This story is one of the few told in first person—by a married woman with one son, Laurie. When Laurie starts kindergarten, his attitude undergoes a drastic change: he grows more disrespectful towards his father and no longer entertains his mother’s outward displays of affection.
The narrator and her husband are greatly amused when Laurie returns home every day from kindergarten with outlandish stories about a classmate named Charles, who constantly misbehaves in school. Charles’s escapades become so notorious that his name becomes a legend in their family. The narrator looks forward to meeting Charles’s mother at the PTA meeting.
However, at the meeting, the narrator cannot pinpoint which parent is Charles’s. She purposefully corners Laurie’s kindergarten teacher, whose diplomatic report on Laurie sounds like Laurie’s description of Charles’s behavior, but the narrator does not notice. Instead, she cites Charles’s influence on Laurie’s behavior. Finally the teacher says that she does not have any student named Charles.
This humorous story demonstrates how even individuals living under the same roof may not fully realize the extent of each other's true behaviors or the nature of each other's true identities. The narrator is naively unaware of her own son's bad behavior in school and is too willing to believe his descriptions of some other misbehaving child. Even though her own son's behavior changes when he enters kindergarten, she chalks this up to Charles's influence. "Charles" demonstrates how unaware people may be of each other's inner motivations and desires or at least how purposefully blind people choose to be of these motivations and desires (such as when they concern negative information about one’s children).
Jackson injects enough hints regarding Laurie's behavior at home to give the reader the sense that the boy's descriptions of Charles are actually of himself. For example, Laurie begins to exhibit disrespectful behavior towards his parents, such as calling his father an "old dust mop" or stomping through the house when he arrives from school. In addition, when the narrator asks the name of the misbehaving child, Laurie stops to think before answering. The reader can assume that he must take a moment to make up the name of his alter ego. However, the narrator is ignorant of this, though she may be subconsciously rejecting the notion that her own son could be so badly misbehaved.
Charles is indeed Laurie's alter ego; Laurie creates him to serve as a foil to Laurie's supposedly angelic countenance at home with his parents. Through Charles, Laurie can tell his parents all about his misbehavior at school without receiving punishment. In addition, his parents will still consider him their lovable and well-behaved son. Perhaps in his attempts to adjust to school socialization and also maintain his parents' affection, Laurie resorts to Charles as an alternate identity through which he can express himself, entertain his parents, and receive attention at school.
Jackson employs dramatic irony in "Charles" because the discerning reader realizes before the narrator does that Laurie's gleeful description of Charles's exploits are in actuality his own doings. The kindergarten teacher's statement at the end of the story confirms this suspicion. When the teacher states that she has no student named Charles, the logical conclusion is that Laurie made up his existence and has in fact been describing himself and his own misbehavior to his unsuspecting parents.
Another example of dramatic irony in "Charles" can be found in the narrator’s and her husband’s avid desire to meet Charles’s mother. They do not know, as does the reader, that Charles's mother is in the narrator herself. Therefore, they already know Charles's mother—they just do not know she is the narrator herself.
Shirley Jackson is best known for her frequently anthologized short story “The Lottery,” in which a typical small town stones one person each year as part of a ritual based on reasons no one remembers. Critics analyze this story in terms of Marxist, feminist, and other literary theories, finding in it a chilling depiction of human behavior, which one can see as well in her less known stories, including “Charles.” Critics also note that Jackson’s stories usually concern children rather than adults and female characters more often than male. According to some biographers, this might result from Jackson’s problematic relationship with her own mother, who was insensitive to her daughter’s personality, tried to control her, and often criticized her for being overweight. From this point of view, feminist critics examine mother–daughter relationships (usually shaped by a male-dominated society) in Jackson’s stories to understand how these affect the behavior of the female protagonist.
Because the possibilities of madness and evil are recurring themes in Jackson’s work, it is frequently categorized as gothic—not in the sense of haunted castles and closets with skeletons but in terms of the human psyche, which has crevices that can hide evil, often in the form of narcissism that causes a breakdown of self, community, and family relationships.
Despite having received numerous awards during her lifetime, Shirley Jackson is not considered a great American writer by some critics, in part because she wrote for the purpose of entertaining her audience rather than elucidating complex philosophy. Critics frequently say she is a storyteller more than a philosopher, an entertainer more than an intellectual. According to Lenemaja Friedman (1975), Jackson “has insights to share with her readers; but her handling of the material—the surprise twists, the preoccupation with mystery and fantasy, her avoidance of strong passions, her versatility, and her sense of sheer fun—may not be the attributes of the more serious writer who wishes to come to grips with the strong passions of ordinary people in a workaday world, who prefers to deal directly with the essential problems of love, death, war, disease, poverty, and insanity in its most ugly aspects.”