What Is the Theme of “Charles” by Shirley Jackson?

Shirley Jackson’s short story “Charles” has two themes: the tendency that many parents have to overlook traits in their own children and the strong desire that children have for attention. The adventures of the young Laurie, who has just started kindergarten, leave both his parents and teacher nonplussed.

As Laurie enters his kindergarten year, he is showing some troubling signs to his mother. No longer solely sweet in the way he talks, Laurie now slams the door when he gets home, talks rudely to his father and has even stopped waving to his mother when he leaves in the morning.

Laurie has been behaving badly in kindergarten as well, but this story is clearly much earlier than the age when teachers emailed and called home at the drop of a hat, because the only sign of trouble comes from the stories that Laurie tells each night about a poorly behaving student in his class named “Charles.”

Apparently, Charles hits his fellow students as well as his teacher, and he also yells out in class, but eventually he sees the error of his ways, even becoming the teacher’s helper. The closest that Laurie’s mother comes to guessing the truth, at least before the next PTA meeting, when the teacher reveals all, is that Laurie is also misbehaving and may be getting a negative influence from this bad seed in his class.

Clearly, Laurie’s parents do not know their son well enough to see that the stories are made up, even though plenty of clues are available. Laurie is clearly relishing in all of the attention, both at school and at home, but he eventually finds that he prefers the positive variety.