This The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary with quotes and the book list (of literature mention in the book) is for super fans wanting to dig deeper into this 1999 cult favorite by Stephen Chbosky, which, to this date, still has meaning and impact.
I decided to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower as part of my Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge of books mentioned on the Gilmore Girls. I had never read or watched it before because I had anticipated your standard angsty teenage coming-of-age story.
I ended up being completely blown away by it and naming it one of my favorite books of all time. It’s the most intimate and purposeful character-driven story set in school that is so richly layered with symbolism and themes related to overcoming trauma and leaving a legacy of hope for others.
While I will share my own summary and analysis below, I know this is one book I can read again and take even more from, or read another person’s analysis and find that he or she interpreted elements differently.
Below is my The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary, followed by meaningful quotes, and the book list mentioned in the story.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Summary and Analysis
This The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary and analysis covers both the book and the movie, intertwined. I read it and watched it on the same day, and I loved them both. While there are some differences, they are generally the same, and I just can’t differentiate them completely in my mind.
Charlie is a classic introvert entering his first day of freshman school year of high school in Pittsburgh in 1991-1992 after his friend committed suicide at the end of the prior school year.
He faces the challenge by writing the first of a series of letters to an unnamed “friend” who he notes is someone who seems trustworthy and not judgmental of things like the “hospital” at which he spent time.
The “friend” and the “hospital” continue to be referenced throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but their significance is not revealed until the end.
At the outset, Charlie is a passive observer of life, watching life occur all around him from the outskirts and keeping everyone’s secrets, but not truly participating. He sees sadness everywhere. His siblings aren’t that nice to him and at times, it even feels like he is invisible, like when he witnesses a date rape at a young age.
(For fans of the Enneagram, I would peg Charlie as a 5w6 / Investigator with a Loyalist wing. He’s an observer at heart with a fearful and anxious, yet very loyal, side.)
Charlie’s brother is a new college student playing football at Penn State, and his stepsister, Candace, is a more extroverted senior at Charlie’s high school, immersed in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, Derek, which abuses Charlie also witnesses. Charlie also lives with both his parents, who come from troubled pasts and, while not “bad” parents, do seem somewhat detached.
Charlie is naturally an advanced English student who loves literature and reads and references books all throughout the novel. (See the full book list below.) On his first day of school, the only friend he makes is his English teacher.
His sister’s boyfriend makes mixed tapes for her, to which Charlie listens and, like literature, this form of art also becomes therapeutic for him over the course of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Charlie eventually befriends a quirky senior from his shop class named Patrick, and Patrick’s sister, Sam. Patrick likes Charlie, because Charlie is the only person who doesn’t refer to him by an unfortunate and ironic nickname, “Nothing.” Thus, Charlie sees Patrick as a person.
They all hang out at Big Boy after the football game and talk about music. Again, culture is important to Charlie’s social development and personal growth.
At the Homecoming dance, Charlie watches Patrick and Sam exuberantly dance like no one is watching, and he eventually joins them. It’s a moment of pure joy.
Then, at a party thereafter, Charlie meets another friend, Mary Elizabeth, who he describes as a “Buddhist punk,” and he opens up very comically when he gets “stoned.” At this time in Charlie’s life, only the influence of drugs can help Charlie to be himself.
Charlie also witnesses Patrick kissing a football player named Brad and promises not to tell. Patrick toasts Charlie because “he sees things, and he understands.” (Again, Charlie is an observer and a confidant.) Charlie remarks he didn’t think anyone had noticed him. At this moment, Charlie has officially made friends who accept him for being himself.
Charlie, Patrick, and Sam drive together through a tunnel in a convertible, and Sam stands, with her arms outstretched to the feelings of wind blowing against her and the music flowing through her ears.
Charlie just watches her but later begins listening to Sam’s favorite music and making mixed tapes for her as what he deems to be a socially proper act of love — something he has learned from watching his sister’s relationship. Charlie wants to experience love, but does not yet know how to do so in his own way.
Charlie actually begins to enjoy high school with his new friends, and he learns more of their secrets, like Patrick’s secret affair with a football player, Brad, and that upperclassmen used to get Sam drunk at parties.
Charlie then attends his friends’ theater re-creation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — another cast of misfits looking for acceptance.
At a party, Charlie also offers to help Sam study for the SATs. This is another way in which Charlie is attempting to act out love without knowing how. He believes that making Sam happy is love, and that he need not seek to receive anything in return.
But, then Charlie merely watches on the sidelines as Sam dances with her crush, Craig. He seeks the advice of his English teacher to understand Sam’s behavior and he tells Charlie:
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Ironically, this sentiment can also apply to Charlie, as well as all of the other characters, and it is a major theme of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
As Christmas approaches, Charlie participates in Sam’s Secret Santa. He receives a suit from Patrick that will make him look like a great writer, which implies that Patrick is a true friend who believes in Charlie’s talents.
Sam surprisingly gives Charlie a typewriter as a gift, and she tells Charlie to write about them, his friends. This is another sign that Charlie has met people who accept him and believe in him.
This act of giving inspires Charlie to let his guard down and admit he’s never had a girlfriend, nor has he been kissed. Sam admits her first kiss was a grown man, and that she used to sleep with people who treated her poorly.
As much as Charlie looks up to Sam, we will further learn how similar Sam’s and Charlie’s backgrounds and needs are, and why Charlie feels so connected to her. Charlie tells Sam that this happened to his Aunt Helen too, and that she turned her life around.
At various times in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie describes his Aunt Helen as his best friend and someone who truly loved him, and he feels responsible for her tragic death in a car accident because she was buying him a present at the time. She always bought him two gifts for his Christmas birthday, and he experienced this as being love as a child. This is explored in greater detail in the book than in the movie.
And although Sam likes Craig, she tells Charlie she wants to make sure the first person who kisses him loves him and so, she kisses him.
Charlie’s brother returns home, and they have a nice celebration of Christmas and Charlie’s birthday. His brother encourages him to talk to his friends if he needs help, and he confesses that he would like to ask Sam out in a few years, “when the time is right.”
It’s nice to see that Charlie’s brother is growing up and treating him kindly. Getting through life with the support of family, not just friends, is also a theme in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Charlie rings the New Year in with his friends, having gained the protection and “safety net” of his friends to make efforts to experience life, but then he thinks about his beloved Aunt Helen and the secret she asked him to keep before her tragic death. He is found passed out on the snowy ground.
While Charlie has been making social progress, it’s clear something is still holding him back.
Next, instead of watching his friends re-enact The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he is asked to step in and participate. He’s secretly thrilled to be acting provocatively with Sam as his lead, and he asks to join the cast as an alternate. Through acting, he can practice living in a safe way.
In the book, Charlie also acts as the confidant and helper of his sister, as she has an abortion. Throughout the story, as Charlie grows, so too does his relationship with Candace, and he experiences the healing bonds of family first by healing his sister.
Mary Elizabeth asks Charlie to the Sadie Hawkins Dance and so, Charlie attends his first official date. Afterward, Mary Elizabeth starts to get physical with Charlie, but he is very nervous. He very confusedly becomes Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend, not because he wants to, but because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Charlie is still somewhere between a passive and an active participant in life.
When Charlie is later dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room; however, he kisses Sam. Patrick tells him it’s best if he stays away for a while, due to “history” between Sam and Mary Elizabeth.
This loss of friendship causes Charlie to regress to negative thoughts and feelings about something unclear but very ominous in his past.
Charlie hears that Brad’s father had learned about his relationship with Patrick, and Brad comes to school with a black eye as a result. Later, Patrick and Brad get into a fight when Brad refers to Patrick as “Nothing” and “faggot,” and Charlie steps in to support Patrick.
Through Brad, Charlie sees the consequences of someone not being accepted as they are. And by stepping in, Charlie is showing through physical actions, rather than quiet observations, that he cares for and accepts Patrick as he is.
Even Brad secretly thanks Charlie for stepping in and, in this unexpected way, Charlie has also conveyed acceptance towards Brad.
Regardless, Charlie blocks out the memory of the fight and can’t recall it, just as he has blocked out and can’t recall the other negative events in his past.
By acting to help Patrick, Charlie earns his way back into the gang. He and Patrick talk and wonder why they can’t save people from themselves. After this intimate moment of communication, Patrick kisses Charlie, and Charlie lets him, giving in again to someone else’s needs rather than his own to experience love.
As the school year progresses, Charlie’s sister and friends prepare for college. Charlie’s English teacher tells him he can write a book someday and again, Charlie experiences acceptance and encouragement.
As the seniors graduate, we learn that Craig has been cheating on Sam, very badly, and they break up. So, before Sam leaves for college, Charlie wants her to know that the night of the homecoming dance, when they drove together, meant something to him, so he gives her his beloved books.
Sam wonders why her friends pick people to love who treat them poorly in return, and Charlie reiterates that they accept the love they think they deserve, which his English teacher mentor had advised him. Sam asks Charlie why he never asked her out then and, at this moment, Charlie’s sentiment also applies to him.
Sam challenges Charlie to actually live, and not just participate, in life. She encourages him not to put everyone’s needs above his and to think of that as love. She says she wants people to like the real her, but she cannot really feel that if he doesn’t act out his own feelings towards her.
So, Charlie finally decides to act on his feelings and kisses Sam passionately. It’s presumed they have sex.
Finally, in this very physical act, Charlie can recall the trauma of his past — that his Aunt Helen had molested him, and that he felt responsible for it. Charlie has a breakdown and admits to Candace he actually wanted Aunt Helen to die. He spends the Summer in the hospital, where his family finally learns what happened to him.
Back home in the Fall, he has dinner with his family, who all seem to have also grown over the course of a year, and he returns to Big Boy, one year later, with Sam and Patrick.
Sam reveals she found the song from when they drove through the tunnel and asks Charlie and Patrick to go for a drive. This time, Charlie experiences the song, the wind, and life, fully present, as Sam had done one year earlier. He emerges from the cocoon of the tunnel as a butterfly.
Coming full circle, Charlie tells his “friend” to whom he writes letters that he may no longer have time to write because he’s too busy living. He’s not just a sad story on a piece of paper — he’s alive.
It’s not revealed exactly to whom he was writing the letters and there are a lot of theories on the internet. One that I like is that he was writing them as part of therapy, where he was encouraged to express himself in writing to someone who seemed trustworthy.
A lot of others believe the letters are directed to the reader, to make them feel more personally engaged in the story.
It appears Charlie kept the letters, as he doesn’t seem to actually know the person to whom he wrote them and, in the book, we then learn that Charlie’s letters not only changed his life, but they went on to change, and save, the lives of other lost and traumatized teens, over decades of time. It’s thus implied that Charlie’s letters did become the basis of a book, and he was able to achieve his full potential, despite his trauma.
Charlie touches upon his thoughts on generational trauma and how differently people respond to it. He doesn’t believe these different reactions make people inherently good or bad, which shows that he may have forgiven his Aunt Helen over time.
He also notes that everyone is dealing with something, and no one’s suffering is less than another’s. In this way, everyone has been Charlie at some time.
Charlie reminds these people, and others, that they too are not alone.
Participating in life is hard work, but it’s worth it, and the best way to overcome trauma.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower exquisitely captures coming-of-age with themes of: trauma, healing, friendship, love, acceptance, family, art, and so much more.
While Charlie wasn’t able to save the life of his friend who had committed suicide when the novel began, by coming of age, he was able to save many others, including himself, who have all gone on to be thriving adults.
This was the perk of Charlie’s having been a wallflower.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Quotes
Below are some of the best and most popular quotes from The Perks of Being a Wallflower:
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
“He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.”
“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
“Enjoy it. Because it’s happening.”
“It’s nice to have things to look forward to.”
“It’s strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book.”
“We didn’t talk about anything heavy or light. We were just there together. And that was enough”
“This moment will just be another story someday.”
“It’s just that I don’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it too.”
“So, I guess we are who we are for alot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”
“And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have. Good and bad.”
“I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
“Maybe it’s sad that these are now memories. And maybe it’s not sad.”
“Please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough. And I will always believe the same about you.”
“You are not alone.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Book List
Since this is a book blog, I have to share the list of literature referenced by Charlie throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, most of which he received from his English teacher:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
- A book of poems by E. E. Cummings
- The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts
- A book by Anne Rice
- An autobiography of a woman who was a character in Reds (likely Emma Goldman)
- “A Person /A Paper /A Promise Remembered ” by Dr. Earl Reum (the suicide poem)
This would make a great reading challenge for super fans! I do think there is meaning to the books selected. For example, The Catcher in the Rye is a strikingly similar story, The Great Gatsby is narrated by an outsider/observer like Charlie, and Charlie also exhibits Peter Pan-like behavior.
That concludes my The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary with quotes and the book list (of literature mention in the book) super fans.
This is such a complex and multi-layered book, and my The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary is just my personal take on it, so if you have any further or different thoughts or observations, share them in the comments below.