The Perks of Being a Wallflower
|February 1, 1999|
|Media type||Print (Paperback) and Audiobook|
|Pages||256 (first edition paperback)
224 (regular edition paperback)
|LC Class||PS3553.H3469 P47 1999|
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Perks) is a coming-of-age epistolary novel by American writer Stephen Chbosky which was first published on February 1, 1999, by Pocket Books. Set in the early 1990s, the novel follows Charlie, an introverted teenager, through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. The novel details Charlie’s unconventional style of thinking as he navigates between the worlds of adolescence and adulthood, and attempts to deal with poignant questions spurred by his interactions with both his friends and family.
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, while also making 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 the person 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 favorite aunt, Helen, during his early childhood.
His English teacher, who encourages Charlie to call him Bill, notices Charlie's passion for reading and writing, and acts as a mentor by assigning him extracurricular books and reports. Although he is a wallflower, Charlie is befriended by two seniors: Patrick and Sam. Patrick is secretly dating Brad, a closeted football player, and Sam is Patrick's stepsister. Charlie quickly develops a crush on Sam and subsequently admits his feelings to her. 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.
In parallel, 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. Eventually, 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.
Charlie is accepted by Sam and Patrick's group of friends and begins experimenting with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. As Charlie engages with his new friends he cannot control his flashbacks of Aunt Helen, who died in a car crash on her way to buy him a birthday gift. Eventually, Mary Elizabeth, a member of the group, invites Charlie to the school's Sadie Hawkins dance and the two enter into a desultory relationship. The relationship ends, however, during a game of truth or dare when Charlie is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. He kisses Sam, and Mary Elizabeth storms out of the room in response. Following this, Patrick suggests that Charlie stay away from Sam for a while, and the rest of the friend group shuns him. His flashbacks of Aunt Helen return.
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 mean towards Patrick, while Patrick attempts to reconnect with him. However, when Brad derogatorily attacks Patrick's sexuality in public, Patrick physically attacks Brad until other football players join in and gang up on Patrick. Charlie joins in the fight to help Patrick, and breaks it up, regaining the respect of Sam and her friends. Patrick begins spending much of his time with Charlie and Patrick kisses Charlie impulsively and then apologizes, but Charlie understands that he is recovering from his romance with Brad. 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 him being molested by his Aunt Helen as a little boy. Charlie shows signs of PTSD from the incident and the revelation of his abuse helps the reader understand his view of relationships and love.
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 is revealed that Helen actually 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". This answer 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, whom Chbosky has said is "[his] hope in the form of a character", is loosely based on the author. In the novel, Chbosky included "countless details" 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 nostalgia. According to David Edelstein of the New York Magazine, Chbosky captures the "feeling 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]." Marty Beckerman of Word Riot says 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 the novel is for "anyone who's felt like an outcast."
Read by all ages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is targeted at a teenage audience. The book addresses a range of themes dispassionately. These themes include drugs, 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, the book contains several cultural references across all mediums: musically the book references The Smiths and Fleetwood Mac, literarily the book references This Side of Paradise, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird and theatrically the book references 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.
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." 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 young adult 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 Paperback 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. Perks has even been placed at number 15 on NPR's list of the "100 Best-Ever Teen Novels", behind the likes of the Lord of the Rings series, the Harry Potter series, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, the Catcher in the Rye, and other legendary titles.
Censorship is the suppression of literary materials deemed unacceptable or inappropriate by a government or organization. Because of its unique insight into young adult life, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is commonly challenged due to topics included in the novel such as homosexuality, drug use, and sexual activity. This novel has been censored on more than one occasion, but it has been challenged many times. The Perks of Being a Wallflower appeared on the American Library Association (ALA) list “Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books” in 2004, 2006 - 2009, and 2013 - 2014. A challenge of a book is defined as any formal complaint or protest filed against a specific work, even if it is not successfully passed.
Teachers have spoken out about not being able to discuss the book in class, even though the subject matter may be of educational value to the students. Also, many times teachers are not educated on the policy for the introduction of new materials unless the district has recently dealt with a scandal. This can create doubt, second-guesses, and agony in the mind of a teacher about whether or not a work is considered “safe”. While much of the censorship cases and challenges are documented, self-censorship cannot be accounted for in school districts or by parents because the decision is not in public domain.
2007 - Powell, OH
Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio made parents sign off on certain books before teaching the material in class, but recently the policy changed. In the new policy, certain books went under review and were deemed by the school board as inappropriate for the students. In particular, The Perks of Being a Wallflower made headlines when upset parents complained about the new policy. They believe that schools should not remove their right to parent by removing books because a select group of people find it inappropriate. The parents opposed to the book ban felt they should speak out because they’ve, “’been silent too long,’ Roger Ingles told the board. ‘While we've stayed silent you've heard from a small group of parents who want to dictate reading content.’” Ingles wants to do something before his children are, ”limited to reading Dr. Seuss." The school offered a wide selection of titles for kids to read, so if the parents did not want their children reading a certain book they could go to another one. The parents in favor of the book wish for the teachers to have free reign in teaching rather than having their hands tied. The opponents to the book argue the sexually explicit nature of the book exposes children to risqué subjects. However, in response, the parents in favor of the book argued that by banning the book the parents are sending a message to their children that the children cannot be trusted with mature material. This in turn diminishes the maturing effect that the school can have on the children. According to the parents opposed to the ban, by keeping the children studying “safe” material, the children will lack exposure to some real world issues. The complaints did not result in policy change.
2013 - Glen Ellyn, IL
Two parents of an eighth grade student at Hadley Junior High in the Glen Ellyn School District submitted a complaint against The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the school board. Their complaint cited inappropriate language and sexual content that they felt was not fitting for their child to be reading about. When the community learned of the request, many educators and concerned parents rallied in protest calling the complaint censorship. "They're young adults and we can't keep them in a bubble. If they want to keep their kids in a bubble, that's fine, but they shouldn't be telling me what to do," said local parent Anne Blyth. "They can exercise their choice not to read it, but don't take away ours." Upon hearing the community uproar and reviewing the request for the novel’s removal from the curriculum, the school board assembled a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and school officials. According to the minutes, the group found that the novel was only given to selected students to read as independent study. The committee ultimately decided that the book demonstrated educational value and recommended that the piece remain as independent reading for eighth grade students and not be removed from the curriculum entirely.
Following the removal of the book from the school's curriculum, a 4-2 school district vote, the school district established a letter of consent that parents will have to sign off on when the school covers more, "mature" material. This is subject to the school's definition of, "Mature". The letter now contains, "strong" language clearly informing the parents' of the students what the material these, "mature" books will cover. The letter allows for parents to have the final say over what their children can and cannot read. The letter informs the school of which books the parents consider inappropriate for their individual child. The teachers have listed the material covered in their classrooms and the material available in the library on the school website for all parents to see.
2015 - Wallingford, CT
In November of 2015, a parent in the community of Wallingford, Connecticut filed a complaint against The Perks of Being a Wallflower, on the grounds that it was inappropriate to be read by his son in a freshman English class. The parent, Jean-Pierre Bolat, filed the complaint with the principal of Mark T. Sheehan High School, Rosemary Duthie, citing the book’s descriptions of masturbation, homosexuality, sexual assault, and the use of drugs and alcohol. Bolat was particularly disturbed by the instance of date rape described in the novel (in the book, Charlie witnesses a drunk couple engage in oral sex after the girl repeatedly says no in the back room of a party:31). Three months after Bolat filed the complaint, he was appointed as a member of the local school board. In January of that year, Bolat made a second objection to the book in a letter to the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Shawn Parkhurst. His campaign against the inclusion of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the school's curriculum continued as he also gave his reasons for wanting the book removed before a panel of local educators and librarians. They ultimately decided to keep the book in the curriculum. Bolat then had this decision appealed to School Superintendent, Salvatore Menzo, who decided to remove the book from the curriculum, but allowed the book to remain available in school libraries to be read independently. In a letter to parents and faculty in the district, Menzo said the following: “A misunderstanding exists concerning the school district's recent review of the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The Wallingford Public School District did not remove students' access to the book; but rather, made a decision concerning the manner in which the book would be used by the school district following a request for review by a parent."
Menzo's decision was criticized by groups such as the American Library Association and the National Council Against Censorship, as well as individuals such as Deborah Caldwell Stone, deputy director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, and Susan Gomes, former chairwoman of the English Department at Lyman Hall High School, where the book was also removed. After the book was removed from the curriculum in February, Holly Lafond, another local parent whose daughter was a freshman at Lyman, filed a request with the school board for the book to be reinstated. When asked to comment, Lafond said, "He took my daughter's choice away; she didn't have the opportunity to read the book. She didn't have the opportunity to read it or the choice to not read it because it was taken out of the curriculum all together [sic]." Ultimately, her request to have the book reinstated would be successful, and the book was returned to the curriculum of the two schools at the beginning of the next year. Additionally, the concerns of parents like Bolat regarding the controversial themes have been addressed by a Board of Education policy that gives parents the option to have their child be given an alternate assignment, should they find a book to be unsuitable or inappropriate.
2016 - Dade City, FL
In May 2016, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was banned from Pasco County Middle School after two parents complained about the book’s sexual content and drug and alcohol use. The Advanced English teacher asked her students to read the book and that is when two parents complained. Following the complaint, a committee was formed, composed of parents, community members, and staff and they voted to ban the book and recommended the superintendent ban it throughout the district. Spokesperson from the Pasco County Schools, Linda Cobb states the reasoning for the committee, saying, "[The Perks of Being a Wallflower] does have some value but you have to consider your audience. So that's why we have the committee so they can decide, is it appropriate for any students at all?" However, those in favor of the book, like Jacquelynne Harris, argue the book allows for students to encounter, "mature" subject matter within a classroom. Others, like Mirna Manriguez, argue children are "growing up" faster than ever, and society as a whole needs to stop being sensitive about everything. The school district sent home a letter to parents discussing the controversy surrounding the novel in question, and the letter discussed the actions being taken on both sides. The superintendent proceeded to remove the book from the school and tried to get the book banned district-wide. However, Terrie O’brien, a committee member, spoke up against banning the book throughout the district due to the precedent it would set: the banning of any book with any sexual content. Based on O’brien’s objection, the book was only banned at Pasco Middle School, not district-wide.
Response to censorship
Amid the uproar of communities against controversial books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, multiple methods on how to ensure that school curricula are appropriate for children have risen in conversation. One of these methods is to have members of the community and the school screen the materials. Rep. Walter Jones, of North Carolina, is one leader in this movement, as he has introduced legislation in Congress that would require parent councils to review new books added to the curricula and school library. Using this method, the chance of complaints being filed against the school is much lower if parents know that the books have already been evaluated by other concerning adults.
When author Stephen Chbosky wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he did not anticipate the controversy that resulted. He has spoken out many times over the years against these cases of censorship, arguing that the banning of the book prevents his work from achieving its original purpose. This original purpose he states, is to connect with as many troubled and misguided youths as possible. In an a speech he gave that was documented by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, he talks about a letter he received from an anonymous fan. The letter, written in 2009, chronicles her life and explains how her father had recently died, she is not one of the "cool kids" at school, and she recently started practicing self-harm to deal with the stress of it all. She goes on to say that she was preparing to commit suicide until she had read his book, and it gave her a sense of belonging and influenced her to take on a more positive outlook on life. After reading the crowd the letter, Chbosky offers this insight, “I heard an expression a long time ago that I thought was very beautiful that says that ‘he who saves a single life saves the world entire.’”
In an interview specifically responding to the Wallingford controversy, Chbosky explained that the date rape scene is violence, not sex, and he finds it disturbing that people think it is meant to arouse the reader. Chbosky claims that “the whole book is a blueprint for survival. It’s for people who have been through terrible things and need hope and support.” He says that he is offended that people would take two pages of the whole book and put it out of context and say that the book has different intentions than the ones Chbosky clearly had. Chbosky also comments on the act of banning his book and books in general. He explains that if someone objects to the content of the book or the book itself, they should be able to say that they don’t want their child reading it. However, Chbosky doesn’t think it’s okay for that parent to dictate what his child or other children read. Chbosky says that the novel is meant to “create dialogue” because he feels that the more these challenging, and sometimes disturbing, topics are discussed, the more people will understand the issues others face. Chbosky feels sad that the conversation which his book was meant to evoke is trying to be ended by people who fail to understand Chbosky’s purpose of writing the novel.
Since he wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower Chbosky aspired to adapt it into a film, calling this "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 International 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% approval rate, based on 151 reviews. The film grossed over $33 million worldwide from a $13 million production budget.
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