore year.
Charlie says that he finally found out the bad thing that had happened to his Aunt Helen. She'd been molested by a family friend as a child. She told her parents, but they didn't believe her. The man was allowed to continue visiting the house. At a New Year's Eve party, Charlie can hear Sam and her boyfriend having sex, and it makes him sad. He says everyone else at the party is either asleep or having sex as well.
Charlie talks about getting an erection in a parking lot after Mary Elizabeth complimented him. He later thinks how little the models in magazine ads wear and how some men probably buy the magazines and masturbate to them. Patrick and Charlie trade stories they've heard about kids in school. One couple didn't have a condom so they used a sandwich baggie and had sex doggie-style. One boy became so drunk at a party that he tried to have sex with the host's dog. Another boy got caught masturbating at a party and was teased about it for years. A girl masturbated with a hot dog and had to go to the emergency room.
Before Sam leaves for college, she and Charlie share an evening together. They kiss passionately and end up on her bed, without their clothes on. Sam guides Charlie to touch her intimately. When she tries to do the same for him, he begins to cry. The intimacy causes him to flashback to a time when his Aunt Helen molested him. After therapy, he remembers that she used to molest him while they watched television.
Charlie's friend Patrick is gay. He is in a secret relationship with the quarterback of the football team, Brad. At first, Brad wouldn't admit to being gay. He'd find Patrick at parties, and they'd kiss and make out. Brad would later say he couldn't remember the party because he was too drunk. Over the summer, they had sex for the first time. Brad took the girl's position and cried afterward. Now, they meet on golf courses or at parties where people will keep their secret. Patrick tells Charlie that it's too bad he's not gay. After he breaks up with Brad, Patrick takes Charlie to bars and parks where he can pick up men. When Patrick goes off with other men at these places, he tells Charlie not to make eye contact with anyone. That way they'll know he's not interested in them. Patrick kisses Charlie several times. Even though he isn't gay and doesn't particularly enjoy it, Charlie lets his friend kiss him because it makes him happy.
Alcohol: Charlie's mom drinks wine. Charlie relates how all the adults get drunk at holiday family dinners. Charlie and his friends drink beer, wine and brandy at different parties.
Drugs: Someone slips Charlie a brownie laced with marijuana at his first party. Eventually, Charlie regularly smokes marijuana. He also takes LSD at a party. Patrick is given marijuana by a friend as a Christmas present. Charlie uses his Easter money to buy marijuana.
Tobacco: Patrick and Sam both smoke. Charlie eventually becomes a chain smoker.
Movie tie-in: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In's movie review for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
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