The Perks of Being a Wallflower
|February 1, 1999|
|Media type||Print (Paperback) and Audiobook|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition paperback)
224 pp (regular edition paperback)
|LC Class||PS3553.H3469 P47 1999|
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age epistolary novel by American writer Stephen Chbosky which was first published on February 1, 1999 by Pocket Books. Its narrator is an introverted teenager known as Charlie, who describes his experiences in a series of letters to an anonymous stranger. Set in the early 1990s, the novel follows Charlie through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. Intelligent beyond his years, he is an unconventional thinker; as the story begins, the reader learns that Charlie is also shy and unpopular.
Chbosky took five years to develop and publish The Perks of Being a Wallflower, creating the characters and other aspects of the story from his own memories. The novel addresses themes permeating adolescence, including introversion, sexuality, and drug use. Chbosky makes several references to other literary works, films and pop culture in general.
Although Chbosky's first book was a commercial success, it was banned in some American schools for its content and received mixed reviews from literary critics. In 2012, he adapted and directed a film version starring Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. The film boosted the novel's sales, and the book reached The New York Times Best Seller list.
The story begins with a quiet, sensitive, 15-year-old boy named Charlie writing letters about his life to an unknown recipient. Charlie chooses that person because he said that he heard he was nice and thought that this person would not be judgmental. He discusses his first year at high school, grappling with two traumatic experiences from his past: the suicide of his only middle-school friend, Michael, a year before, and the death of his Aunt Helen (his favorite aunt) during his early childhood.
His English teacher Bill notices Charlie's passion for reading and writing, and assigns him extracurricular books and reports. His English teacher Bill pushes him to do his best and act as a mentor. Charlie befriends senior step-siblings Patrick and Sam. Charlie first meets Patrick in his shop class. When Charlie doesn't call Patrick his nickname, "nothing" there is an automatic response of respect. Charlie quickly develops a crush on Sam and subsequently admits his feelings to her. He is accepted by their group of friends and begins experimenting with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. In the beginning of the friendship with Patrick and Sam they go through the tunnel and that is when the infamous phrase is coined, "in that moment I swear we were infinite". Patrick and Sam also call Charlie a wallflower. This is because he sees things, keeps quiet about them and understands. This is where the title is tied in. Charlie witnesses his sister's boyfriend hit her across the face, but she forbids him from telling their parents. He eventually mentions the occurrence to Bill, who tells Charlie's parents about it. Charlie's relationship with his sister rapidly deteriorates and she continues to see her boyfriend against her parents' wishes. As Charlie engages with his new friends he can control his flashbacks of Aunt Helen, who died in a car crash on her way to buy him a birthday gift. Charlie discovers that Patrick is in a relationship with Brad, a deeply closeted player on the school's football team. It is revealed that Sam was sexually abused as a child, and she kisses Charlie to ensure that his first kiss is from someone who truly loves him.
Mary Elizabeth, a member of the group, invites Charlie to the school's Sadie Hawkins dance and the two enter into a desultory relationship. Charlie's dissatisfaction with the relationship grows steadily over the next few weeks, and he begins heavily smoking both marijuana and cigarettes to distract himself. Eventually, the entire group is hanging out together and Charlie is dared to kiss the "prettiest girl in the room;" he chooses Sam over Mary Elizabeth. Mary Elizabeth storms out, Sam grows angry with Charlie, and Patrick suggests that Charlie stay away from Sam for a while. His flashbacks return, so he goes back to seeing a psychiatrist. He discovers that his sister is pregnant and agrees to bring her to an abortion clinic without telling anyone. His sister breaks up with her boyfriend, after which her and Charlie's relationship begins to improve significantly.
Patrick and Brad's relationship is discovered by Brad's abusive father, and Brad disappears from school for a few days. Upon returning, Brad is cold and incommunicative towards Patrick. Patrick's attempts to reconnect with Brad at school over the next few days backfire when Brad derogatorily attacks Patrick's sexuality in a public environment. Patrick physically attacks Brad until other football players join in and gang up on Patrick. Charlie breaks up the fight, regaining the respect of Sam and her friends. Patrick begins spending much of his time with Charlie in an attempt to drown out the lingering negativity surrounding him and Brad. Patrick kisses Charlie impulsively and then apologizes, but Charlie does not resist in an attempt to be a good friend in Patrick's time of need. Soon Patrick sees Brad engaging with a stranger in the park and Patrick is able to move on from the relationship.
As the school year ends, Charlie is anxious about losing his older friends—especially Sam, who is leaving for a summer college-preparatory program and has learned that her boyfriend cheated on her. When Charlie helps her pack, they talk about his feelings for her; she is angry that he never acted on them. They begin to engage sexually, but Charlie suddenly grows inexplicably uncomfortable and stops Sam. Charlie begins to realize that his sexual contact with Sam has stirred up repressed memories of having been molested by his aunt Helen as a child.
In an epilogue, Charlie is discovered by his parents in a catatonic state and does not show any movement despite being hit reluctantly by his father. After being admitted to a mental hospital, it emerges that Helen sexually abused him when he was young, and his love for her (and empathy for her troubled youth) caused him to repress his traumatic memories. This psychological damage explains his flashbacks and derealization phases throughout the book. In two months Charlie is released, and Sam and Patrick visit him. In the epilogue, Sam, Patrick and Charlie go through the tunnel again and Charlie stands up and exclaims that he felt infinite. He comes to terms with his past: "Even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there". Charlie decides to "participate" in life, and his letter-writing ends.
Background and writing
Chbosky first conceived random ideas, including "a kid standing up in a tunnel," a girl he likes, and parties he goes to. After five years with these elements in mind, he had the idea of writing the novel during a difficult period in his life. He was experiencing a "bad breakup" which led him to ask, "Why good people let themselves get treated so badly?" The author tried to answer the question with the sentence "we accept the love we think we deserve". That meant to be an advice to remark that one is in charge of one's life as he is referring to "not just romance love but also love of self, it's love of your future, it's the love you have for your life."
The story began when Chbosky was in school, evolving from another book on which he was working. In that book he wrote the sentence, "I guess that's just one of the perks of being a wallflower", which led him to realize "that somewhere in that ... was the kid I was really trying to find." Chbosky began writing the novel in the summer of 1996 while he was in college, and within a month and six weeks he completed the story. He rewrote it into two more drafts, concluding the published version in the summer of 1998.
Charlie, "[his] hope in the form of a character", is loosely based on the author and Chbosky included "countless details" in the novel from the time he lived in Pittsburgh. The other characters were "pieces of real people in [his] life"; Chbosky focused on people's struggles and what they are passionate about, attempting to "hone in [on] the essence of each." The characters of Sam and Patrick were an "amalgamate and celebration" of several people Chbosky has met; Sam was based on girls who confided in him, and Patrick was "all the kids I knew who were gay and finding their way to their own identity."
Style and themes
The idea of anonymous letters came from a real experience; during his senior year in high school, Chbosky wrote an anonymous letter to Stewart Stern about how Rebel Without a Cause had influenced him. A year and a half later, Stern found Chbosky and became his mentor. By using a series of letters from Charlie to an anonymous character, Chbosky found "the most intimate way" to talk directly to the reader. He thought the letters would help him keep the story cohesive, "to convey the highs and lows of being young—one day, you're on top of the world and you’ve had the greatest of times".
Critics have identified primary themes of teenage reality and (for adults) nostalgia. According to David Edelstein of the New York Magazine, Chbosky captures the "feeling [that] you belong when among friends, yet you'd soon be alone" and notes that "the pain of loss ... [is] almost as intense as the bliss ... it's nostalgia with an emphasis on nostos, pain [sic]." Word Riot 's Marty Beckerman said that The Perks of Being a Wallflower connects with young people because its scenes are "so universal and happen to so many teenagers." Chbosky wanted to convey respect for teenagers, to "validate and respect and celebrate what [teenagers] are going through every day", and said that the novel is for "anyone who's felt like an outcast."
Although it is also read by adults, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is targeted at a teenaged audience. The book addresses a range of themes (including sex and drugs) dispassionately. Other themes include friendship, body image, first love, suicide, eating disorders and sexuality. Chbosky appreciates the importance of entertainment in adolescence: "Books, songs, and movies are more than entertainment when we're young. They help all of us discover who we are, what we believe, and what we hope our life can be." As such, there are several cultural references: musical (The Smiths and Fleetwood Mac), literary (This Side of Paradise, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird) and theatrical (The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Publication and reception
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published on February 1, 1999 by Pocket Books through its MTV Books imprint. It became the subsidiary's best-selling book with 100,000 copies in print as of 2000, and was included on school reading lists and gathered a cult following. In spite of it, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has appeared six times on the American Library Association's list of 10 most-frequently-challenged books. Usually, there are request to remove it from high school public libraries because it deals with drugs use among teenagers, homosexuality, suicide, and has sexually explicit scenes and "offensive language." Since Chbosky "didn't write it to be a controversial book," he was surprised by the bans.
Critical response was mixed; Publishers Weekly called the novel "trite", dealing with "standard teenage issues" in which "Chbosky infuses a droning insistence on Charlie's supersensitive disposition." Although Kirkus Review said it had "the right combination of realism and uplift", the reviewer criticized Chbosky's "rip-off" of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Although other reviewers made similar comparisons, Chbosky said he "was not trying to mimic [Salinger's] style as a writer"; he saw "how readers could compare Charlie to Salinger's Holden Caulfield", but "they are very different people with unique problems and perspectives".
Francisca Goldsmith of the School Library Journal said the novel "cleverly" makes the readers the recipients of Charlie's letters, and it "will engage teen readers for years to come." Common Sense Media's Kate Pavao praised its relevant themes for teenagers: "Readers will find themselves quickly feeling sorry for the protagonist and worrying about him throughout his transformative journey." In an Amazon.com review, Brangien Davies wrote: "What is most notable about this funny, touching, memorable first novel from Stephen Chbosky is the resounding accuracy with which the author captures the voice of a boy teetering on the brink of adulthood." For The A.V. Club, Marah Eakin wrote that although for an adult "Perks suffers from an overabundance of pure, raw angst ... unlike some more arrested development-friendly YA fare like Harry Potter, Perks speaks to a more specific age range and does it well."
With the announcement of a film adaptation the novel received more attention; it sales increased from 88,847 copies in 2011 to 425,933 in 2012, and it reached the New York Times bestseller lists. It entered the Children's Paperpack Books category on the June 23, 2012 list, and had 1.5 million copies in print in November 2012. As of May 11, 2014 it appeared on The New York Times top 10 list for the 71st non-consecutive week, and was in the top 15 on the November 23 list. The novel has been published in 16 countries in 13 languages.
Since when he was writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower Chbosky aspired to adapt it into a film, in which he called "a lifelong dream of mine." After the publication of the novel Chbosky said he received film offers, refusing them because he "owed the fans a movie that was worthy of their love for the book." In 2010 Mr. Mudd began developing a film version, and the author was signed to write and direct the film by producers John Malkovich, Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith. The film, shot in the Pittsburgh area from May 9 to June 29, 2011, starred Logan Lerman as Charlie, Emma Watson as Sam, Ezra Miller as Patrick, and Nina Dobrev as Charlie's sister, Candace.
It premiered on September 8, 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival, and was released theatrically in the United States by Summit Entertainment on September 21. According to Metacritic it has received "generally favorable reviews", with an average of 67 out of 100 based on 36 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reported an 85-percent approval rate, based on 151 reviews. The film was a commercial success, grossing over $33 million worldwide from a $13 million production budget.
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