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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perks of Being Inclusive

The Perks of Being a Wallflower champions and celebrates inclusivity and tolerance by showing both how people can blossom when they are accepted for who they are and how painful life can be for people who are ignored or mistreated. When Charlie enters high school, he is withdrawn. He doe not try to connect with people because he is actively grappling with the pain of the two traumatic deaths he has had to undergo. Charlie feels like an outcast and a misfit, and he does not have people whom he can trust. Soon, however, Patrick and Sam fold Charlie into their group, and Charlie learns what life can be like with strong friends. Charlie’s friends’ participation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show clearly demonstrates how necessarily it is to have a venue in which everyone can feel both completely included and utterly uninhibited.

The effects of being rejected by a person or by society are devastating. Charlie’s grandfather is racist and homophobic, and even though Charlie can chalk up his grandfather’s intolerance to old age and bad habits, the comments still pain him and make family functions very awkward. Charlie learns how to navigate his grandfather’s abuse by deflecting and making the family focus on Charlie’s brother’s football game, therefore allowing everyone to feel included. Patrick also feels deeply excluded when Brad rejects his homosexuality and therefore his relationship with Patrick. The two have carried on a closeted relationship throughout the novel. Patrick’s friends include him and accept him, but Brad does not have a similar support network, and with the lack of people who will accept him in his life, Brad cannot learn how to accept himself. At the beginning of the novel, Bill tells Charlie, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and this mantra proves to be true throughout the book. The more inclusive and honest people are, and the more accepting they are of each other, the more harmoniously everyone will be in the long run.

The Importance of Participating in Life

Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, people can only fully develop into the fullest versions of themselves when they take charge of their lives and learn how to stand up for themselves, rather than either standing off to the side all the time or lying down and letting others walk all over them. In the very beginning of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, tells Charlie that he has to start participating in his own life, rather than simply observing and taking in what others are doing. Charlie’s friendships with Patrick and Sam arise as a result of him trying to participate in events instead of standing aside and observing. Charlie participates in his friendships by becoming an extremely empathetic listener. But Charlie discovers that true participation in one’s own life has many layers. Participation does not only mean placing himself in the middle of events. It also means standing up for himself and asserting his own needs, rather than letting people walk all over him.

Participating in one’s own life is not necessarily always a happy experience. Indeed, participation in life often means confronting deep, raw emotions. Many characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower use coping mechanisms to try to escape from the harsh realities of life rather than facing the truth. For example, Brad does not want to admit his homosexuality, so he dates a girl and hooks up with Patrick on the side. When Brad is finally confronted with the choice to confess the truth, he does not do so, instead choosing to suppress his emotions. Patrick, in turn, tries to numb himself from the pain of rejection by drinking, kissing Charlie for emotional support, and having sexual encounters with strange men in the park. Participation in life means facing hard situations and working through them, rather than avoiding the issues or relying on emotional crutches to limp by.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Driving represents independence and maturity, and the ability to drive both alone and with other people is an important marker of actively participating in one’s own life. Charlie first bonds with Patrick and Sam when they drive through the tunnel together. As they pass through the tunnel to emerge on the other side together physically, they also undergo a deep emotional bond by traveling together through this space. On Charlie’s sixteenth birthday, he gets his driver’s license, meaning that he can drive independently, and this capacity is a marker of Charlie’s growth into adulthood. When Charlie’s siblings fight in the car on Christmas day, Charlie’s dad tells Charlie to drive the family the rest of the way to Ohio, which gives Charlie an enormous responsibility. Charlie becomes the glue who keeps the family together and helps them get where they need to go. Charlie’s driving also provides mutual distraction for the family, since they can focus on his driving and helping him grow into a capable adult instead of wallowing in their drama.

But driving also has a troubling undertone. Aunt Helen died in a car crash, and her death caused Charlie extensive emotional trauma. Charlie has also repressed the memory of Aunt Helen molesting him as a child. One of the first places Charlie drives on his own is to visit Aunt Helen’s grave, which he does in search of solace and comfort. Visiting Aunt Helen’s grave is a family ritual, but Charlie wants to make this journey by himself so that that he can confront the past on his own terms. Although driving might seem to be an action that brings the horrors of the past to the surface, driving allows Charlie to work through these difficulties. As he moves forward physically, he can move on emotionally.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Charlie and his friends regularly watch and perform along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and this venue gives them the opportunity to let loose and be themselves without reservations and without judgment. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an iconic cult movie from the 1970s, and ever since its release, audiences have been gathering for regular viewing parties. People sing along, talk back to the screen, dress up as their favorite characters, and dance the “Time Warp” group dance together. When Charlie gets to play Rocky one day, he gets excited for several reasons. First of all, Sam plays Janet, Rocky’s love interest, and Craig, Sam’s boyfriend, typically plays Rocky, so this offers Charlie an opportunity to get close to Sam without overstepping any boundaries. As Rocky, Charlie dances in a feather boa and wear a gold Speedo. This kind of flamboyant exposure might seem like a wallflower’s worst nightmare, but since Charlie is acting as Rocky, not himself, he gets to immerse himself in the role of another person, which is liberating. Charlie gets positive sexual attention for putting himself out there as Rocky, since Mary Elizabeth asks him to the dance after seeing him on stage. Being Rocky, Charlie can embody a more sexual version of himself, since he can temporarily leave behind his emotional baggage.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show offers other characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower the opportunity to express themselves in a way that they cannot do in ordinary life. Patrick regularly plays the role of Frank ‘N Furter, the transvestite in the film. Even though Patrick keeps his homosexuality closeted in his daily life, and he cannot make his relationship with Brad public, he becomes liberated on stage. Charlie knows that Patrick is truly depressed when he no longer shows up for Rocky Horror, and he recognizes that Patrick is doing better when Patrick appears for the show again. The Rocky Horror Picture Show also acts as a comforting routine, an anchoring ritual in the constant turmoil and drama of high school life. No matter what else happens, Rocky Horror is still there.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Smoking, Drinking, and Drugs

Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, people use various substances to try and escape from their own pain and suffering, but the drug use only sinks them further into their own depression. Smoking, drug use, and underage drinking form a large part of the high school world of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. At the homecoming party that Charlie attends with Patrick and Sam, Charlie is still somewhat in awe of his older friends, and the fact that there are drugs at the party seems cool to him at the time. Charlie eats a pot brownie without realizing what he is doing, and everybody laughs when he gets the munchies, but the teasing helps Charlie feel like he is part of the group. Charlie drinks and does pot with his friends to try and participate in life and to fit in with the crowd.

However, drug use is ultimately an escape that does not work in the long term. Charlie starts smoking as a more outward form of rebellion, and as a way to calm his nerves, but his nerves are not calmed. When Charlie kisses Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth, causing his whole friend group to ostracize him for a period of time in solidarity with Mary Elizabeth, Charlie turns to pot to try and numb himself. The pot helps dull him, but it doesn’t provide bliss, and Charlie is still depressed. When Brad stops going out with Patrick and after Brad lets the football team beat up Patrick right in front of him, Patrick starts self-medicating to make himself numb.

Mix Tape

The mix tape is usually a sign of the giver’s affection for the recipient, and it typically marks a momentous occasion or celebrates a deep friendship. If someone goes to the trouble to compile a group of particular songs together in a particular order, this action usually signifies that the maker of the mix tape cares a lot about the taste of the person who is going to receive it. Charlie makes a very thoughtful mix tape for Patrick when he Patrick is his Secret Santa. Many months later, when Patrick is depressed over losing Brad, Charlie notices that Patrick is playing the mix tape in his car. Making the mix tape lets Charlie show how much he cares for Patrick, and playing the mix tape lets Patrick show how deeply he trusts and relies on Charlie.

Charlie sometimes organizes the elements of his life as though they were the songs on a mix tape. When he, Patrick, and Sam drive through the tunnel, Charlie suddenly stops hearing the wind and notices that “Landside,” the Fleetwood Mac song, is playing on the tape player. “Landslide” becomes indelibly associated for him with the beautiful image of Sam standing in the wind as they drive. However, mix tapes can mask sinister intents. Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend makes Charlie’s sister mix tapes, but Charlie’s sister does not like the music. Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend uses the seemingly sweet mechanism of making a mix tape and twists it for manipulative, controlling purposes.

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