Introduction to Flowers for Algernon
Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction written by Daniel Keyes, evolved from a short story of the same title the author penned in 1959. Hugo won an award for the same, encouraging him to expand it into a novel under the same title. The novel was published in 1966, proved an instant hit and won another award for the author, the Nebula Award. The story of the novel comprises the diary of Charlie Gordon who undergoes intelligence surgery in a laboratory to enhance his intelligence. The story became popular, inviting instant ban shortly after it appeared in the market. Later, the ban was removed. Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1968 for the movie CHARLY.
Summary of Flowers for Algernon
The story of the novel presents Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged adult, nominated for experimental surgery to enhance his intelligence level. His eagerness to learn more has prompted his teacher Alice Kinnian at the Beekman College to recommend him for this experiment as directed by Dr. Strauss accompanied by his team. Both the doctor as well as the professor advise Charlie Gordon to write his experiences as a journal about the progress in his intelligence.
As far as Charlie’s career is concerned, he was working with Donner’s Bakery as a delivery boy. He also works as a janitor over there during his free time. Despite his being the center of the mockery of his colleagues, he demonstrates indifference to them, considering them his friends. The doctors decide to bring him to compete with Algernon, the mouse that has already been operated upon, they conduct a surgery upon him. Although he does not see any instant change following his operation, Alice works with him to improve his linguistic skills.
Finally, he starts reading and becoming proficient in reading books. On the other hand, he also shows improvement in his work at the bakery. Whenever he initiates some new productivity tools in the bakery, his coworkers become nervous. Now that he is intelligent he understands that his co-workers are not laughing with him but at him so keep them at bay. Once he finds that the one of the staff in the bakery was stealing and faces the moral dilemma of whether, to tell the truth to the owner Donner or not. When discussed with Alice she asks him to follow his heart so he informs the owner about the stealing, realizing that he is capable of dealing moral dilemmas on his own which he lacked in the past.
Interestingly, he feels attached to Alice more than he thinks who, despite her professionalism, stays with him. Finally, he leaves his job after the owner sees him more capable, while his relationship with Alice, too, grows, though, he sometimes feels his reflection in his old self and realizes his traumatic past. He finds that he was unable to be close with Alice because of the past with his mother who happens to beat him as a child for the slightest sensual impulses. Throughout the novel inspite of his ‘Family’ abandoning him, he still tries very hard to make them proud. When he is paraded in the Chicago demonstration along with Dr. Strauss, he feels that Professor Nemur is treating him like an animal, having gone under experiment. Charlie, outraged at this treatment, frees Algernon. He himself leaves the exhibition and hides himself in his apartment with Algernon. He soon realizes the transience of his capability and meets his neighbor, Fay Lillman, and becomes intimate with her. The foundation reaches out to Charlie mentioning that he can continue the research himself. Although he returns to his lab, he does not feel committed. He even abandons Fay.
Later, he realizes that Nemur’s hypothesis has a setback and the effect of the intelligence gain is only short term. Then it happens that Algernon becomes erratic, making Charlie fear for the evaporation of his intelligence, too. When Algernon dies, he is traumatic, fearing death coming to him sooner or later. Therefore, he thinks it necessary to visit his mother. When she sees him, she becomes overjoyed, and he feels relieved at this sudden welcome. However, he is surprised to see his mother attacking him with a knife. He, then, feels his own individuality and escapes to save his life.
Afterwards, he thinks that he has found a mistake in Professor Nemur’s idea that intelligence could evaporate as quickly as it has been instilled. He labels this as the “Algernon-Gordon Effect” and feels that he is regressing to his former disable self. Even though he maintains a brief relationship with Alice, he sends her away when he notices that his intelligence evaporating. When this regression completes, he visits his bakery and briefly enjoys the love of his former coworkers. Meanwhile, after forgetting everything about his intelligence and the duration, he appears before Alice and after upsetting her, seeks asylum in a disabled home. He makes a final request to his readers to visit Algernon’s grave to appreciate him.
Major Themes in Flowers for Algernon
- Unethical Experiments: The novel, Flowers of Algernon, shows the major theme of unethical experimentation when performing the surgery on Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged person. Dr. Strauss and his team have subjected him to experimentation on the line of Algernon, the experimental mouse. However, as soon as he becomes intelligent, he loses his job in the bakery where he was quite happy. Meanwhile, he comes across Alice, who, too, leaves him when he starts losing his intelligence, for she is attached to him only until the completion of the experiment to record his progress. In this case, both Algernon and Charlie have been treated as subjects of studies which is against the standard and existing ethical framework. It is because it falls under the preview of animal cruelty and violation of human rights.
- Gaining Knowledge: The novel shows the theme of gaining knowledge at the expense of others through the experiment of Dr. Strauss and Professor, who conduct brain surgery on Charlie Gordon with the promise of blessing him with intelligence. When he becomes brilliant, he also comes to know through Fanny about Adam’s knowledge acquisition and becomes sad. He thinks that he has lost happiness he used to enjoy on Mr. Donner’s bakery. That is why his knowledge does not bless him with happiness. Rather, he brings more problems for him similar to Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the paradise.
- Loss of Identity: Loss of identity is another theme reflected through Charlie Gordon and the experiment to augment his intelligence. In the beginning, he feels that his identity is that he is a worker in Mr. Donner’s bakery where he enjoys life and feels happy with his co-workers, but when he thinks that he is undergoing surgery to acquire intelligence, he thinks of his new identity. He faces this ethical dilemma when turning in Gimpy at the bakery for stealing things. Therefore, he surmises from these circumstantial transformations that identity is always changing and that he is again going to lose his identity along with his intelligence.
- Hubris: Although Charlie Gordon is not a classic hero, nor neurosurgery in the United States a Grecian context, yet his hubris is the same; his pride and ambition to undergo surgery and enhance his thinking power, or intelligence. His pride lies in his thinking of being a smart person who wants to learn about the world around him. He thinks that with the intelligence he would launch his bright career in signing and research. By the end, he faces the punishment through his fall after losing his intelligence. His contextual hubris becomes his personal flaw, making him worthy of the readers’ sympathies.
- Human Relations: The novel shows the theme of human relations through the character of Charlie Gordon. When he is a dullard and dunce person, he faces maltreatment despite having a strong ethical sense. However, as soon as he becomes intelligent, even Alice becomes intimate with him, though, her relationship with him does not solidify. His worldview is quite simplistic when he is not intelligent, but his vision widens after the surgery and he desires to revert to the same level where he has intimate and loving relationships with the people around him.
- Love and Sexuality: Although Charlie Gordon does not confuse his total transformation only with his intelligence, the major change in his life is his perspective toward love and romance in life. He is unaware of this aspect of life before the surgery due to the teaching of Rose Gordon not to touch the opposite sex. However, following surgery, he even contemplates having sex with the opposite gender that, though, could not be equated to the Oedipus Complex of Charlie. It could, however, be termed as an awakening of his love for the opposite sex, including his mother.
- Maltreatment: Keyes has beautifully presented the idea of maltreatment toward other human beings based on their weaker points. Charlie Gordon is mentally fragile as he cannot think linearly at the beginning of the novel, the reason that all others treat him in the same way, while his master at the bakery also exploits him. However, the recuperation of intelligence through surgery not only changes his perspective toward life and the world, but also this thing changes public perspective toward him as shown by his mother, Alice, and his former employer.
- Emotions: The novel shows the emotional balance in the life of Charlie Gordon whose disability impacts his emotional growth. Yet, it is interesting to note that he is emotionally tenderer and loving in the first part of his life before he gets intelligence through surgery. As soon as he becomes intellectual or intelligent, most of his energy is spent thinking about other people in a logical manner instead of giving more thought to his emotional growth and passions.
- Memory: Memory becomes another significant theme due to the role it plays in the life of Charlie Gordon. It seems that his past is always with him even when he undergoes surgery and gains intelligence. He recalls his childhood all the time. This split personality due to memory becomes significant in the last part of the novel as it keeps him puzzled and confused.
- Alienation: The novel shows the theme of alienation in Charlie Gordon who feels it intensely after having undergone surgery to enhance his intelligence. That is why he visits his former employer to recall the warmth and love of friendship that he feels despite having Alice with him.
Major Characters of Flowers for Algernon
- Charlie Gordon: Charlie is not only the main narrator but also the protagonist of the novel whose diary narrates his story from being a mentally retarded young man to an intellectual. A young man of 32, he faces social discrimination on account of his mental retardation. Working as a deliveryman and janitor at the Donner’s Bakery, he wins applause for his integrity but when he joins the learning class of Alice Kinnian, he undergoes experimental surgery to enhance his intelligence level. With an enhanced IQ level, he faces emotional challenges and comes to terms with his new life with arrogance and haughtiness. However, he starts losing this streak of brilliance by the end and reverts to his disability after solving scientific puzzles. His experimental life, thus, becomes a subject of scientific study when he bids adieu to Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur.
- Alice Kinnian: A young but very intelligent and beautiful lady, Alice works as a teacher for literary classes for the disabled students where Charlie Gordon is introduced to her. She becomes the main source of his intelligent growth after she introduces him to Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur who perform brain surgery on him. Despite demonstrating her initial intimacy toward Charlie, she is fed up with his arrogant attitude. She also identifies this flaw in his character, which she thinks needs toned down to make him eligible for a good social life with somebody. She, however, abandons him she sees his intelligence fading into his former disability.
- Algernon: The significance of the character of Algernon, the mouse, lies in that he is the first victim of the obsession of Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss. In a sense, he is equated to human beings after his intelligence is increased through surgery. Charlie, therefore, is unconsciously equated to Algernon. Therefore, his presentation in the storyline is a representation of human beings to animal levels. As Algernon also experiences fading of his artificially constructed intelligence, it also signals a moment of its transience for Charlie Gordon. By the end of the novel, he dies, leaving questions about human control over life and death.
- Professor Harold Nemur: The role of Professor Nemur in the storyline is important in that he lays the foundation of neurosurgery to enhance intelligence in case of mental retardation and demonstrates this ability for the first time during his surgery on Algernon, the mouse. However, he does not stop here and continues propagating his academic achievement and prowess in surgery with Dr. Strauss after which both of them hook Charlie Gordon to become a subject of their experiment. Despite being a brilliant scientist, Nemur has no ethical fears when he operates upon Charlie. Thus, demonstrating his arrogance over his plight.
- Dr. Strauss: The character of Dr. Strauss is significant in that he works closely with his friend, Professor Nemur, in his surgical feats of transforming the intelligence level of Algernon, the mouse, as well as, Charlie Gordon, the mentally retarded young man. Despite having brilliance of mind, he has some human flaws such as jealousy and ambition. This points to the ethical side of his experiment. However, as compared to Professor Nemur, he is to some extent humble and takes care of Charlie when he undergoes surgery, and informs him how to cope with his anxiety.
- Rose Gordon: Rose, Charlie’s mother appears quite early in the novel and demonstrates her significance by showing heavy-handed and cruel treatment toward her son. First, she entirely rejects the notion that her child, Charlie Gordon, could be mentally underdeveloped, and second she sends him to his uncle to undergo further mental torture. Even though Charlie acquires intelligence, she continues pestering him, the reason that he finds it difficult to form relations with others such as with Alice.
- Fay Lillman: A neighbor of Charlie, Fany shows her casual attitude toward her neighbors including Charlie who pays attention to her in his early life but she fades into the humdrum of life with time.
- Burt Selden: Selden assists his mentors, Nemur and Strauss, during the surgery and supervises the subjects, Algernon and Charlie. He later takes Charlie to introduce him to students.
- Matt Gordon: Matt lies is Charlie’s father whose main desire lies in having his barbershop that he finally establishes. As a shy husband, he does not rise against domineering Rose to protect his son.
- Uncle Herman: Uncle Herman is the guardian of Charlie after his own mother, Rose Gordon, expels him from home.
Writing Style of Flowers for Algernon
The style of the novel, Flowers for Algernon, shows that it is quite complex as Daniel Keyes uses very simple sentence structure and easy diction for Charlie Gordon before he undergoes surgery. However, when he comes out after the surgery, his identity becomes complex not only in the usage of his sentences but also in diction. His sentence becomes complex and long from choppy and stilted ones he used earlier. The first person narrative further lends credence to this style. For literary devices, Keyes resorts to similes, metaphors and personifications.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in Flowers for Algernon
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the life of Charlie Gordon, the mentally deranged young man, who undergoes brain surgery for intelligence enhancement and then reverts to his mentally deranged state after living in that situation for some time. The rising action occurs when he begins flirting with Alice and the falling action occurs when Alice leaves him, seeing his reversion to his former self a reality.
- Allusions: The novel shows examples of allusions such as given below,
i. Theories instead of about my own ideas and feelings. But it’s okay to read novels. This week I read The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy, and Look Homeward, Angel. I never knew about men and women doing things like that. (April 15)
ii. It’s exciting to hear them talking about poetry and science and
philosophy-about Shakespeare and Milton; Newton and Einstein and Freud; about Plato and Hegel and Kant, and all the other names that echo like great church bells in my mind. (April 26)
iii. They were arguing about whether or not Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. One of the boys-the fat one with the sweaty face-said that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. But Lenny, the short kid with the dark glasses, didn’t believe that business about Marlowe, and he said that everyone knew that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays because Shakespeare had never been to college and never had the education
that shows up in those plays. (April 27)
iv. I spend most of my free time at the library now, reading and soaking up
what I can from books. I’m not concentrating on anything in particular, just reading a lot of fiction now-Dostoevski, Flaubert, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner – everything I can get my hands on feeding a hunger that can’t be satisfied. (April 27)
These four examples show the use of allusions such as the novels and books in the first and different writers in the other two.
- Anaphora: The novel shows the use of anaphora given in the below examples,
i. In the middel of the nite I woke up and I coudnt go back to sleep
because it kept saying remembir… remembir… remembir… So I think
I remembird something. I dont remembir exackly but it was about Miss Kinnian and the school where I lerned about reading. And how I went their. (March 26)
ii. Now that Im starting to have those dreams and remembiring Prof Nemur
says I got to go to theripy sesions with Dr Strauss. He says theripy sessions is like when you feel bad you talk to make it better. I tolld him I dont feel bad and I do plenty of talking all day so why do I have to go to theripy but he got sore and says I got to go anyway. (March 27)
iii. That’s all I can remember. I can see it all clearly, but I don’t know why it
happened. It’s like when I used to go to the movies. (April 13)
These examples show the repetitious use of “I remembird”, theripy sessions”, “I can.”
- Antagonist: It seems that Professor Nemur is the real antagonist of the novel in that he is merely interested in the advancement of his knowledge and learning and not in human life.
- Colloquialism: The below examples show the use of colloquialism such as,
i. I get headakes from trying to think and remembir so much. Dr Strauss
promised he was going to help me but he dont. He dont tell me what to think or when I’ll get smart. He just makes me lay down on a couch and talk. (PROGRESS REPORT 8)
ii. Then Dr Strauss came over and put his hand on my sholder and said Charlie you dont know it yet but your getting smarter all the time. You wont notise it for a while like you dont notise how the hour hand on a clock moves. That’s the way it is with the changes in you. They are happining so slow you cant tell. But we can follow it from the tests and the way you act and talk and your progress reports. He said Charlie youve got to have fayth in us and in yourself. We cant be sure it will be permanint but we are confidant that soon your going to be a very intellijent young man. (March 24)
These examples show the use of colloquialism in the conversation and dialogs of Charlie Gordon.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Charlie Gordon and the world around him, while the internal conflict is going on in his mind about his situation.
- Characters: Flowers for Algernon has both static as well as dynamic characters. The young man, Charlie Gordon, is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end of the novel when reverts to his mental retardation. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Alice Kinnian, Dr. Strauss, and Professor Nemur.
- Flashback: Below are examples of flashbacks from the novel,
i. I see Charlie-eleven years old. He has a little goldcolor locket he once
found in the street. There’s no chain, but he has it on a string, and he
likes to twirl the locket so that it bunches up the string, and then watch it
unwind, spinning around with the sun flicking into his eyes. (April 15)
ii. I never remembered any of this before today, but it came back to me after I thought about the dream. It has something to do with the feeling about Miss Kinnian reading my progress reports. Anyway, I’m glad now I don’t have to ask anyone to write things for me. Now I can do it for myself. (April 17)
- Imagery: Flowers for Algernon shows the use of imagery in the following examples,
i. But other things come into my head too. Sometimes I close my eyes and I see a clear picture. Like this morning just after I woke up, I was laying in bed with my eyes open. It was like a big hole opened up in the walls of my mind and I can just walk through. I think its far back… a long time ago when I first started working at Donner’s Bakery. I see the street where the bakery is. Fuzzy at first and then it gets patchy with some things so real they are right here now in front of me, and other things stay blurred, and I’m not sure…. (April 13)
ii. The wall breaks down and suddenly there is a redhaired girl with her arms
outstretched to me – her face is a blank mask. She takes me into her arms, kisses and caresses me, and I want to hold her tightly but I’m afraid: The more she touches me, the more frightened I become because I know I must never touch a girl. Then, as her body rubs up against mine, I feel a strange bubbling and throbbing inside me that makes me warm. But when I look up I see a bloody knife in her hands. (May 2)
These two examples show images of color, sound, and feelings.
- Metaphor: Flowers for Algernon has the following examples of metaphors,
i. A look passed between them. I felt the blood rush to my face again. They
were laughing at me. (April 17)
ii. Thousand confusing ideas burst into his mind at the same time and he stands there smiling. He wants to do it, to make Frank and Gimpy happy and have them like him, and to get the bright good-luck piece that Gimpy has promised him. (Progress Report 10) .
iii. As soon as the fuzziness passes away he’ll remember. Just another few seconds and he’ll have it. He wants to hold on to what he’s learned-for a little while. He wants it so much. (Progress Report 10)
iv. The fuzzy cloud comes and goes, and now he looks forward to the
pleasure of the brightly colored pictures in the comic book that he has gone through thirty, forty times. (Progress Report 10)
v. The principal in my dream had a long beard, and was floating around the room and pointing at me. (April 27)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as look with something, ideas with explosives, fuzziness with the flood, and the principal with some boat.
- Mood: The novel shows a very confusing mind in the beginning, then becomes happy when Charlie acquires intelligence but again falls into a tragic mood after he reverts to his situation.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are language, flashbacks, and memories.
- Narrator: The novel is narrated from the first person point of view as well as third person Point of view by the narrator at some places.
- Parallelism: Below are the examples of parallelism in the novel,
i. I was a blundering adolescent in her eyes, and she was trying to let me down easy. (April 28)
ii. I moved closer and reached for her shoulders, but she was too quick for me. She stopped me and took my hand in hers. (April 28)
These examples show the parallel structure used in these sentences.
- Paradox: Two examples of paradox from the novel are given below,
i. He laughed and then he got up from his chair and went to the window. “The more intelligent you become the more problems you’ll have, Charlie. Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth. (April 14)
ii. I still don’t know how the conscious and unconscious mind works, but Dr Strauss says not to worry yet. (April 15)
Both of these examples show that the writer has put paradoxical ideas or things together.
- Personification: Examples of personifications from the book are given below,
i. March 25 – That crazy TV kept me up all nite. How can I sleep with something
yelling crazy things all night in my ears. (March 25))
ii. The fuzzy cloud comes and goes, and now he looks forward to the
pleasure of the brightly colored pictures in the comic book that he has gone through thirty, forty times. (Progress Report 10)
iii. “The argument went on that way with Strauss saying that Nemur had his eye on the Chair of Psychology at Hallston, and Nemur saying that Strauss was riding on the coattails of his psychological research. (April 25)
iv. The terror that waits in that cold tile room overwhelms him. He is afraid to
go there alone. (April 28)
These examples show as if craziness, fuzziness, argument, and terror have life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Charlie Gordon is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entrance into the story, his journey through his challenges and final resolution.
- Rhetorical Question: The examples of rhetorical questions from the book are given below,
i. I was furious at her, myself, and the world, but by the time I got home, I
realized she was right. Now, I don’t know whether she cares for me or if she was just being kind. What could she possibly see in me? What makes it so awkward is that I’ve never experienced anything like this before. How does a person go about learning how to act toward another person? How does a man learn how to behave toward a woman? (May 2)
ii. She must have sensed the urgency because she agreed to meet me. I hung up and stared at the phone. Why was it so important for me to know what she thought, how she felt? (May 8)
These rhetorical questions show that Charlie Gordon questions his own thoughts.
- Repetition: A few examples of repetition from the novel are given below,
i. The said make beleeve but I tolld her thats lies. I never tell lies any more because when I was a kid I made lies and I always got hit. (Progris riport 4)
ii. I think it’s a good thing about finding out how everybody laughs at me. I
thought about it a lot. It’s because I’m so dumb and I don’t even know when I’m doing something dumb. People think it’s funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can. (April 13)
These examples show the use of repetition such as “lies” and “dumb.”
- Setting: The setting of the novel, Flowers for Algernon, is the city of New York where the bakery and laboratory was located during the 1950s.
- Simile: The below are the examples of similes from the book,
i. If the operashun werks good I’ll show that mouse I can be as
smart as he is even smarter. (Progris Riport 6th Mar 8.)
ii. Anyway, that is my memory of the time, clearer and more complete
than anything I have ever experienced before. Like looking out of the kitchen
window early when the morning light is still gray. (Progress Report 10)
These two similes show comparisons; the first shows this between the mouse and Charlie and the second shows this between his memory and something else.