Study Guide

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Themes

By Stephen Chbosky

  • Friendship

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    The Beatles sang "I get by with a little help from my friends."

    Although this (somehow) isn't one of the many songs Charlie mentions in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it sure does apply to his life. In fact, Charlie finds himself battling some pretty dark moments of depression, and he might not have found his way out without his friends. On the other hand, you could argue that Charlie wouldn't have found himself there in the first place without that same lovely help from his friends. If he remained isolated and alone, he wouldn't have had all those fights, break-ups, and other depression-inducing incidents.

    That's the double-edged sword of friendship: can't live with it, can't live without it. And you know what? Charlie's friends might think the same about him. He's not always the most supportive companion, but he does what he can, and some intangible something keeps them all together.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Would you consider Charlie a good friend? Why or why not?
    2. What qualities does Charlie value in a friend? Does he have those qualities himself?
    3. Are Sam and Patrick good friends to Charlie? How do their words and actions express their friendship?
    4. Do you think Charlie will find new friends during his sophomore year of high school?

    Chew on This

    Friendship is like a drug to Charlie: he gets addicted to it, craves it, and goes through withdrawals when he doesn't have it.

    Charlie would probably be friends with anyone nice enough to talk to him.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

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    You won't find the wallflower (Latin name: teenagerus nonparticipatus) in an issue of Better Homes & Gardens. On account of it not being a real flower and all. But if it were, it would probably be a plant Nancy Botwin would grow (illegally), not something you would just pick up at your local garden center.

    We're basing this faux horticultural analysis on Charlie's life in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He doesn't watch a lot of TV, so the whole "Just Say No" campaign clearly never sank in. Like a flower soaking in nutrients from the water it receives, Charlie will take whatever his friends (or complete strangers) give to him—cigarettes, booze, pot, LSD, you name it. The consequences? Not so great.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How do drugs and alcohol affect Charlie's perceptions of life?
    2. Does drinking and doing drugs bring Charlie closer to his friends? If so, what kind of message is that sending to young readers? Does Chbosky counter that message in other ways?
    3. Why do you think Patrick decide to quit drinking?
    4. Why does Charlie start smoking pot so much? Why does he quit?

    Chew on This

    Each character uses drugs and/or alcohol to numb themselves or to escape from a difficult situation.

    Charlie's passivity makes him more likely to take whatever drug is given to him.

  • Sex

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    We're not amoebas. Without sex, none of us would be here. Unfortunately, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie seems to only see and experience only the most negative aspects of human sexuality. Not only was he molested—a memory which he immediately repressed—h also witnesses a date rape, watches as his friend hooks up with numerous men, and takes his sister to get an abortion (among other things). All of these events wound Charlie mentally and color the way he views the world of human sexuality. This is the stuff you don't learn in Health class.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How do Charlie's repressed memories affect his feelings about sex? How will he be different now that his memories aren't repressed?
    2. What are some of the consequences of sex that are portrayed in Perks?
    3. Charlie's sister has sex with her boyfriend after he hits her. What kinds of conversations do you think this can spark in readers?
    4. Does anyone in the book have a healthy sexual relationship?

    Chew on This

    Thoughts of sex trigger negative feelings in Charlie.

    Patrick uses sex to escape from reality, much in the same way he uses drugs and alcohol.

  • Coming of Age

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    When we look in our Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers, we see that the wallflower is classified as a late bloomer. But given plenty of water, sun, and socialization with other creatures (especially outgoing ones, like the social butterfly), they can blossom at a young age—say fifteen years or so?

    Maybe it's because of his repressed memories that Charlie retains a somewhat wide-eyed, child-like view of the world in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie's freshman year of high school is a life-changer, though. After being introduced to drugs and alcohol, meeting some of the best friends he may ever have, and discovering some dark secrets within himself, Charlie is definitely about to grow up.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. In what ways does Charlie mature in Perks and in what ways does he stay a kid?
    2. What are some of the rites of passage Charlie goes through during the novel? Are they normal teenage rites of passage or are they unique to his situation?
    3. How do some of the other young characters in the book mature? What do they have in common with Charlie, and what's different for them?

    Chew on This

    Charlie may feel like a grown up at times, but he still has a lot of actual growing up to do.

    Due to his past, Charlie's growth is a little stunted, but it's not a permanent setback.

  • Passivity

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    There's a fine line between shyness and passivity, and in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie skips back and forth across it like a jump rope. Sure, Charlie has rare moments of assertiveness, like when he approaches Patrick at the football game for the first time. And once he gets the ball rolling, he can run with it. But that works both ways, and when Charlie stops being social, he definitely puts the "inert" in inertia. He's lucky he has Sam and Bill, who try to temper his shyness and get him to participate in, well, anything and everything.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Is Charlie passive aggressive or just plain passive? Is one better than the other?
    2. What prompts Charlie to act when he does? Do you think these moments are exceptions to the rules, or is he growing as a person?
    3. What are the consequences of Charlie's passivity?
    4. Are there benefits to Charlie's inaction?

    Chew on This

    Charlie doesn't ask questions. He only gets the answers people choose to give him.

    On the rare occasions when Charlie acts, it's often with violence.

  • Love

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    Hugs, not drugs! Maybe that's one of the reasons Charlie has no reservations about experimenting with any drug that crosses his path: not enough hugs.

    There are lots of different types of love on display in The Perks of Being a Wallflower: the love between friends, between family members, and between a teenager and his first big crush. Feelings, and how to express them, are confusing for anyone, but Charlie has an exceptionally difficult time with it. A general lack of social interaction and a family averse to physical contact will do that to a kid. Fortunately (or perhaps un-) for Charlie, he's about to get an education he wasn't expecting in high school: a crash course in learning to love and be loved.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Charlie in love with Sam or just infatuated with her? How can you tell?
    2. Why does Sam love Charlie? How would you describe her feelings toward him?
    3. How do different characters show their love differently?
    4. Why does Charlie count how many times people say "I love you" or hug him? What's that all about?

    Chew on This

    The only way Charlie knows how to show love is by buying presents.

    Charlie wants to know what love is, and he wants Sam to show him.

  • Family

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    Everybody's family is different, and never is that more apparent than in young-adult fiction. Usually one or both parents are dead, older siblings have run away, or the protagonist has to play parent to a younger brother or sister. Well, not in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

    On the surface, Charlie's family meets the textbook standard criteria for normal: mother, father, three kids. We wouldn't be surprised if they had a white picket fence. But just because they fit a mold set by 50s-era sitcoms, that doesn't mean they are one big happy family. They definitely have their share of problems, some of them dating back a generation or two. And they're certainly not forthcoming with loving comments and physical affection. Still, in the clutch, they all come together to support each other.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Charlie give Aunt Helen a name when he doesn't name any of his other family members?
    2. Is Charlie's family a loving one? How can you tell? 
    3. What is Charlie's relationship with his sister like? Do they have a normal sibling relationship or is there something unique happening with them?
    4. Sam and Patrick are step-siblings. How do their interactions differ from Charlie's interactions with his sister?

    Chew on This

    Charlie's family's hands-off approach to love makes Charlie unlikely to offer physical affection.

    Charlie only seems to appreciate his family when he sees how bad other families can be.

  • Sadness

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    If Charlie were sending text messages instead of writing letters, they would probably consist of a lot of frowny-face emoticons. That is, if he could even bring himself to text. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie tends to straddle that fine line between sadness and depression. His solution: to totally withdraw himself from all social interaction. Sometimes he even turns to drugs.

    Sure, Charlie has moments of joy and happiness, but even when he isn't spiraling into a deep hole filled with panic attacks and depression, there's a fog of bummer surrounding him. Bottom line: this guy sure knows how to bring himself down.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why is it so important to Charlie whether others are sad or not? Is he an incredibly empathetic person, or is he just nosy? 
    2. What kinds of things make Charlie sad? What can that tell us about Charlie as a person?
    3. How do other characters in the book cope with their sadness? 

    Chew on This

    Charlie likes feeling sad because it's a familiar feeling.

    As R.E.M. said, everybody hurts sometimes. It's nothing to get worked up about, but Charlie obsesses over it.

  • Literature and Writing

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    As you can imagine, we have a soft spot for this one. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie reads a dozen books over the course of the year, and those are just the ones he tells us about. Plus, they're all total classics. Doesn't get much better than that. We have Charlie's English teacher, Bill, to thank for this—he encourages Charlie not only to read, but to think critically about what he's reading. He's a regular old Shmooper.

    Our guy isn't just a reader, he's also a writer. And we're not talking about the fact that he wants to be an author when he grows up—we're talking about that fact that he actually writes. A lot. And we get the privilege of reading it. Sure, he doesn't participate in other writing activities (like writing for his school newspaper or Punk Rocky), but at least he's doing something. And it's just perfect for his wallflower style.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Is Charlie a good writer? What would you say his writing style is?
    2. Why do Charlie's friends encourage him to write?
    3. How do the characters in the books Charlie reads compare to Charlie himself? Which character is he most like?

    Chew on This

    Writing letters is a form of therapy for Charlie.

    Charlie comes to multiple revelations about his life as he's writing.