Week 2 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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“Chbosky adds an upbeat ending to a tale of teenaged angst- the right combination of realism and uplift to allow it on high school reading lists… [The protagonist] oozes with sincerity, rails against celebrity phoniness, and feels an extraliterary bond with his favorite writers (Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Ayn Rand, etc.)… A plain-written narrative suggesting passivity, and thinking too much, lead to confusion and anxiety (Kirkus, 1999).”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the story of a young boy named Charlie, who is entering his first year of high school and is absolutely terrified. Written in letter form, the novel chronicles a year in his life, taking the reader on a journey as Charlie makes friends, falls in love, discovers new literature, and learns how to become a participant in life rather than an observer.

This title was unique for me in that I’d already experienced it on the big screen (having seen the film long before deciding to read the book). Because of this, I sometimes found myself getting distracted with mental comparisons between the book and film, but I thankfully realized very quickly that I didn’t remember the film well enough to really let it hinder my experience. There were certain scenes (such as the Christmas party and the “infinite” tunnel scenes) that I distinctly remembered as being part of the film, but the book (as books often do) had time to really explore much more than its Hollywood counterpart. This was certainly an example of the benefits of taking time to experience both a novel and its film adaptation, as both have their own unique emotional experience, and together they can create a more complete picture.

Sheila Egoff, a Canadian critic, defines the “problem novel” as being “very subject-oriented with the interest primarily residing in the topic rather than the telling. The topics – all adult-oriented- sound like chapter titles from a textbook on social pathology: divorce, drugs, disappearing parents, desertion and death” (As cited in Cart, 2011, p. 32). While I don’t believe that Perks is necessarily a problem novel, I could certainly see characteristics of the problem novel within it. While I thoroughly enjoyed the story, it sometimes felt as if Chboksy was covering controversial issues for the sake of covering them. Drugs, sex, domestic abuse, homosexuality, pregnancy, abortion, molestation, smoking, and a whole slew of other issues make brief appearances in the book, often seeming to be glossed over in favor of the next big issue.

That said, there were aspects of this book that I really enjoyed. For example, I loved that the novel was written in letter form, as it often felt as if Charlie was talking directly to you (given that the recipient of these letters is never revealed, and is referred to simply as “friend”). In addition, being a shy and anxious teen myself, I could really relate to Charlie’s discomfort throughout the book. While his excessive crying might seem, to some, to be unrealistic, I loved the rare opportunity to see a character with actual anxiety in a novel having realistic panic attacks. And, because I related so well to Charlie as an adult, I can imagine many teens who read this book will be able to relate to him as well.

Perhaps my favorite quote from the entire novel happens early on, when Charlie is talking to his English teacher about “problems at home.” Accidentally revealing the fact that his sister was hit by her boyfriend, Bill (his teacher) pauses and says, “Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 24). This quote, while probably a popular one, really spoke to me because of its resounding truth. There are many characters in this novel with severe self-esteem issues, reflecting a demographic (teens) who might also have a great number of self-esteem issues. I was one of those teens, and this quote really rang true to me because it is a reminder never to settle for something because we “think we deserve it.”

I also really enjoyed the idea of being “infinite,” as it is often said that teenagers feel invincible, as if the world and it’s problems can’t touch them (p. 39). To me, this quote signifies those moments in life that we feel will never end, the moments we look back on and remember until our dying days. I think this quote is a reminder that, while we may not be invincible, and while we may have to face hardships in life, there will always be moments that make us feel “infinite.” That, to me, was the overall message of this novel, and it was one of many reasons I was able to overlook its problems in order to see the worth behind it.

As this book is on many “frequently banned” lists, I think it would be an excellent book to display in both schools and libraries for Banned Books Week. In addition, this book would be an excellent one to discuss in any school curriculum, as it brings up many issues that teens may be facing and is excellent for provoking and inspiring conversation. Despite its problems, I would recommend this book to any teen (or adult, for that matter) who sometimes feels like an outcast in life. Whether you think it tries to cover too many issues or not, this book will certainly help anyone struggling through high school to feel more normal. No matter their personal demons, this book will most likely address them, making it an excellent novel for teens who need a character they can really relate to.

References:

Cart, M. (2011). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: American Library Association.

Chbosky, S. (1999). The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York, NY: MTV Books/Pocket Books.

Kirkus. (1999). The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Kirkus Reviews, (2).

 

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