Shirley Jackson’s (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) short sketch Charles is frequently anthologized primarily because of the appeal of its protagonist, Laurie Hymen, whose first days at kindergarten prefigure his rebellion against the school system and against authority figures in general. First published in Mademoiselle in 1948, this tale of domestic realism was later reprinted in Jackson’s 1953 collection entitled Life among the Savages. In this series of short stories, Jackson concentrates on more humorous and lighthearted material, moving away from the gothic and horrific modes that she had employed in the short story “The Lottery” and the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Narrated by Laurie Hymen’s mother, “Charles” relates the story of the boy Laurie’s first schoolday and his transformation from precocious toddler to selfsufficient schoolboy who relates his daily adventures to his family, especially the escapades of his classmate Charles, who is daily punished for his pranks. Charles hits or kicks the teacher, is “fresh,” and gets other students in trouble.
Fascinated by Charles’s acting out, the Hymans began to use the child’s name whenever anyone in their extended family does anything bad or inconsiderate. It is no wonder the Hymans are shocked when, during the third week of school, Laurie reports that Charles has transformed himself into the teacher’s helper and into a model student. The parents are fascinated by his sudden change but hardly surprised when Charles reverts to his original rebellious self shortly before the parent-teacher meeting. Since Laurie reports to his parents that Charles has tremendous power in the classroom and that his rebellious actions are followed and admired by his classmates, it is no wonder that Mrs. Hymen is anxious to discover all she can about this little boy who has so impressed her son. However, the teacher reveals that there is no child named Charles in the class and instead voices her concerns about Laurie’s lack of adjustment to the classroom environment.
This ironic twist suggests that, in order to draw attention to himself, the precocious Laurie has created an alter ego who will take the blame for his own acting out. In short, Laurie’s shift from negative to positive behavior indicates his dilemma about what role he wants to fulfill.
While not her most famous story, “Charles” remains one of Jackson’s most appreciated works.