The Perks of
The 2012 movie adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, the teenage wallflower; Emma Watson as Sam, the object of his infatuation; and Paul Rudd as Charlie’s English teacher, Bill. Here we look at some of the works of literature Bill assigns to Charlie and how they connect to each other, to Chbosky’s novel and to the quintessential teen-angst television melodrama, My So-Called Life.
J.D. Salinger’s prototypical coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, serves as a template for Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. The first-person narrators of both novels—Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s book and the pseudonymous “Charlie” in Chbosky’s—are teenagers searching not only for who they are but also for like-minded people. Each is tormented by the premature death of an innocent, makes a botched attempt to lose his virginity, has suffered an unwanted sexual advance from an adult and faces a crippling breakdown.
Yet there are significant differences between the two works. Holden operates in the late 1940s, before a meaningful youth counterculture has emerged, and his rebellion against the mainstream is a solitary pursuit—from his Pennsylvania boarding school to New York City, his hometown, where he roams the streets, drinks underage and tries to befriend a prostitute. When Charlie enters high school, it is 1991 and “alternative culture” is easy to find: Friends introduce him to music by the Smiths and take him to screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Holden’s quest is to move beyond his self-protecting rejection of others; Charlie, a wallflower, must learn to develop and assert his own individuality.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise traces a seismic shift in social conventions, namely the emergence of liberated Jazz Age values that diverged from 19th-century prudence and conformity. By contrast, Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower does not dwell on the uniqueness of its generation (the so-called Gen X)—though the book is steeped in 1990s pop culture—but instead emphasizes the continuity of teenage experience across the 20th century.
The different focus in Chbosky’s novel becomes obvious when the central character, Charlie, describes a scene from This Side of Paradise: Fitzgerald’s “jaded” protagonist, he says, “talks about his ‘restless generation’…And he says something like, ‘This is not a time for heroes because nobody will let that happen.’” Charlie is in a Big Boy restaurant with his friends, and his statement launches a conversation on how celebrities are exalted and torn down by the media. He reflects, “It was especially fun to think that people all over the world were having similar conversations in their equivalent of the Big Boy.” Where Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine yearns to be exceptional, Charlie wants to participate and connect with others, whether they are across the table or back in time.
In Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of the works Charlie reads is On the Road, the seminal Beat generation novel by Jack Kerouac, which portrays abundant substance abuse. Drug use is also a theme in Chbosky’s novel, although the pot and booze of Kerouac’s book are augmented by Mini Thins—an over-the-counter, ephedrine-based stimulant that was popular in the 1990s—and LSD, which was not widely available until the 1960s, after On the Road was published.
Both Charlie and Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s hero, enter altered states to reach the same exalted end: what Charlie calls “infinite” and Paradise calls “IT.” Charlie describes the feeling in Kerouacian prose: “Because the song was that great and because we all really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way. I have since bought the record, and I would tell you what it was, but truthfully, it’s not the same unless you’re driving to your first real party, and you’re sitting in the middle seat of a pickup with two nice people when it starts to rain.”
The short-lived television drama My So-Called Life takes place during the same period as Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower—the early 1990s. The show features Claire Danes as 15-year-old Angela Chase, a young woman who asks questions about herself that could very well come from Wallflower’s Charlie. Danes mused about her character, “Is she the quiet kid? Is she the nerd? Or is she a rebel?” Both works are nearly pitch-perfect in their representation of the decade’s youth culture. And like teens immemorial, both narrators, though they live in stable nuclear families, rebel against their parents. Angela, however, exhibits far more anger, sardonically revealing, “Lately, I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.”
In an interview, My So-Called Life’s creator, Winnie Holzman, remarked, “Being a teenager is a universal thing, and interestingly enough, from generation to generation the emotions do not change. The dress and the exteriors and the groups may differ, but the emotions stay the same.” Charlie takes comfort in a similar notion while pondering This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about youth of the 1920s.
When the television show My So-Called Life premiered, in 1994, many reviewers compared the character of Angela to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. Referring to Angela’s grunge fashion sense, Newsweek writer Harry F. Waters called her a “Holden Caulfield in Doc Martens.” Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly anointed the program “a portrait of adolescence equal to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.”
In a 1994 essay in The New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz compared the distorted perspectives of Angela and Holden. Of My So-Called Life he wrote, “The Salingeresque title sets the tone for this remarkable series, which showcases the most sophisticated use of the unreliable narrator ever seen in network drama.” Seitz described how Angela’s overwrought voiceover often contradicts what the viewer sees on-screen, as when she describes her crush’s vacant stare as “deep”—though his Visine use suggests he’s really just stoned. Similarly, he noted about The Catcher in the Rye, “Rereading Mr. Salinger’s book in adulthood, you realize that Holden’s version of events was skewed to make him seem smooth, witty and wise rather than confused, helpless and small”—as nearly all teenagers are.
The novelist and literary critic Kirk Curnutt, writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel in The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, notes, “[This Side of] Paradise gave voice to postwar youth by offering a realistic treatment of adolescent disaffection.…The book established the template for such twentieth-century coming-of-age novels as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” With This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald set the stage for an entirely new genre and made American youth culture a subject for serious fiction.
J.D. Salinger once referred to himself as Fitzgerald’s successor. This Side of Paradise and The Catcher in the Rye both appeared after devastating world wars, at times when America was gaining its footing in a changed world. Curnutt explains, “This Side of Paradise sold upwards of 50,000 copies because protagonist Amory Blaine’s thwarted ambitions are depicted as generational dilemmas: his failures in love and college are attributed not simply to personal shortcomings but also to the sweeping changes of modern life, which caused young people to grow up ‘to discover all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths shaken.’” Likewise, The Catcher in the Rye expresses the post–World War II generation’s search for meaning in the America it had inherited.
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, after Charlie completes J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, his English teacher, Bill, assigns him On the Road—“a different kind of book, as ‘a reward.’” Published in 1957, On the Road is based on author Jack Kerouac’s own alcohol- and drug-infused road trips across America in the late 1940s. The travels of his fictional alter ego, Sal Paradise, are, like the wanderings of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a search for meaning in the aftermath of World War II. Both protagonists share revulsion for the commercialism and conformity of their time. But, whereas Holden’s journey takes him only from boarding school rebellion to a nervous breakdown in New York, Sal hits the open road, tapping into the promise of America. Fueled by drugs and booze, he exults, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who…burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”