In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky includes characters who had life-altering experiences in their young adulthood, like Charlie’s parents, to illustrate that the experiences of adolescence can be lingering and deeply impactful. The teenage characters in the novel have typical experiences like first dates and applying to college, but they also confront issues like accidental pregnancy, sexual assault, and suicide. Nearly every adolescent character in the story has undergone a significant transformation by the end of the novel. By demonstrating that the experiences of adolescence are more meaningful than mere teenage angst, Chbosky validates adolescence as an important time in its own right, precisely because of the growth and transformation that occurs during those years.
Because teenagers exist in a twilight zone between childhood and adulthood, the adults around them often alternate between condescending to them or expecting too much of them. For example, Charlie’s parents tell his older brother not to use language like “dyke” or “high” in front of Charlie, even though he’s the only one in his family with a gay friend and who has gotten high. In this way, his parents’ expectations of him are shown to be out of step with his actual life experiences. Probably because he is the baby of the family, his mother especially tries to shield him from information that she thinks is too mature for him. However, in the same year, his dad has an open conversation with him about safe sex and consent. Charlie’s parents alternate between trying to preserve his “innocence” and ensuring that he transitions successfully into the young man they want him to become.
Charlie wonders about his parents’ youth and what experiences shaped them into the people they are now. In learning about his family and friends’ experiences, he recognizes that adolescence is a time characterized by life-altering decisions. Chbosky sets the tone for the seriousness of adolescence by beginning the story with Charlie describing that his best friend Michael committed suicide at the end of 8th grade. Michael’s decision to end his life demonstrates that the intersecting pressures of mental health, family issues, and social isolation during this period in a person’s life can lead them to act drastically. Charlie’s parents also experienced life-altering changes during their young adulthood, both of them dropping out of college because of an unplanned pregnancy. His dad, formerly a baseball star, now seems to live in the shadow of his unrealized potential. He lives vicariously through his oldest son, now a football star at Penn State. Charlie’s parents transitioned overnight from young adults full of promise and potential to someone else’s parents, burdened suddenly with unexpected responsibility.
Like her parents, Charlie’s sister becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and her boyfriend rejects responsibility and breaks up with her. With Charlie’s support, she gets an abortion. At 18 years old, she can seek medical care without parental permission, indicating that she is considered responsible enough to decide that she is not yet ready for this particular responsibility. After she recovers from the procedure, she eventually begins dating again and goes to the college of her choice, things she most likely wouldn’t have done if she had suddenly become a young mother. She had to make a mature, difficult decision about her body and her future, and that decision both required her to act like an adult and allowed her to preserve her adolescence, breaking with the pattern that led her parents to abandon their own life plans.
After meeting Patrick and Sam, Charlie slowly allows himself to experience typical teenage things and explores the boundary between more adult responsibilities and the freedom of youth. Although he passively watches others develop and change around him at first, Charlie eventually learns to embrace his own transformations with the help of his peers and his teacher, Bill. When Bill gives Charlie Peter Pan to read, Charlie describes it as a story about a boy who “refuses to grow up, and when Wendy grows up, he feels very betrayed.” Charlie is aware that Bill is drawing a comparison between him and Peter Pan, especially since Charlie spends a lot of time watching his friends grow up and feeling left behind. When Charlie gets his driver’s license, it grants him freedom of movement and privacy, but within limits. He must always ask his dad for permission to take the car, and the permission always comes after a series of questions about his intentions with the car. Charlie uses his freedom to go on dates and meet his friends, as well as to drive his sister to get an abortion. Thus, the vehicle allows him to venture into both young and mature spaces. At house parties, Charlie experiments with drugs and alcohol, which lower his inhibitions and allow him to speak more freely, but he usually feels lousy afterwards. In this way, having the freedom to experiment also allows him to learn boundaries and consequences for himself.
By the end of the year, Charlie has had his first kiss, his first girlfriend, acted in front of an audience in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and developed lasting relationships with his new friends and with his family members. Perhaps most importantly though, Charlie’s biggest transformation is that he now has hope for the future and has stopped hiding in the past. At the end of the story, he expresses excitement about starting the new school year, a drastic change from the dread he felt a year ago. Watching others grow and transform around him, Charlie eventually learns to engage in the freedoms that adolescence affords, and finds hope in his own transformations.
Adolescence and Transformation ThemeTracker
Adolescence and Transformation Quotes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Some kids look at me strange in the hallways because I don’t decorate my locker, and I’m the one who beat up Sean and couldn’t stop crying after he did it. I guess I’m pretty emotional.
Sometimes, I look at my parents now and wonder what happened to make them the way they are. And I wonder what will happen to my sister when her boyfriend graduates from law school. And what my brother’s face will look like on a football card, or what it will look like if it is never on a football card. My dad played college baseball for two years, but he had to stop when Mom got pregnant with my brother. That’s when he started working at the office.
I don't know what it was, and I know we didn't really accomplish
anything, but it felt great to sit there and talk about our place in things. It was like when Bill told me to “participate.” I went to the homecoming dance like I told you before, but this was much more fun. It was especially fun to think that people all over the world were having similar conversations in their equivalent of the Big Boy.
I won't go into detail about the whole show, but I had the best time I ever had in my whole life. I'm not kidding. I got to pretend that I was singing, and I got to dance around, and I got to wear a “feather boa” in the grande finale, which I wouldn't have thought anything of because it's part of the show, but Patrick couldn't stop talking about it.
Just before she fell asleep, she said, "Well, if you're going to smoke, crack the window at least." Which made me start laughing again.
"Charlie, smoking. I can't believe it."
Which made me laugh harder, and I said, "I love you." And my sister said, "I love you, too. Just stop it with the laughing already."
“You ever think, Charlie, that our group is the same as any other group like the football team? And the only real difference between us is what we wear and why we wear it?”
“Yeah?” And there was this pause.
“Well, I think it's all bullshit.”
And he meant it. It was hard to see him mean it that much.
I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But 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.
But mostly, I was crying because I was suddenly very aware of the fact that 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.