by Ann Camacho, Free Spirit author of Bookmarked
“Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve.” —Stephen Chbosky
Ah! Now that is a quote worth keeping. Or, at least, worth posting as a solid Facebook status.
We are all looking for love. We are all looking for a way to connect with others in this big world we live in, whether some of us admit that or not. Certainly my family and friends are important connections, but my students also help me with that connection on a daily basis. Their lively conversations, insightful writing, reflections in our class discussions, and even their Facebook messages when we are not in school keep me abreast of their world.
When their chatter became all about a new book many of them were reading, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, I asked if anyone had a spare copy. A student thoughtfully had her brother bring the copy from home to give me before the school day ended, the last day before summer break. That told me this book was important, so I read it. Immediately.
What came to mind right away was its similar qualities to the classic Salinger novel about teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye, the novel that currently holds steady at third place on the “most challenged books in America” list—the same book my friends and I passed around some 20+ years ago in high school, reading it on the sly because of its racy language and rather thorny issues.
In Perks, Chbosky’s protagonist, Charlie, emerges immediately as a character much like Holden Caulfield from the classic Catcher. Both books are written in first-person, with a clear voice of an adolescent male. Both protagonists reflect on literature they have read and relate their lives to the fictional characters in the classic books (such as The Great Gatsby), addressing important messages those books bring to light. Charlie and Holden both share their sadness with how their worlds and their families have fallen short of their expectations. They each lament the separation they feel from others their age and note how their depression keeps them away from “participating” in life.
As both stories are told in a diary-like format, the reader sees only the main character’s perception of reality, but you can’t help thinking to yourself that both of these young men are pretty hard on themselves. Each of the protagonists is trying to overcome some very painful events from his past. Though the reader might not be able to relate specifically to the boys’ painful experiences, their pain calls to mind how so many of us struggle with feeling a part of the world in which we live.
One might argue that this is where the similarities end, however, because Holden has become cynical and disassociated from life as he suffers from his depression. Charlie wants to participate; he just doesn’t know how. Charlie grieves his lack of participation, but, unlike Holden, he tries to change not only how he sees life but how he lives life as well. Charlie uses language to make a connection to others, bridging that abyss of emotion with a rope of words. Holden, sadly, uses his words to keep others at bay, with his sarcasm and seeming indifference to people’s opinions of him.
At the end of both books, the boys indicate that they are “sick” and getting help for their depression, and here their different perspectives separate them even further. When Holden is asked if he is going to “apply” himself next year, he replies, “It’s such a stupid question. . . . I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t.” In contrast, Charlie notes 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.” Charlie’s perspective reflects a sense of hope, of the possibility that we can work through our problems to emerge on the other side; perhaps not unscathed, but okay nonetheless. He suggests that our attitude is what really makes the difference in the outcome of our connections with others.
It is interesting to note how a Holden-like character might come out ahead with a different attitude, with a different perception of what he deserves.
I tell my students that literature is a mirror to our society: It reveals our most private secrets, our soulful insights. It tells us who we are and who we don’t want to be. It shows us the inner workings of our society and the dynamics of our social interaction. This coming school year, I am going to have my classes read both books, The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, two novels that address very similar issues but whose protagonists have very different perspectives on their futures. I will ask them to consider the questions I now pose to you: What does it mean to accept the love we think we deserve? Are we responsible for the love we have, or is love a random roll of the dice? How is our self-esteem related to love?
Ann Camacho has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches American literature at North High School in Riverside, California. Ann also participates in the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college preparation program.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to Twilight by Ann Camacho