Study Guide

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Analysis

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Coming of Age; Epistolary Novel

    Just Say YA

    Most young adult literature shows off its coming-of-age chops, and Perks doesn't let us down in that department. Get your pens ready for our coming-of-age checklist, because this one has it all:

    • Young kid trying to find himself
    • Use of alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress of growing up
    • Distant parents
    • A non-parent adult mentor to look up to
    • Drama
    • Did we mention drama?
    • Issues of sexuality
    • Depressive thoughts

    Whew. That's a lot of angst packed into one book, and we've probably forgotten one or two dozen things.

    We're being generous when we say Charlie's growth is, well, stunted. (And it's not entirely his fault.) While he might not completely come of age during the course of the novel (your thoughts?), he's certainly on his way. Click on over to our "Themes" section for more.

    Mr. Postman, Look and See

    You might have noticed that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is composed entirely of letters. (If you didn't, you might want to reread… or get your head checked.) The fancy term for this is epistolary novel. Epistle just means letter, so epistolary means…lettery, or made up of letters. This isn't the first time this format has been used in young-adult fiction—Beverly Cleary's epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Henshaw, even won the Newbery Medal. How's that for epistolary awesomeness?

    But here's the thing. In Cleary's novel, Mr. Henshaw wrote back to the young man composing the letters. Perks, on the other hand, is a one-sided correspondence. This is unrequited letter writing, folks. We can't really blame Charlie's pen pal though, because Charlie never gives a return address (and Google wasn't around in 1991).

    Charlie says that letters are "better than a diary because there is communion and a diary can be found" (4.14.93). Normally this is true, but both his statements are false here. As his addressee never responds, there is no communion. And sorry, Charlie, but your letters were found, and the secrets are out.

    So who is this anonymous recipient, the person who "doesn't try to sleep with people even though [they] could have" (4.14.93) and "sounded like such a good person" (4.14.93)? Or maybe the bigger question is, does it really matter?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower might as well come with a question mark at the end.

    Patrick describes Charlie's wallflower nature at the end of Part 1: "You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand" (1.10.108). This is a virtue, according to the Scooby gang, because they all raise their drinks, "and the whole group said, 'To Charlie'" (1.10.112).

    That's a wonderful little toast, yes, and it's definitely nice that Charlie's being accepted. But they're toasting him for keeping quiet, and his characteristic silence causes a lot of mental turmoil for our favorite wallflower.

    Think about it. When he sees a boy force his girlfriend to perform sex acts on him, Charlie keeps quiet. When Patrick starts kissing him even though he isn't gay, Charlie keeps quiet. And even though he is very young when his aunt molests him, Charlie keeps so quiet that he represses it entirely until it bubbles to the surface so fast he ends up hospitalized. We have a hard time including "hospitalization" in our list of perks.

    So what are the perks of being a wallflower? Really, we're asking.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    If the ending of Perks were a cupcake, it would be a dark depressing chocolate with sprinkles of optimism. Charlie's been in the hospital for two months after his repressed memories of molestation at the hands of his beloved aunt have sent him spiraling out of control.

    But Charlie's lucky that he has friends and family that visit and support him. And things are looking up; Charlie tells us that although he was terrified of freshman year of high school, he's actually looking forward to his sophomore year. He writes, "I'm not sure if I will have the time to write any more letters because I might be too busy trying to 'participate'" (Epilogue.22).

    And sure enough, it's Charlie's last letter. He signs off by telling us that we should "believe things are good with [him], and even when they're not, they will be soon enough" (Epilogue.23).

    Are you convinced? Has Charlie really come to terms with his sexual abuse? What does the future hold for our favorite wallflower?

  • Setting

    In or around Pittsburgh, PA in 1991

    Mr. Anonymous (a.k.a. Charlie) never tells us where he lives. No return address, nothing. Well, Charlie, you can't fool us. We here at Shmoop are literary detectives, and we think we've figured you out. We're calling you a Midwestern boy.

    Exhibit A: Charlie's brother goes to Penn State, which is about 140 miles west of Pittsburgh. Then Sam decides to go there, too. If this was all we knew, we could assume that they'd chosen a nearby college. But you know what they say happens when we assume. Thankfully, we have a couple more clues.

    Exhibit B: Charlie's dad's relatives live in Ohio, which according to Charlie is a "two-hour drive" (2.12.39). Now this isn't a math class, but we can safely guess that Charlie's family lives in one of the states surrounding Ohio. Pennsylvania, perhaps?

    Exhibit C: The smoking gun, folks. When Charlie, Sam, and Patrick drive through that symbolic tunnel and feel "infinite" (1.10.118), Charlie names it in his letter: "the Fort Pitt Tunnel" (1.10.116). Oops—cover blown. A quick jaunt over to Google Maps confirms that the Fort Pitt Tunnel is in Pittsburgh, PA.

    Party Like It's 1991

    In 1991, George H.W. Bush was president, Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Dr. Seuss died, and The Silence of the Lambs was a hit at the box office. Also, in a suburb of Pittsburgh (we think), a young boy named Charlie (we think) began his first year of high school.

    The '90s setting isn't necessarily pivotal to the novel. Charlie isn't Forrest Gump—he doesn't meet President Bush, watch the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup, or celebrate the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He isn't even really immersed in the pop culture of his time. He doesn't seem to watch any current TV shows or movies. And his taste in music is everywhere, from the '60s (Simon & Garfunkel), '70s (Pink Floyd), '80s (U2), and '90s (Nirvana).

    What's a Cassette?

    What's important to Charlie in the '90s is the way he listens to music—on a cassette tape. Charlie loves him some mix tapes, too, and that's how he expresses himself to his friends. Making a mix tape takes a little more time and thought than clicking a few MP3s and adding them to a playlist, so it's a pretty nice gesture.

    If you want to make a mix tape of your own, get ready for some focus. After all, you don't want your favorite song, closing out Side A, to get cut off right in the middle of the rockin' thirty-second drum solo. You also have to listen to the music as you record it, so set aside an hour, grab a can of Raging Razzberry Pepsi, and get into a musical mood. If the person you give the final product to can't find anything to play it on, at least they can make a wallet out of it.

    You might be thinking "TMI, Shmoop, TMI," but we just want to get you (and yeah, maybe ourselves) in the '90s mood.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower is made up of letters written by a fifteen-year-old, albeit one with near-perfect grammar and spelling. Charlie's mad English skills make his letters easily readable. This is no WB show. Even Charlie himself asks, "What's the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably?" (1.6.4)

  • Tunnels

    Charlie travels through a literal tunnel three times during the novel. The first and third time, it's with his two BFFs, Sam and Patrick. The second time Charlie is by himself, and it feels a little different.

    The Light(s) at the End of the Tunnel

    When Charlie is driving himself through the tunnel—on his way to a party to meet his friends—he spends a long time analyzing it. It's a really nice analysis, and he pretty much explains the symbolism of the tunnel better than we ever could—seriously, go check it out (4.13.84). But—no offense, Charlie—he takes all the magic and mystery out of it. Overanalyzing can do that.

    When Charlie passes through the same tunnel with Sam and Patrick it's a little more magical. These are two of the few times he's actually living life. He's in the moment, not just on the sidelines watching and analyzing:

    It was me standing up in that tunnel with the wind over my face. Not caring if I saw downtown. Not even thinking about it. Because I was standing in the tunnel. And I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite. (Epilogue.21)

    Tunnels can mean a bunch of different things, but one thing's for sure: they're a passage. So do they represent Charlie's passage from adolescence to adulthood? From wallflower to active teenager? From loner to loyal friend?

    Or, hey, maybe all of the above… and then some.

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    For many people, The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn't just a cheesy '70s B-movie. It's a way of life. Before reading our thoughts on the matter, we suggest you read about the phenomenon, from the making of the movie to the origins of its audience-participation rituals. It's pretty intense stuff.

    You back? Okay. Now you know that people dress up like the sweet transvestite Frank 'N' Furter, throw stuff at each other, and talk to the screen. But what does Rocky Horror mean for Charlie?

    Let's Do the Time Warp Again

    One of the iconic songs in Rocky Horror is the "Time Warp." It's a catchy song, and the dance even comes with its own instructions. (Love. The. '70s.) For modern readers, Perks is a time warp of its own. It brings us back to the '90s, before e-mail and smart phones, when people listened to music on the radio and recorded it onto cassettes.

    Pretty cool how symbols can become symbols only after the fact, right?

    It's Just a Jump to the Left, and Then a Step to the Right

    The "Time Warp" is also a group dance—think the Macarena or the Electric Slide. That's what makes Rocky Horror so special for its participants: the group part. Just like Planet Fitness, Rocky Horror is a judgment-free zone. Charlie can wear a feather boa and a gold speedo and no one says boo. Fitting in is so important to Charlie (and to all high schoolers, let's be honest), and Rocky Horror makes Charlie and the gang feel like they belong.

  • Dancing

    Charlie has quite a few opportunities to dance in the year of the book: the homecoming dance, a Sadie Hawkins dance, and a post-graduation dance party, to name a few.

    But in all that time, Charlie only actually dances once. What gives?

    He Can Dance If He Wants To

    When Bill asks Charlie if he dances, Charlie responds, "I'm not a very good dancer" (1.8.37). Really, though, who is? We're pretty sure Charlie's insecurity about dancing is just indicative of his reluctance to really participate in anything.

    Instead, he just lurks along the walls at school dances—that's our wallflower. He's the first to admit it: "At the school dances, I sit in the background, and I tap my toe, and I wonder how many couples will dance to 'their song'" (1.8.28). The people dancing experience quite a lot (mostly drama), but Charlie just watches it go down.

    Charlie doesn't bust a move until very late in his story when he and Sam share a slow dance: "She held me a little closer. I held her a little closer. And we kept dancing. It was the one time all day that I really wanted the clock to stop" (4.13.95). Hmmm, you might even say he felt infinite.

    So should Charlie be dancing more? Will dancing make him less of a wallflower and bring him closer to others? Or is it the fact that he's coming out of his shell and making friends that allows him to dance to begin with?

    P.S. One last thing to chew on. The only other time in the book that Charlie dances is when he takes Craig's place as Rocky in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But that hardly counts, right? After all, he's in costume and he's only dancing because he's playing a character. For more on Rocky Horror, check out our "Rocky Horror Picture Show" symbol page.

  • Literature and Pop Culture

    In case you haven't figured it out yet, Charlie isn't exactly the most active participant in life. (The title of the book might have tipped you off.) On the rare occasion that Charlie does participate, he's not the most absorbent either; he's more of a dense rock than a porous sponge.

    So where does he get his life experience from?

    The Pagemaster

    When he's at his most introverted, Charlie doesn't totally retreat from reality. Instead, he reads. A lot. He likes to read most books twice, too. His required-reading list is jam-packed with profound classics ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Catcher in the Rye. And bonus: many of these books have young-adult protagonists just like Charlie.

    At first, Charlie's a little lacking in the analysis department: "[To Kill a Mockingbird] is now my favorite book of all time, but then again, I always think that until I read another book" (1.4.2). Charlie's still learning that you have to back up statements like that with a why. (Shameless plug: Hey, Charlie: check out our other Literature guides. We've read a lot of the books you've been assigned.)

    Maybe Charlie is spending too much time living vicariously through the novel's young protagonists to do any sort of critical thinking. Over time, though, with Bill's guidance, Charlie starts to think more critically about the novels he's been assigned and the characters within them. Bill advises him, "Try to be a filter, not a sponge" (4.6.10). We're pretty sure Bill also hopes Charlie will apply the same philosophy to his life, but Charlie's not quite that spongy yet.

    Face the Music

    Charlie's all about the classics when it comes to music, too. His letters are packed with references to music from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and early '90s, some you've probably heard of and others that will have you searching the iTunes store for samples. It's rare to finish a book with a song stuck in your head, but with Perks, it might just happen.

    But here's the thing. Just like with the books, Charlie seems to be living vicariously through these talented musicians: "I think it would be great to have written one of those songs," he says (2.7.9). But he doesn't. At least not for now.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    This is Charlie's story, through and through. His letters give us an intimate look into his life, his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, and his all-too-often fragile mental state.

    And Charlie seems like an honest guy, doesn't he? But wait. Charlie isn't even his real name? He tells us right off the bat, "I will call people by different names or generic names because I don't want you to find me" (1.1.2). So how can we be sure that anything he's saying is true? How can we trust him?

    Maybe we're just being paranoid (and no, it isn't because of Bob's brownies). But we have to admit—it's a little difficult believing everything Charlie says.

      • Allusions

        Literary and Philosophical References

        • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1.3.2), (1.4.2), (1.4.8), (1.5.2), (1.6.3), (3.11.10), (3.11.12), (3.11.27), (4.13.99)
        • F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1.7.21), (3.3.13), (4.13.98)
        • J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1.10.3), (2.2.2), (4.13.98)
        • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (2.7.7), (4.11.3), (4.13.99)
        • John Knowles, A Separate Peace (2.7.7), (4.13.98)
        • Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street (2.9.4)
        • Anne Rice (2.10.19)
        • Dr. Earl Reum, "A Person, A Paper, A Promise" (2.10.43)
        • J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (2.11.10), (2.12.35), (2.14.2), (3.2.27), (4.13.99)
        • Henry David Thoreau, Walden (2.12.61), (3.8.23), (3.10.2), (3.12.11), (4.13.99), (Epilogue.8)
        • Jack Kerouac, On the Road (3.2.27), (3.4.2), (4.6.8), (4.13.98)
        • William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (3.4.5), (3.4.6), (3.4.27), (4.6.7), (4.8.8), (4.13.98)
        • E. E. Cummings, "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" (3.11.3), (3.11.48)
        • E. E. Cummings (3.11.16), (3.12.3), (4.2.13)
        • William Shakespeare, Hamlet (3.11.14), (3.12.2), (4.13.99)
        • Albert Camus, The Stranger (4.2.27), (4.6.5), (4.8.8), (4.13.98)
        • Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (4.6.8), (4.7.2), (4.7.7), (4.8.8), (4.11.4), (4.12.38), (4.12.40), (4.13.99)

        Historical References

        • The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) (2.12.63) 
        • George H.W. Bush (2.12.63)

        Pop Culture References

        Are you sitting down? Flex your scrolling finger and get ready for over four-dozen pop-culture references, from music to TV to magazines and movies.