In a letter addressed to an anonymous “Friend,” Charlie explains that he is writing to this person because he heard that they “listen and understand.” He won’t say how he heard this, because he doesn’t want the “Friend” to figure out who he is. Instead, what he wants is simply to know that someone “listens and understands,” and to know that good people exist. He says that he believes that “you of all people would understand that because you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means.”
By addressing the letters to an anonymous “friend,” it’s as if Charlie is speaking to the reader directly and inviting them into the story. His description of the anonymous addressee is general enough that many readers will be able to imagine themselves into the role of the letter’s intended recipient, thinking of themselves as people willing to “listen and understand.” Charlie’s desire to remain unknown to the reader while also sharing details of his life with them suggests that Charlie may have a secret to keep. At the very least, the letters allow him to be more open and vulnerable than he might be with someone who knows him.
Charlie is trying to figure out how he can be “both happy and sad.” He thinks this is due to his family, a conclusion he came to after last spring, when he learned from the school loudspeaker that his best friend Michael had died by suicide. Charlie’s brother picked sobbing Charlie up from school and told him first to stop crying, and then to “get it out of [his] system before Dad came home.”
Charlie briefly introduces his struggle with his mental health here. Telling the reader about Michael’s suicide lends a serious tone to the start of the novel and gives the reader some background knowledge regarding Charlie’s conflicting emotions. Though crying seems to be a normal response to a friend’s death, Charlie’s brother’s instruction to pull himself together before seeing their dad suggests that open expression of emotions, and particularly tears, are not acceptable in their family.
At the sessions with the school guidance counselors, Charlie gets the sense that the counselors are all afraid that Michael’s friends will kill themselves, too. When asked what he thinks, Charlie says (through tears) that what bothers him most is not knowing why Michael did it. The counselor responds that Michael probably had “problems at home” and nobody to talk to about it, but Charlie screams at the counselor that Michael could have talked to him. After that, teachers treat Charlie differently because he “made them all nervous.”
Though brought in as mental health professionals, the counselors don’t seem to know how to speak to this room of bereaved teenagers. Charlie’s desire to know Michael’s reasons are an effort to make sense of the unthinkable, as though knowing the reasons behind his suicide would make the grieving more manageable. His reaction to the counselor saying that Michael likely had no one to talk to suggests that Charlie feels hurt, angry, and abandoned by Michael.
Michael’s death makes Charlie wonder if he, too, has “problems at home,” although he concedes that other people “have it a lot worse.” Charlie, the youngest of three siblings, says that his parents have no favorite child. His brother, who plays football for Penn State, is the oldest, and then his sister, who is “pretty and mean to boys,” is the middle child. His mom cries while watching TV, and his dad “works a lot and is an honest man.”
Charlie’s description of his family builds a picture of a typical middle-class nuclear family in which all the members seem to fit stereotypical gender roles. Charlie’s statement that he “could have it a lot worse” seems to suggest a belief that, because his family is normal on the surface, his own problems must not be very serious.
Charlie’s Aunt Helen, who used to give him books to read, was his favorite person in the world. She lived with their family for “the last few years of her life” because something bad happened to her, although nobody told Charlie what it was for a long time. Once, he asked in front of Aunt Helen, and his dad slapped him when the question made Helen cry. Helen told Charlie’s dad never to do that again, but he said he would do what he wanted in his own house. When Charlie cried, his mom took him to his room and told him what happened to Aunt Helen—“some people really do have it a lot worse than I do,” he says. Then he tells his “Friend” that he wrote this letter because tomorrow he starts high school and he’s “afraid.”
Charlie’s distant relationship with his immediate family is hinted at when he writes that his aunt was his favorite person in the world. Writing vaguely about the bad things that happened to Helen further reinforces that multiple people in Charlie’s life have been touched by trauma, though the nature of Helen’s difficulties, as with Michael’s, remains unclear. Helen’s defense of Charlie after his dad slapped him shows that she was protective of him. After his mom tells him what happened to Aunt Helen, he again writes that other people have it worse—again pushing his experiences aside to focus on the pain of others. All of this background information helps the reader to understand why Charlie is scared to start high school (without his best friend) and why he has to tell an anonymous reader about it—because he doesn’t have anyone else to tell.
In the next letter, Charlie writes that he doesn’t like high school, and a friend from 8th grade, Susan, has changed: she used to date Michael, but now she acts dumber around boys and doesn’t talk to Charlie anymore. While boys and girls usually aren’t best friends, he remembers that Michael and Susan were, kind of like Charlie and his Aunt Helen. The only person who does talk to Charlie at school is a bully who follows him around and taunts him. When Charlie tells him that he seems pretty unhappy, the bully hits him, and Charlie defends himself. He explains that his brother taught him how to fight, so he ended up hurting the bully pretty badly, and he immediately started crying afterwards.
Charlie struggles with accepting that another person close to Michael seems to have moved on without him. Comparing Michael and Susan’s friendship to his and his aunt Helen’s is an odd comparison given that Michael and Susan are teenage peers, and Charlie was a child when he spent time with his adult aunt. Charlie’s honest and perceptive comment that triggered the bully’s fury suggests that he’s incredibly insightful but also blunt. Though he behaved in a defensible way by simply defending himself, Charlie’s emotional reaction afterwards indicates that causing others pain upsets him.
Charlie doesn’t get in trouble for the fight, since another student told the principal that Charlie was only defending himself. He notices that the other students look at him strangely since he doesn’t decorate his locker and he cried after beating someone up. Charlie admits he’s very emotional, and he feels isolated at school and at home since his sister doesn’t pay attention to him and his brother is away at college playing football. Because his parents can’t afford college tuition for all three of their children, Charlie explains that he needs to work hard to get an academic scholarship to go to college, which is what he’s focusing on until he makes friends.
That he doesn’t get in trouble shows that Charlie’s decision to fight back was an appropriate response, but his crying after the violence makes the other students think he’s strange, implying that violence is socially acceptable for boys while being sensitive is not. Knowing about his parents’ financial limits give him an increased sense of responsibility to perform well academically and not be a financial burden on his parents. Charlie attempts to cope with his loneliness by focusing on his studies.
In his Advanced English class, Charlie is assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird, and he says he doesn't have much time to write since he likes to read books twice. He wants to tell the reader that he saw his brother play football on TV, and it was a special moment for his family. His mom cried, his dad put his arm around his mom, and his sister smiled, even though she and her brother fight. Charlie admits that he misses his brother, even though they aren’t close.
Charlie’s commitment to reading books multiple times suggests that he likes to read and understand the story thoroughly, further characterizing him as a patient and thoughtful young man. Even though they don’t bond much, Charlie and his sister are proud of their brother and that pride unites them.
Charlie’s English teacher asks Charlie to call him “Bill” outside of class, praises his reading and language comprehension skills, and asks him to write an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird. Charlie’s mom isn’t sure why Charlie can’t just take more advanced classes rather than doing extra work in his freshman class, but Charlie explains that Bill says the classes are all basically the same, just with different books.
Charlie’s first friend at school is ironically his English teacher, who gives him the sort of validation that he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere else. Charlie’s mom doesn’t seem to understand that the value is not in the prestige of taking higher classes but rather, in working with an educator who seems to have taken an interest in Charlie’s development.
Charlie feels bad for the boys who like his sister, claiming that she’s mean to them. His sister receives mix tapes from one boy in particular, but she gives them to Charlie, who loves the music. His favorite song on the tape is “Asleep” by the Smiths. He tells his sister about the song, and she repeats what Charlie said to the boy. She thanks Charlie for telling her about it because the boy was moved that she liked the tape. Charlie hopes that this means he’ll eventually be good at dating. Charlie’s dad thinks his sister’s boyfriend is “soft” and suspects that’s why she is mean to him.
From Charlie’s perspective, his sister seems mean to the boys, but he fails to consider that she’s simply behaving the way she’s been taught is socially acceptable. Sharing the music creates a bonding moment for them during which Charlie both tells her his opinions about music and helps her form a stronger connection with a potential boyfriend. Coming from Charlie’s dad, being called “soft,” is an insult to the boy’s masculinity, and Charlie suspects that his sister has learned from her father that she should not desire “soft” men.
One night, Charlie’s sister is criticizing her boyfriend for not standing up for himself, and he hits her in front of Charlie. Charlie explains that she just “got soft and nice” afterwards. Instead of breaking things off with this boy, Charlie’s sister says they’re officially going out and asks Charlie to keep the abuse secret. She and her boyfriend spend more time together and later that weekend, Charlie accidentally walks in on them having sex on the couch. His sister yells at him to get out and calls him a pervert. Later, the family watches Charlie’s brother’s football game on TV and Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend compliments Charlie’s brother. After he leaves, Charlie’s dad says that the boyfriend is “becoming a fine young man who could carry himself.” Charlie thinks about the potential things his sister will likely put up with and “feels very bad for both of them.”
Charlie’s sister’s decision to officially date the boy who hits her further suggests that she has been taught that “tough” men are desirable, and that sticking up for oneself means behaving violently. Though it was an accident, Charlie’s sister calls Charlie a pervert for walking in on them, making him feel as if he is to blame for a situation that is beyond his control. He sees his sister’s boyfriend’s behavior further validated when his dad calls him “a fine young man,” showing that the previously “soft” boy gains acceptance through his aggression and sexuality. Instead of feeling happy for their relationship, Charlie pities them, seeing their relationship as a series of events they will have to “put up with” rather than enjoy together. More than anything, this perhaps suggests Charlie’s own preference for being alone.
Charlie’s second-favorite class is shop class, where one of his classmates is called “Nothing.” Charlie explains that in middle school, the other kids teased this boy calling him “Patty” instead of his real name, Patrick, and Patrick demanded that they call him Patrick or nothing, so they called him “Nothing.” A senior now, Patrick entertains his classmates with an impersonation of the shop teacher that Charlie finds “hilarious” but not mean. Even the shop teacher laughs.
Patrick’s demand that he be called by his name, though unsuccessful, demonstrates an alternative way of sticking up for oneself that doesn’t involve violence. Calling him “Patty” suggests that the other kids either perceive or project a certain level of femininity in Patrick. Having been the object of ridicule himself, Patrick uses his humor to cope with social situations without doing so in a hurtful way.
On his first essay for Bill, Charlie gets a C for run-on sentences, and Bill suggests that Charlie work on increasing his vocabulary. While at the dentist’s office with his mother, Charlie thinks about how his dad occasionally tells his mother that she’s beautiful, but “she cannot hear him.” According to Charlie, his dad is a good husband, just “pragmatic.” Charlie thinks about how his mom was always considered the “pretty one,” while her sister, Aunt Helen, was “the other one.” As he remembers watching television with his siblings and Aunt Helen, Charlie wonders whether it’s sad that those experiences are now memories. Charlie says that he especially loved Aunt Helen.
Unlike the teachers from middle school, Bill doesn’t seem to give Charlie good grades because he’s “nervous” about him. Instead, he gives him concrete feedback and encouragement to grow. Charlie’s thoughts about his mother suggest that she is unwilling or unable to accept praise, and his word choice in calling his father “pragmatic” indicates a lack of romance in their relationship. His description of his mother and Aunt Helen suggest a possible tension between them, but his memories of Aunt Helen illustrate how special she was, at least to him.
Another TV memory Charlie has is watching the last episode of M*A*S*H with his family. After the episode, Charlie finds his father crying alone in the kitchen, and when he sees Charlie, he tells him that it’s their “little secret” and says, “Okay, champ?” Afterwards, Charlie’s dad lets Charlie sit on his lap. Charlie thinks about how other people have bad relationships with their parents, and some even get hit. He admits that he doesn’t understand his parents but loves them very much because his mom takes him to the cemetery to visit the people she loves, and his dad trusts him to keep his secret.
While Charlie’s mother can cry openly, Charlie’s father treats crying like something shameful and private. In asking Charlie to keep the incident a secret, he imparts the expectation that men keep their emotions secret. Though they seem to have complicated relationships, Charlie writes about his favorite memories of his parents and admits that he loves them—perhaps to remind himself that they care for each other in their own ways.
Charlie decides to go alone to the football game on Friday night, which is something he used to do with Michael. At the game, Charlie sits next to Patrick, who introduces him to Sam, another senior, who Charlie says has a pretty smile and green eyes. They invite him to Big Boy after the game where they ask Charlie questions about himself and make him feel included. Charlie assumes that Patrick and Sam are a couple, but they explain that they’re stepsiblings. Charlie develops a crush on Sam and has an erotic dream about her that night, which makes him feel ashamed. He wants to ask her on a date someday and hopes that his dream doesn’t prevent them from becoming friends. Charlie explains that he wants to have a friend again even more than he wants a date.
Significant as a place he used to go with his deceased best friend, the football game represents a bonding place both between friends and for the whole school as they root for their team. Brave enough to go by himself, Charlie’s vulnerability in this instance is rewarded when he makes two new friends. Charlie’s tone in this letter as he describes his experiences is joyful now that he feels included, especially with people who seem genuinely interested in getting to know him. His reaction to his erotic dream about Sam shows that he views sexual desire as shameful and something that stands in the way of positive relationships.
After his dream, Charlie discovers what masturbation is and explains it to the reader, “just in case.” He tells Sam that he dreamed about her and cries because he feels so bad about it. She just laughs warmly and asks Charlie if he thinks she’s pretty. He tells her that she’s “lovely,” but Sam tells him firmly that he’s too young for her. She gives Charlie a hug, and Charlie finds it odd because he doesn’t even receive hugs from family members very often, especially since his Aunt Helen died.
Charlie’s enthusiastic embrace of his new discovery suggests a positive development in his attitude toward his own sexuality, though he still feels ashamed for his dream about Sam. His compulsion to confess his dream to her indicates that Charlie strongly values honesty. Once again reinforcing the notion that his family dynamic is rather cold, Charlie’s mentioning that Aunt Helen was the only one who hugged him further establishes their close relationship.
After Sam tells Patrick about Charlie’s crush on her, Patrick explains to Charlie how women are socialized to desire men who “can give them a purpose,” and they feel bored unless guys present them with a challenge. Afterwards, Charlie sees girls in the hallways at school wearing guys’ jackets, and he thinks about the “idea of property.” Bill notices Charlie’s observations and listens to Charlie as he explains his thoughts. Bill then explains to Charlie that sometimes thinking too much prevents one from participating. After asking about his home life, Charlie tells Bill about Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend hitting her. Bill explains to Charlie that people “accept the love [they] think [they] deserve,” and later phones Charlie’s parents to tell them about the abuse.
Patrick’s comments to Charlie seem to be intended to help Charlie understand why women choose to date the men they do, but they also seem to place the blame on women for dating “challenging” men. After their conversation, Charlie notices how some of his peers seem to have embraced the notion that women can “belong” to men. Though he validates Charlie’s thoughts as valuable, Bill also pushes Charlie to participate in his life rather than simply watch as everyone else participates in theirs. Charlie’s decision to confide in Bill about his sister’s abuse indicates that he feels close enough to Bill to trust him with sensitive information. Bill’s statement helps Charlie understand that to have good relationships, one must have a good relationship with oneself first.
Charlie’s parents forbid his sister from seeing her boyfriend again, but she argues that she loves him and that he’s her “whole world.” Charlie’s mom tells her to never say that about anyone again, and Charlie explains that because she chooses her battles carefully, Charlie’s mom always gets her way. Charlie’s dad gives his sister a “rare kiss” on the forehead and leaves to confront the boyfriend’s parents. After he leaves, Charlie’s sister tells Charlie she hates him and that he’s a freak. He just tells her he loves her, and he’s trying not to be.
Reacting to the news of their daughter’s abuse as perhaps most parents would, Charlie’s parents clearly want to protect their children from harm even if they don’t always know how to show love. Even though Charlie usually describes his mom as quiet, it becomes clear here that she exercises her authority in the family at certain moments. Charlie’s sister’s reaction to Charlie’s attempt to protect her shows that his efforts to love his family aren’t always appreciated.
Charlie explains that his parents never hit their children. Many years ago, when his dad slapped him after making Aunt Helen cry, his dad apologized and told Charlie about how his stepfather used to hit him. Charlie’s dad promised himself that when he became a dad, he would never hit his children. His dad said he felt terrible for slapping Charlie and would never do it again, and he didn’t. Charlie says that he’s “just stern sometimes.”
This background information helps the reader to better understand Charlie’s relationship with his father, as well as his father’s behavior. Charlie’s sympathy toward his dad—even though his dad hit him—also demonstrates Charlie’s tendency to feel sorry for the abuser because of whatever experiences they had that caused them to hit.
Charlie admits that he masturbates regularly now and intentionally never thinks of Sam while doing so. He feels guilty for masturbating and promises God that he’ll quit, but he continues anyway. Though he’s not religious, Charlie says he believes in God and hopes he isn’t letting Him down. Then, Charlie transitions abruptly to describing his dad’s discussion with his sister’s boyfriend’s parents. Charlie asks his dad if he thinks the boyfriend’s parents hit him, and Charlie’s dad says that it isn’t their business and even if they do, it’s no excuse. Charlie’s dad tells him that he did the right thing in telling, but his sister is still angry with him.
Despite his earlier enthusiasm, Charlie’s confession of guilt over masturbating again suggests that Charlie closely associates sexuality with shame. His abrupt transition in the topic could indicate that he became uncomfortable with thinking about it too much and needed to switch subjects. Though Charlie’s dad had offered Charlie an excuse for why he hit him earlier, now that someone else has hit one of his kids, he feels no interest in the possible reasons why.
With his new friends, Charlie tries to participate more, but he admits that he often spends his time thinking about himself in relation to the characters in the books he reads or thinking about what he writes in his letters. Bill gave him Peter Pan to read, and Charlie recognizes that Bill is trying to teach him something with this book. He spends more time with Patrick and Sam, who invite him to a party after the homecoming dance.
Charlie’s tendency to get lost in his reading and writing suggest that those spaces are more comfortable for him than participating in the real world. Bill’s book choice for Charlie is a pretty direct message to Charlie to quit dwelling in the past and embrace his adolescence like his peers rather than resent them for growing up, like Peter does Wendy. Sam and Patrick provide Charlie with essential opportunities to participate.
Charlie remembers the party he watched his brother throw when their parents were out of town. His brother told him to stay in his room during the party. While he sat there, an older couple came entered the room, and decided to fool around knowing that Charlie was there. Charlie witnessed the boy, named Dave, force his girlfriend to perform oral sex on him even though she was crying and repeatedly saying “no.” Charlie’s sister walked into the room and saw them and called Charlie a pervert for being in the room while it happened.
Charlie’s experience of witnessing a sexual assault provides an additional clue as to why he seems to have such a complicated relationship to sexuality and intimacy. Though he saw something he didn’t want to and didn’t comprehend at the moment, his sister calls him a “pervert.” Being made to feel guilty for witnessing a situation beyond his control seems to have reinforced Charlie’s tendency to keep quiet about the things he sees.
He tells this story to Sam and Patrick while watching Dave, now a senior, score the winning touchdown in the game. In this moment, Charlie realizes that Dave raped his girlfriend. Charlie asks Sam if they should tell someone, but she explains how difficult it is to report and prove rape, especially in high school when the two people are still dating. Charlie feels angry when he sees Dave and the girl dancing together at the homecoming dance the next day. He thinks about fighting Dave but decides to let the air out of his tires instead.
Watching a rapist continue to participate in ordinary life and even be celebrated makes Charlie angry. As a young woman, Sam understands the difficult and often unreliable process of holding rapists accountable, and Charlie’s desire to punish Dave for his behavior suggests he possesses a strong urge to seek retribution for people who have been wronged. Because fighting was how he solved his problem with the bully, Charlie’s first instinct is to punish Dave by fighting him, but ultimately, he chooses nonviolence instead.
After the homecoming dance, Charlie rides with Patrick and Sam in Sam’s pickup truck to a party, and as he sits between them listening to music on the radio, Charlie says that he feels “infinite.” Charlie is warmly welcomed at the party where he eats a cannabis brownie for the first time. After using the bathroom, Charlie accidentally walks in on Patrick and Brad kissing, and Patrick asks Charlie to keep this secret because Brad is afraid of people finding out. Later in the evening, Patrick appreciatively calls Charlie a wallflower, and everyone at the party toasts to him. Charlie begins to cry and says he doesn’t know why they toasted to him, but it was “very special” to him that they did, “especially Sam.”
Charlie feels such a profound sense of connection and belonging as he sits between his friends and listens to music that he feels endless. Among his new friends, Charlie is free to explore new experiences, like cannabis, and he gets to know them better. Brad’s fear of others finding out about his sexual orientation suggests that his friends and family wouldn’t accept him if they knew. Unlike Charlie’s sister, Patrick doesn’t yell at Charlie and call him a pervert for walking in on him and Brad. Instead, he trusts Charlie as a friend to respect their discretion. From his friends, Charlie receives appreciation and recognition that he doesn’t seem to get at home.
Describing more of the homecoming dance, Charlie explains that Patrick and Brad didn’t speak to each other, and he saw Brad dancing with a girl who is his girlfriend. Charlie also saw his sister dancing with the boy she’s forbidden to see. After the dance, Patrick, Sam, and Charlie drive through the tunnel towards downtown while listing to music. Sam stands in the back of the truck flying through the tunnel with the wind in her dress and she screams. After she sits back down they all start laughing. Charlie says that in that moment, he swears they were “infinite.”
At the dance, Charlie observes the ways in which Patrick and Brad’s relationship is the opposite of his sister’s. Whereas Patrick and Brad cannot be open about their relationship at school because of social homophobia, school is one of the few places where Charlie’s sister can be together with her boyfriend. A direct contrast is made to point out that abusive heterosexual relationships are sometimes more socially acceptable than healthy homosexual relationships. In the tunnel, Sam appears full of life and joy and is an example for Charlie of what enthusiastic participation is life looks like. Her joy is contagious and spreads to Patrick and Charlie, too.