There simply isn’t a better coming of age-teen novel out there than Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower – eat your heart out JD Salinger! Trust me, I’ve read a lot of YA fiction, and nothing has even come close to the gold standard that The Perks of Being a Wallflower boasts. I’m of the belief that the book’s biggest success lies in Chbosky’s unflinching, heartbreaking and hugely moving portrayal of mental health. It’s a book that moves its readers – myself included – to tears on multiple occasions.
In amongst a deep exploration of mental health, Chbosky never strays from keeping it grounded and realistic. Central protagonist Charlie suffers from PTSD and depression, something that is laced throughout his character and his arc, forms who he is and how he acts. But never does Chbosky fall back on this as a source of emotional manipulation towards the reader; it is unflinchingly realistic and Charlie acts and responds to things in wholly rational ways given his situation. It’s because of this that we learn to sympathise and relate to Charlie. We don’t just feel sorry for him because of his life, we grow to like him because of how real and how human he is. Chbosky’s narrative form (a series of letters sent from Charlie to an anonymous recipient) gives us an insight into his mind and how he thinks, a framing device that deftly turns a potentially two-dimensional down on his luck teen into a voice for the voiceless, a young man who is confused, daunted and troubled in life.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower explores mental health at a crucial time in one’s life as well. A person’s teenage years are incredibly important to their growth as a person and how they learn to handle life moving into adulthood. As much as it is a time of learning and growing, its a time of turmoil and immense struggles. What Perks puts across is that mental health problems can develop at any age and can have adverse serious effects on anyone. Charlie is a symbol of the wider struggle of the youth of today; he stands for those who feel alone, those who feel out-of-place, those who don’t understand what they’re feeling, how and why they’re feeling it, and why life is doing this to them. It seems that no one truly understands Charlie – his insistence that only his aunt Helen understood him – so in this sense he suffers in silence, unable to articulate or verbalise his struggles. Whilst measures are being made in society to improve mental health awareness and diagnosis every day, millions still face hard times without anyone knowing. Chbosky understands what it is like to hurt and to feel hopelessly desperate and empty. “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be”.
But it’s not just Charlie who struggles mentally. Sam is a victim of sexual abuse and has something of a struggle for acceptance and love. Patrick becomes tormented by his hidden affair with the star athlete. Charlie’s sister faces domestic abuse yet continues on in the relationship. Mary Elizabeth feels insignificant in comparison to other girls. It’s not just one character, it’s several. But it’s the same in life; the chances that it’s only ever one person you know who struggles mentally are slim. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still incredibly relevant nearly 20 years after its initial release.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes what could be a rather pedestrian story and set of characters, and turns it into a heartfelt and stunningly powerful examination of mental health. It perfectly captures the soaring highs and crushing lows of growing up and becoming who you are.
This article is part of a series recognising Mental Health Week.