Read the story “Charles” by Sh.Jackson and be ready to interpret it in writing.
by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was born in 1919 in San Francisco, where she spent most of her early life. She studied at Syracuse University, New York. After graduating with a B. A. Degree in 1940, she married a well-known literary critic and settled in Vermont.
Eight years later Shirley Jackson published her first novel, “The Road Through The Wall” (1948), and a collection of short stories entitled “The Lottery” (1949). The title story had caused a literary sensation when first published in “The New Yorker”. One of her later stories – a dramatic ghost story – was filmed as “The Haunting”.
Most of her best-known stories deal with tragic subjects, or with suprising or even shocking developments in an everyday setting. However, the story in our collection shows she also had a considerable gift for humour.
Shirley Jackson was mother of two daughters and two sons. She died in 1965.
The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.
He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous shouting, “Isn’t anybody here?”
At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
“How was school today?” I asked, elaborately casual.
“All right,” he said.
“Did you learn anything?” his father asked.
Laurie regarded his father coldly. “I didn’t learn nothing,” he said.
“Anything,” I said. “Didn’t learn anything.”
“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.
“What did he do?” I asked. “Who was it?”
Laurie thought. “It was Charles,” he said. “He was fresh. The teacher spanked him and made him stand in the corner. He was awfully fresh.”
“What did he do?” I asked again, but Laurie slid off his chair, took a cookie, and left, while his father was still saying, “See here, young man.”
The next day Laurie remarked at lunch, as soon as he sat down, “Well, Charles was bad again today.” He grinned enormously and said, “Today Charles hit the teacher.”
“Good heavens,” I said, mindful of the Lord’s name, “I suppose he got spanked again?”
“He sure did,” Laurie said. “Look up,” he said to his father.
“What?” his father said, looking up.
“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb1.” He began to laugh insanely.
“Why did Charles hit the teacher?” I asked quickly.
“Because she tried to make him color with red crayons,” Laurie said. “Charles wanted to color with green crayons so he hit the teacher and she spanked him and said nobody play with Charles but everybody did.”
The third day — it was a Wednesday of the first week — Charles bounced a see-saw on to the head of a little girl and made her bleed, and the teacher made him stay inside all during recess. Thursday Charles had to stand in a corner during story-time because he kept pounding his feet on the floor. Friday Charles was deprived of black-board privileges because he threw chalk.
On Saturday I remarked to my husband, “Do you think kindergarten is too unsettling for Laurie? All this toughness and bad grammar, and this Charles boy sounds like such a bad influence.”
“It’ll be all right,” my husband said reassuringly. “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.”
On Monday Laurie came home late, full of news. “Charles,” he shouted as he came up the hill; I was waiting anxiously on the front steps. “Charles,” Laurie yelled all the way up the hill, “Charles was bad again.”
“Come right in,” I said, as soon as he came close enough. “Lunch is waiting.”
“You know what Charles did?” he demanded following me through the door.
“Charles yelled so in school they sent a boy in from first grade to tell the teacher she had to make Charles keep quiet, and so Charles had to stay after school. And so all the children stayed to watch him.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He just sat there,” Laurie said, climbing into his chair at the table. “Hi, Pop, y’old dust mop.”
“Charles had to stay after school today,” I told my husband. “Everyone stayed with him.”
“What does this Charles look like?” my husband asked Laurie. “What’s his other name?”
“He’s bigger than me,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t wear a jacket.”
Monday night was the first Parent-Teachers meeting, and only the fact that the baby had a cold kept me from going; I wanted passionately to meet Charles’s mother. On Tuesday Laurie remarked suddenly, “Our teacher had a friend come to see her in school today.”
“Charles’s mother?” my husband and I asked simultaneously.
“Naaah,” Laurie said scornfully. “It was a man who came and made us do exercises, we had to touch our toes. Look.” He climbed down from his chair and squatted down and touched his toes. “Like this,” he said. He got solemnly back into his chair and said, picking up his fork, “Charles didn’t even do exercises.”
“That’s fine,” I said heartily. “Didn’t Charles want to do exercises?”
“Naaah,” Laurie said. “Charles was so fresh to the teacher’s friend he wasn’t let do exercises.”
“Fresh again?” I said.
“He kicked the teacher’s friend,” Laurie said. “The teacher’s friend just told Charles to touch his toes like I just did and Charles kicked him.
“What are they going to do about Charles, do you suppose?” Laurie’s father asked him.
Laurie shrugged elaborately. “Throw him out of school, I guess,” he said.
Wednesday and Thursday were routine; Charles yelled during story hour and hit a boy in the stomach and made him cry. On Friday Charles stayed after school again and so did all the other children.
With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution2 in our family; the baby was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled the telephone and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”
During the third and fourth weeks it looked like a reformation in Charles; Laurie reported grimly at lunch on Thursday of the third week, “Charles was so good today the teacher gave him an apple.”
“What?” I said, and my husband added warily, “You mean Charles?”
“Charles,” Laurie said. “He gave the crayons around and he picked up the books afterward and the teacher said he was her helper.”
“What happened?” I asked incredulously.
“He was her helper, that’s all,” Laurie said, and shrugged.
“Can this be true about Charles?” I asked my husband that night. “Can something like this happen?”
“Wait and see,” my husband said cynically. “When you’ve got a Charles to deal with, this may mean he’s only plotting.” He seemed to be wrong. For over a week Charles was the teacher’s helper; each day he handed things out and he picked things up; no one had to stay after school.
“The PTA meeting’s next week again,” I told my husband one evening. “I’m going to find Charles’s mother there.”
“Ask her what happened to Charles,” my husband said. “I’d like to know.”
“I’d like to know myself,” I said.
On Friday of that week things were back to normal. “You know what Charles did today?” Laurie demanded at the lunch table, in a voice slightly awed. “He told a little girl to say a word and she said it and the teacher washed her mouth out with soap and Charles laughed.”
“What word?” his father asked unwisely, and Laurie said, “I’ll have to whisper it to you, it’s so bad.” He got down off his chair and went around to his father. His father bent his head down and Laurie whispered joyfully. His father’s eyes widened.
“Did Charles tell the little girls to say that?” he asked respectfully.
“She said it twice,” Laurie said. “Charles told her to say it twice.”
“What happened to Charles?” my husband asked.
“Nothing,” Laurie said. “He was passing out the crayons.”
Monday morning Charles abandoned the little girl and said the evil word himself three or four times, getting his mouth washed out with soap each time. He also threw chalk.
My husband came to the door with me that evening as I set out for the PTA meeting. “Invite her over for a cup of tea after the meeting,” he said. “I want to get a look at her.”
“If only she’s there.” I said prayerfully.
“She’ll be there,” my husband said. “I don’t see how they could hold a PTA meeting without Charles’s mother.”
At the meeting I sat restlessly, scanning each comfortable matronly face, trying to determine which one hid the secret of Charles. None of them looked to me haggard enough. No one stood up in the meeting and apologized for the way her son had been acting. No one mentioned Charles.
After the meeting I identified and sought out Laurie’s kindergarten teacher. She had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cake; I had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of marshmallow cake. We maneuvered up to one another cautiously, and smiled.
“I’ve been so anxious to meet you,” I said. “I’m Laurie’s mother.”
“We’re all so interested in Laurie,” she said.
“Well, he certainly likes kindergarten,” I said. “He talks about it all the time.”
“We had a little trouble adjusting, the first week or so,” she said primly, “but now he’s a fine little helper. With occasional lapses, of course.”
“Laurie usually adjusts very quickly,” I said. “I suppose this time it’s Charles’s influence.”
“Yes,” I said, laughing, “you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles.”
“Charles?” she said. “We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”
1dumb – (informal) stupid
2an institution – a habit or custom which has been in existence for a long time
IDEAS AND QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION
1. How is the plot structured?
2. What makes the climax of the story a surprise ending?
3. Is Charlie an imaginary character? What makes Laurie’s parents believe that Charlie was really one of their son’s playmates?
4. How are the major features developed in the protagonist? Find supporting evidence in the text of the story.
5. What means of characterization does Sh. Jackson resort to? How does the image of Charles contribute to Laurie’s characterization?
6. What makes the protagonist lifelike and convincing?
7. Give a character sketch of Laurie. Support your ideas by reference to the text of the story.
8. Does the contrast between what appears to be true and what is actually true create an ironic effect?
9. Is the title of the story ironic? Why did the author choose “Charles” rather than “Laurie” for the title of the story?
10. What do you think of the parents’ reaction to their son’s conduct? Would you call the teacher’s reaction excessive permissiveness?
11. What would you do if you were in the parents’ shoes? What would you do if you were in the teacher’s shoes?
A. THEORETICAL PRELIMINARIES
Read the material about the narrative methods and be ready to answer the teacher’s questions.
The narrative method involves such aspects as (a) who narrates the story and (b) the way the narrator stands in relation to the events and to the other characters of the story.
We are all well aware of the fact that the same people and events may seem quite different when seen by various people or from different angles. Like in photography, the effect may be absolutely different if a picture is taken from below or above the usual eye level. In the same way the author can vary the narrative method depending on what he wants his readers to concentrate on. He can tell the story from the point of view of a character in the story, or from without — as an onlooker.
The author may select either of the following four types of narrators: (1) the main character, (2) a minor character, (3) the omniscient author, (4) the observer-author.
1. When the main character tells his story, the events of the story are presented to the reader through his perception. The author in this case places himself in the position of the main character and tells of things that only the main character saw and felt. (E.g. Jane Eyre by Ch. Bronte, The Catcher in the Rye by J. Salinger).
2. When a minor character, who participates in the actions, narrates the story, the events are described through the perception of this character. The author places himself in the position of a minor character and gives this character's version of the events and personages. (E.g. The Pawnbroker's Wife by M. Spark).
3. The author may narrate his story anonymously, analysing and interpreting the character's motives and feelings. The reader sees what goes on in the minds of all the characters. He is then guided by what is known to be the omniscient (or analytic) author. The omniscient author reproduces the characters' thoughts and comments on their actions. (E.g. Angel Pavement by J. Priestley, The Cop and the Anthem by O'Henry).
4. The story may be told in such a way that we are given the impression of witnessing the events as they happen — we see the actions and hear the conversations, but we never enter directly the minds of any of the characters. In this case the reader is guided by the observer-author. The observer-author merely records the speech and actions of the characters without analysing them (as it is often done in E. Hemingway's stories).
The following table shows the interrelationship between the narrative types and the types of narrators.
Types of Narrators
Main character tells the story (Internal analysis of events)
Minor character tells the story (Outside observation of events)
Omniscient (analytic) author tells the story (Internal analysis of events)
Observer-author tells the story (Outside observation of events)
It may be seen from the table that there are common features between the four types of narrators. When the story is told by the main character or the omniscient author, the events are analysed internally, reflecting the main character's point of view. When the narrator is either a minor character or the observer-author, the story is an outside observation of events and does not reflect the main character's feelings and attitude, his point of view. When told by a character in the story, the story is a first-person narrative. When told by the author, it is a third-person narrative.
If the story is a first-person narrative, it is told from the narrator's point of view and the reader gets a biased understanding of the events and the other characters, because he sees them through the perception of the character who narrates. At the same time any story always reveals the author's point of view even if it is implied. The character's and the author's viewpoints may or may not coincide. The point of view of the author may even be contrary to that of the narrator, as in The Lady's Maid by K. Mansfield. The story is narrated by a maid who proves to be naive. Though the reader learns no more about her life than she herself tells, he suspects that the maid is misjudging people, that she, so to say, measures them according to her own yardstick. The more the maid praises and justifies her cruel grandfather and her egoistic mistress, the more obvious is her naivety, the clearer is the fact that she is utterly mistaken and that she does not realize how those people ill-treat her, how miserable her life has always been. The discrepancy between the maid's view of the way things are and the reader's opinion is the irony of her life. Indirectly (through this irony) K. Mansfield makes it clear that she does not share the maid's point of view and invites the reader to reject it, too.
Therefore, when the author shifts the responsibility of telling the story to a first-person narrator, he actually provides his reader with two versions of one and the same story: (1) the explicitly expressed subjective version (the narrator's version) and (2) the implied objective version, which the skilled reader is expected to derive. To understand the implied objective version one should take into account which type of narrator the story-teller is and whether he is a reliable narrator or an unreliable one.
Several advantages of the first two methods (i.e. the first-person narrative made by one of the characters) should be mentioned.
A first-person narrative is a very effective means of revealing the personality of the character who narrates. The narrator tells what he thinks and feels, and the reader easily understands his motives, his nature. The writer without resorting to analysis gets the advantage of defining this character more closely. He does not have to say whether the character is sensitive, easily affected or self-controlled, kind or cruel, he simply lets the character demonstrate his features. That becomes clear and visible to the reader, and this first-hand testimony increases the immediacy and freshness of the impression.
Secondly, these two narrative methods increase the credibility of the story. The narrator's statements gain in weight and are more readily accepted by the reader, for they are backed by the narrator's presence in the described events — he relates what he himself has seen.
Thirdly, a story told by a first-person narrator tends to be more confiding. The narrator often assumes the informal tone, addresses the reader directly and establishes a personal relationship with him. The reader is treated trustfully as one to whom the narrator confides hispersonal impressions and thoughts. This can be clearly seen in The Lady's Maid by K. Mansfield. On account of all that, it is the inner world of the character-narrator that is generally in the focus of interest.
However, the possibilities of the first-person narrator are limited. One of the basic limitations is that a story told by a character is limited to what that character could reasonably be expected to know. The first-person narrator is a person, and he can see and hear only what would be possible for a person to see and hear in his situation. He cannot enter into the minds of the other characters, he cannot know all that they do and say. The first-person narrator may be reliable or unreliable. He may misinterpret some events, which he sometimes cannot fully understand. He relates them and meditates about them from his subjective point of view. The reader, therefore, gets a biased view of the other characters (as in the case of The Lady's Maid by K. Mansfield). But this limitation may turn into an advantage: the reader is stimulated to reflect and pronounce his own judgment. The fact that the character who narrates has less experience than the reader creates an irony. If The Lady's Maid had not been told by the maid herself, if she had not been so naive, and if her life-story had been told by a dispassionate narrator, it is doubtful that the story would arouse such deep emotional response and convey its message so effectively.
There are no limitations on the freedom of the omniscient author. He is all-seeing and all-knowing. He can follow any character to a locked room or a desert island. He may get inside his characters' minds, add his own analysis of their motives and actions. It is the author's voice, his evaluations, his opinion of the events and characters that the reader hears and, therefore, the reader can easily understand the author's point of view.
Moreover, the omniscient author may wander away from the subject of the narrative to state his personal view or to make a general statement. Such a statement is known as the author's digression.
A digression usually involves a change of tense from the past (the usual tense in stories and novels) to the generic 'timeless' present. In this way the author directly conveys his presence as a guide and interpreter. The story The Cop and the Anthem by O'Henry can serve as an illustration of the possibilities of the omniscient author. Here the omniscient author resorts to digressions. He does not only relate the events, he tells the reader what his character longs for and plans to do. To convey Soapy's thoughts the omniscient author uses indirect speech: "...A roasted mallard duck, thought Soapy, would be about the thing...", inner represented speech: "...Disconsolate, Soapy ceased his unavailing racket. Would a policeman lay hands on him? In his fancy the Island seemed an unattainable Arcadia..."
The reader generally places complete reliance on all the judgments made by the omniscient author and adopts his point of view. The objectivity of the author's evidence is taken for granted. At the same time the reader gets the possibility to accompany the characters anywhere, to see what happens to them when they are alone, to know what goes on in their minds and what they think about one another. It means that the omniscient author reveals the viewpoints of the characters, too.
The omniscient author may also assume a detached attitude and tell the readers all about his characters, concealing his own point of view. For example, the story The Pleasures of Solitude by J. Cheever is told by a detached omniscient author, who describes what the protagonist saw, felt, thought and did, without giving his own analysis of her actions.
In many modern short stories since A. P. Chekhov the omniscient author appears to have a limited omniscient point of view. The author chooses one character, whose thoughts and actions are analysed, giving no analysis of the other characters. The author therefore may be partially omniscient.
The omniscient author may tell the story so vividly that his presence is forgotten, the characters and the scenes become visible.
Such are the advantages of the narrative made by the omniscient author.
In the case of the observer-author, the story is a scene or a series of scenes, narrated by an onlooker who does not interfere for any comments or reflections of these events. The main focus of interest is the study of actions and events. The advantage of this narrative method is that the observer-author lets the reader see, hear, and judge the characters and their actions for himself. He stimulates the reader to form his own impression and make his own judgments.
Stories told by the observer-author may be presented in either of the following two forms: (1) the dramatic, or (2) the pictorial form.
A story is said to have a dramatic form, when one scene follows another and the characters act and speak as in drama. (In drama nobody comments and explains the scenes, they appear). Arrangement in Black and White by D. Parker and The Killers by E. Hemingway serve as examples.
A story is considered to have a pictorial form, when the observer-author pictures the scenes, but he tells of what anyone might see and hear in his position without entering into the minds of any of the characters, without analysing their motives. (Indian Camp by E. Hemingway illustrates the pictorial form of presentation).
In one and the same story the author may vary the narrative method, sometimes giving us one character's version of events (or point of view) and sometimes that of another, sometimes assuming omniscience and sometimes narrating as an onlooker.
Thus in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber when describing a lion hunt Hemingway lets the reader see things through the eyes of the lion, whereas the events preceding Macomber's death are given through the perception of Macomber himself. There are, therefore, several shifts in the point of view.
The narrative method determines the dominant point of view. Depending on who tells the story, the dominant point of view may be either that of the character (if he tells the story), or that of the author (if the story is told by the author). The dominant point of view does not rule out the possibility of introducing other viewpoints into the story. If the viewpoints are presented as independent, the story is said to be "polyphonic". However, the dominant point of view generally subordinates the other viewpoints. Recall The Lady's Maid by K. Mansfield, where the viewpoints of the lady and the grandfather are reevaluated by Ellen. Such reevalutations may turn out to be misjudgements.
The narrative method conditions the language of the story. Thus if the story is told by an omniscient author, the language is always literary. When the story is told by a character, the language becomes a means of characterization (as direct speech always characterizes the speaker). It reflects the narrator's education, occupation, emotional state and his attitude. The social standing of the character is marked by the use of either standard or non-standard lexical units and syntactic structures. In The Lady's Maid the markers of her social standing are as follows: "if only the pansies was there...", "we was living", "all of a tremble", "a ducky little brooch" and others. The use of rare and specialized vocabulary serves as a marker of the character's occupation (or educational level, or both). In the case of The Lady's Maid these are "No, madam", "...is it, madam". The emotive and evaluative lexical units (such as "she's too good", "the sweetest lady", "poor grandfather", etc.) reflect the feelings of the narrator, her attitude to the people she describes. In this particular story some of the evaluative units appear to be reappraised, as the narrator's point of view is unreliable (she misinterprets events and misjudges people). From the way Ellen's lady and grandfather are presented it becomes clear that the lady is by no means "too good" — on the contrary, she is hypocritical, cunning and egoistic; the grandfather appears to be mean, calculating and deserves no justification for his cruelty.
One has to keep in mind that the language of a first-person narrative requires careful attention not only because it characterizes the narrator, but also because it is a means of representing the world through the eyes of that character. It therefore reflects his outlook (which may be naive, or primitive, or limited), his pattern of cognition, his psychology. That is why most stories related by the main character are deeply psychological.
Moreover, the narrative method may affect presentational sequencing of events. Thus the omniscient author will arrange the events of the story as they occur in chronological order. A first-person narrative more often than not is disrupted by digressions, or may have haphazard transitions from one topic to another, or may contain flashbacks to past events (as in the case of the The Lady's Maid). The events are then presented in psychological order.
Apart from that, the narrative method may also affect the sequencing of literary representational forms. If we turn to The Lady's Maid again, we can see that it is a complex pattern of narration, description, direct speech and reasoning, but it does not include the author's digressions because the author has shifted the responsibility of telling the story to the major character. Whereas in a story told by the omniscient author (e. g. The Cop and the Anthem) one may find all the literary representational forms.
Whether a story is convincing and exciting, whether it produces a vivid and enduring impression, whether it arouses interest and emotional response — all that relies heavily on the narrative method employed by the author.
Answer the questions:
1. What types of narrators may an author choose to tell a story?
2. What are the peculiarities (both advantages and disadvantages (limitations)) of
- a first-person narrative;
- a third-person narrative?
3. What can the narrative method determine (affect, condition, influence)?