How Books Help Charlie’s Mental Health in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

I posted about The Perks of Being a Wallflower and mental health last October, shortly after seeing the film production. However, after re-reading the novel by Stephen Chbosky today (I first read it in 2011), I’ve decided that another post is required.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: growing up and
mental health. Image source: Pinterest

Charlie is a literary character I can relate to more than others, perhaps more than all others, and the novel means so much to me. The fact that it is YA fiction is irrelevant and doesn’t decrease my ability to learn from the novel, compare Charlie’s feelings and mental health to my own, and move on from my PTSD in a similar way to him.

Charlie is an introspective, socially awkward, intelligent, freshman. He frequently acts in the wrong way and says the wrong thing, and as a result experiences rapid cycling of negative and anxious emotions. The first friend he makes upon starting high school is his English teacher, Bill, and it is this social contact that enables him to persevere through “swirlies” (involving a head in a toilet) and general isolation.

Incidentally (see what I did there, Perks fans?), literature is central to the friendship between Charlie and his teacher. Bill is struggling with his own love life, and seems to recognise the isolation Charlie feels at school. He is able to hand Charlie books that he predicts will help him, both in finding someone to relate to and in helping him deal with high school.

Here I’d like to run through some of the books that Bill hands to Charlie, while considering the reason behind each choice and the results that they bring.

For isolation…

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is the first book Charlie is given. As he feels isolated and set-apart from other pupils, Charlie would relate to the character of Boo Radley, but also learn from the character’s gradual integration into Maycomb society that occurs with good deeds and social contact.

For growing up…

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is a book that Charlie classes as “fantasy”, and one that allows him to “participate” in social activities rather than being entirely involved in the story’s plot. Charlie states, “I think Bill gave me the book to teach me a lesson of some kind”. Perhaps this was a lesson on growing up or the difficult transition between childhood and adulthood.

For being a “wallflower”…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is not discussed by Charlie in detail, but the reader can independently make connections between Charlie and Fitzgerald’s novel. For one, both Charlie and Nick Carroway are “wallflowers”: they observe quietly and listen carefully without drawing too much attention to themselves, but they also provide guidance to others.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is perhaps an obvious choice of book to recommend Charlie. Charlie writes: “It was Bill’s favourite book when he was my age. He said it was the kind of book you made your own.” There’s something lovely about this quote, particularly as Perks is a book that so many have made their own. Charlie adds that it feels “appropriate to this time”, which mirrors my frequent matching of books to feelings and situations.

For wanting to be alone…

Walden by Henry David Thoreau is a book I’ve struggled with, but one I love the concept of nonetheless. Charlie seems to sum up my thoughts by writing the following: “I wrote a report pretending that I was by myself near a lake for two years. I pretended that I lived off the land and had insights. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the idea of doing that right now”. Rather than retreating to a lake for two years, which in practice isn’t easy, Charlie spends time reading alone in his bedroom. His family increasingly direct him to do this when he seems unsettled or unhappy, perhaps expecting that it will result in a greater sense of calm. I think it does.

Others referenced books include:

I imagine The Perks of Being a Wallflower will always mean as much to me as it did upon my first reading. This is largely due to how much I can relate to the novel, but also because of Charlie’s literary journey throughout the book. This journey is full of peaks and falls, but by the end of the novel we realise how much reading has helped Charlie, and how the exchange of books has strengthened the bond between him and Bill, even outside the school environment.
The book’s use of language slightly irritated me as a teenager, but I seem to have grown out of this. Funny how that works.
Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.