Life is about overcoming obstacles and fears to become truly happy, a message that The Perks of Being a Wallflower teaches its readers as Charlie matures through the coming-of-age process. The story follows Charlie as he encounters drugs, sexuality, and friendship while struggling through his freshman year of high school. This involves meeting new people and going through conflicts he has never had to deal with before such as drugs, alcohol, and peer pressure.
In Stephen Chbosky’s realistic coming-of-age novel, the protagonist, Charlie, grows from naivety to self-awareness and from chastity to sexuality. At the beginning of the book, Charlie is both innocent and naive. An example of his innocence can be seen when Sam invites Charlie to her room to show him the typewriter she bought him for Christmas. Sam asks Charlie if he has ever kissed a girl: “[he] shook [his] no. It was so quiet.” This proves how uncomfortable sexuality is for Charlie (70). His discomfort is also evident when he describes his uncomfortable perspective on the school dances: “At the school dances, [he] sit[s] in the background… wonder[ing] how many couples will dance to their song…’” Again, this shows that he attends dances alone (24). Charlie is also very naive early in the book. For instance, when Candace is hit by her boyfriend, Charlie keeps quiet, despite the violent attack, as he mistakenly believes that his friendship with his sister is more important than her well being, as: “…he wound up and hit her hard across the face…It was not like him at all to hit anybody. He was the boy that made mix tapes with themes and hand-colored covers until he hit my sister and stopped the crying…” This is an example of naivety as Charlie does not realize how severe Candace’s boyfriend’s actions are and how someone may seem nice on the outside but are capable of much more (11).
In a similar case, when Charlie attends his first party with Sam and Patrick “[he] ate the brownie, and it tasted a little weird, but it was still a brownie…But this was not an ordinary brownie” He eats the brownies not knowing, or even considering, that they may be filled with pot (35). Charlie also faces conflict throughout the novel due to his new relationship with Mary Elizabeth, and how his actions are influenced more by what he believes other people would like him to do, rather than what he would like to do. Part of his conflict with Mary Elizabeth is demonstrated by how one-sided his relationship is. Namely, Charlie struggles to participate meaningfully in any conversation with Mary Elizabeth. This deficiency is seen while the two are trying to have a phone conversation and “The only thing [he] could say was either “yes” or “no”. There was honestly no room to say anything else… [he] put down the phone, went to the bathroom, and when [he] came back, she was still talking.”(129). In addition, Charlie and Mary Elizabeth do not have a mutual physical attraction. Mary Elizabeth is head over heels in love with Charlie, while Charlie would prefer to be just friends. This is problematic as Charlie is too timid to break up with the more dominant Mary Elizabeth and this creates tension in their friends circle, as Patrick and Sam believe it would be unfair for Charlie to continue to string Mary Elizabeth along. Charlie’s inability to do things for himself further contributes to his internal conflict. He does things to appease others, but never to make himself happy. An example of Charlie’s inability to do things for himself is when he is comforting a heartbroken Patrick. Patrick kisses him goodnight and continues to kiss Charlie even though Charlie gets no pleasure from the experience: ““Did you want him to kiss you?”… “I was just trying to be a friend,” [he] said.”” Even though Charlie is not gay he allowed Patrick to kiss him, as he didn’t want to upset Patrick any further (201). Charlie again shows his desire for acceptance when he begins smoking and skipping class solely to make Sam and Patrick happy by spending more time with them, despite knowing that skipping school and smoking are unacceptable behaviors.
Charlie has two epiphanies concerning his conflicts. An epiphany happens concerning his relationship with Mary Elizabeth during a game of truth or dare where Charlie is dared by Patrick to kiss the prettiest girl in the room: “[he] knew that if [he] kissed Mary Elizabeth [he] would be lying to everyone. Including Sam. Including Patrick. Including Mary Elizabeth. And [he] just couldn’t do it anymore…” Charlie discovers that faking his feelings for Mary Elizabeth is not helping anyone, including himself (135). After this realization he experiences catharsis by kissing Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth, acknowledging his true feelings for Sam. Charlie’s second epiphany is based on his inability to do things for himself, and occurs when Sam gives him a lecture about being more self-sufficient: “[he] figured that [he] should just do what [he] wanted to do… And if [Sam] didn’t like it, then she could just say so.” This shows Charlie’s progression into becoming self-sufficient as he does not care so much about how Sam would feel, but rather what he feels (202). The catharsis that follows this is Charlie kissing Sam again, but this time it is more passionate.
By the end of the novel, Charlie is more aware and experienced. An example of his new-found awareness is shown when he reflects on his ability to control his destiny. He believes that: “… even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” This illustrates that life is not rainbows and daisies and that there is a possibility Charlie will not like the outcome of his actions/life. (211). Additionally, at the end of the book he becomes aware of how impactful his experiences with Sam and Patrick are on his life and how he will be forever changed from meeting and interacting with them. They have taught him many things such as how to be a good friend and to think for himself. Furthermore, Charlie has become much more experienced concerning his sexuality. This is seen when he allows his true feelings for Sam to emerge. His sexual experiences resulted in a failed relationship with Mary Elizabeth, his first crush, first kiss, and attraction to Sam.
Charlie’s increased self-awareness and confidence in his ability to control his future, including the relationships he engages in, demonstrate his character’s maturity through the novel. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower resonates with its readers, and leaves them with an important message: embrace differences, since life is about overcoming fears and challenges to become as happy as possible.