Study Guide

Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Flowers for Algernon

Charlie Gordon is a gentle, happy, thirty-two-year-old with an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 68. For seventeen years, he has worked at Donner’s Bakery, a job his Uncle Herman found for him. He also attends evening classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults to learn to read and write. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, recommends him for a research experiment on intelligence conducted by Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur. This experiment, funded by the Welberg Foundation, has already been successful on a white lab mouse named Algernon, so the researchers are ready for a human participant.

Professor Nemur tells Charlie to keep a journal in the form of progress reports for the experiment. The first such “progris riport,” dated in early March, documents Charlie’s illiteracy and strong hope to be selected for the “operashun.” Charlie worries that he will fail the personality and intelligence tests, especially after Algernon beats him when they compete in solving puzzles. He also describes, in a childlike manner, his desire to increase his intelligence to participate fully in discussions and make more friends.

Despite Professor Nemur’s reservations, Charlie is selected to undergo neurosurgery along with enzyme and hormone treatments intended to triple his intelligence. He is nervous about the operation and brings a rabbit’s foot and other superstitious objects with him to the hospital. After the successful operation, he is disappointed that he is not instantly smarter.

Charlie is allowed to return to his job at Donner’s Bakery. In the evenings, Miss Kinnian tutors him, and soon he is beating Algernon in maze races and has learned to read. His intelligence increases rapidly. He is promoted to dough mixer at work and slowly realizes that the people he thought of as friends have been making fun of him. They notice changes in him and become suspicious. Around the time he suggests a few improvements at the bakery, he also catches Gimpy stealing from Mr. Donner. After he confronts Gimpy, the employees band together to have Charlie fired. Only Fanny Birden stands on his side, but while saying good-bye she suggests that something unnatural is happening to Charlie.

Charlie throws himself into reading and spends time at Beekman University pretending to be a student. He also begins remembering childhood events and meets regularly with Dr. Strauss for therapy sessions. In the middle of June, Charlie and Algernon are put on display at the annual psychological association convention in Chicago. His intelligence has surpassed that of both Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, and he realizes there is a flaw in their research. This, combined with Nemur’s continual references to Charlie as having been engineered into a human, so upsets Charlie that he releases Algernon, causing chaos. During the distraction, he and Algernon return to New York.

Charlie’s disillusionment leads to self-reflection, and his memories lead him to understand his desire to become more intelligent and his struggle to develop a relationship with Alice Kinnian, to whom he is attracted. Both desires stem from his childhood, when his mother denied that Charlie’s intelligence was low and developed schemes to boost it. Once his sister Norma was born, his mother’s efforts shifted toward getting Charlie institutionalized. He works on finding his parents and sister to attempt reconnecting with them.

Charlie befriends a neighbor, Fay, who helps socialize him. They drink and go dancing. During this time, when memories surface, Charlie recognizes a sort of disassociation, as if a switch has been flipped: At such times, he seems either to watch his own behavior through the eyes of a frightened man with the intelligence of a six-year-old or to watch a developmentally disabled and confused young man through the eyes of a thirty-two-year-old genius.

By late July, Charlie has reached his intellectual peak, and the decline that Algernon is exhibiting begins to show itself in Charlie’s behavior as well. A race begins, as he feverishly works to find the flaw in the experiment before he can no longer comprehend the science involved. By September, Algernon is dead. Charlie reacts violently to his progressive loss of knowledge and rejects Alice, with whom he had finally connected. By mid-November, he asks for his old job back at Donner’s Bakery. He has come full circle. When he accidentally shows up at the Beekman Center and upsets Alice, he decides to leave for the Warren State Home, where he will not have to face anyone who remembers that he was a genius for almost eight months.

Flowers for Algernon Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of the classic science fiction novels of the 1960’s. It conveys a moving story about a mentally retarded man gaining genius-level intelligence, only to slowly and tragically regress to his former state. It is widely considered to be one of the most important novels ever written about the nature of human intelligence. The novel won the 1966 Nebula Award.

The novel was expanded from a novella of the same title, which itself won a Hugo Award in 1960. “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) told the story of Charlie Gordon, a thirty-year-old man with an IQ less than 70 but with an intense desire to learn. He is chosen to be the first human subject in an experiment aimed at surgically correcting his brian in a way that is hoped will triple his IQ. The same technique appeared successful on a laboratory mouse named Algernon. The entire story is told through journals written by Charlie, documenting his feelings and experiences as he increases his intelligence to genius level, then slowly and tragically returns to his former limited intellectual abilities. In 1992, science-fiction readers and professionals voted it the best science-fiction novella ever written.

In the novel, Keyes better detailed Charlie’s intellectual rise and fall, adding startling details about his early life with his parents and sister, who later abandoned him. Although not as stylistically effective as the novella, the novel remains compelling as Charlie slowly uncovers hidden memories of his past life, seeks to achieve emotional maturity to match his towering intellect, and seeks to use that intellect (unsuccessfully) to stop in himself the same intellectual degeneration he has observed in Algernon. The novel was made into a successful film, Charly (1968), for which Cliff Robertson earned an Academy Award for best actor.

Increased human intelligence is a common theme in science fiction. Slan (1940) by A. E. van Vogt and More than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon portray the hostility of the common man to his intellectual superiors. Others, such as Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson and Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) by Olaf Stapledon, portray intellect as cold and less human. “The Marching Morons” (1953), by Cyril Kornbluth, is set in a future in which the superintelligent few must secretly rule the moronic masses. Flowers for Algernon, however, provides a portrait of the nature of intelligence that differs greatly from these many previous stories. Flowers for Algernon portrays low intelligence in a sympathetic manner, effectively arguing that intelligence is only one of the many things that makes people human.

Flowers for Algernon Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Charlie Gordon, thirty-seven years old and with an IQ of 68, dreams of being smart. Intelligence, he imagines, lies somewhere in the domain of reading and writing—a belief that has made him the hardest-working pupil in Miss Kinnian’s class for slow adults. Charlie is so “motor-vated” that Miss Kinnian recommends him as a test subject for an experimental surgical procedure that promises a threefold increase in intelligence. Excited by the prospect of having his dream come true, Charlie begins his diary at the request of Dr. Strauss. Each “progris riport” reveals Charlie’s thoughts, feelings, and fears as his intelligence rises dramatically, then plummets.

With a childlike eagerness to please, Charlie faces psychologists who attempt to administer personality and intelligence tests. Try as he may, he can see neither pictures in the “raw shok” inkblots nor stories in the scenes of the Thematic Apperception Test. Charlie fares no better in his contests with a white mouse named Algernon. Algernon runs through a maze box as Charlie attempts the same maze with pencil and paper. Algernon always wins.

Charlie is troubled by preoperative fears, but his rabbit’s foot and a gift of candy see him through. The operation entails little discomfort and recovery is rapid, but Charlie is disappointed when he notices little immediate rise in his intelligence. Dr. Strauss advises patience, pointing out that Algernon’s progress was slow after he underwent the same procedure. Now the reason for the animal’s superior maze-running is revealed: “Algernon beats me all the time because he had that operashun too. That makes me feel better. . . . Maybe someday I’ll beat Algernon. Boy that would be something.”

Charlie returns to his job as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company. He is happy to be back with his friends, oblivious to the mockery and practical jokes that his coworkers enjoy at his expense.

Dr. Strauss introduces a subliminal learning machine that teaches while Charlie sleeps. The breakthrough comes only a month after the journal entries begin, when Charlie beats Algernon. After that, his intellect expands at an ever-increasing rate. He reads widely; masters grammar and punctuation; learns foreign languages, mathematics, and music; and even conquers the Rorschach inkblot test that so baffled him before his operation.

As knowledge enters Charlie’s world, so too does the recognition of evil. His most bitter lesson about people comes at a factory party. As he dances, his coworkers repeatedly trip him, laughing at his falls. The ridicule of those he once counted as friends devastates him: “I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Everyone was looking at me and laughing and I felt naked. I wanted to hide myself. I ran out into the street and I threw up. . . . I never knew that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around all the time to make fun of me. . . . I’m ashamed.”

He suggests a highly profitable improvement in procedure at the factory and earns a meager bonus, but his coworkers fear the new Charlie so much they sign a petition demanding his dismissal. He realizes that he loves Miss Kinnian, but his superior intellect poses a new barrier between them. He now can no longer communicate with her.

A shift in Algernon’s behavior augurs Charlie’s fate. The mouse turns vicious, and his intelligence diminishes. Realizing that his own intellectual prowess is also temporary, Charlie throws himself into research, attempting to develop a calculus of intelligence. He concludes that artificially increased intelligence deteriorates at a speed proportional to the quantity of the increase.

After Algernon dies, Charlie puts the mouse’s body in a cheese box and buries it in his backyard. He places flowers on the grave regularly in the weeks that follow.

Charlie’s own intellectual decline accelerates, and he mourns his losses one by one as memories and skills disappear. Once again mentally handicapped, Charlie decides that his best hopes lie in a new beginning somewhere outside New York. He harbors no malice, bears no regrets: “dont be sorry for me Im glad I got a second chanse to be smart becaus I lerned a lot of things that I never new were in this world and Im grateful that I saw it all for a little bit.” Proud of his accomplishment, however transitory, Charlie congratulates himself for being “the first dumb person in the world who ever found out something importent for sience.” He asks nothing from his teacher, his doctors, or his readers but that flowers be placed on Algernon’s grave.

Flowers for Algernon One-Page Summary

From the film Charly, an adaptation of Flowers for Algernon, starring Cliff Robertson, 1968. Published by Gale Cengage

Part I—Charlie Becomes a Genius
Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)

Flowers for Algernon Chapter Summaries

Progress Report 1 Summary

Charlie Gordon begins the book on March 3 with a short introduction, the first of many “Progress Reports” that he writes for Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur. Charlie states that he is thirty-two years old, will turn thirty-three next month, and is currently employed at Donner’s Bakery where he earns eleven dollars a week as a janitor. Although he has an IQ of only 68, he is functional enough to live independently and to attend classes three times a week at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults. As a student there, he attracts the attention of Strauss and Nemur, who are interested in the field of neuroscience. His teacher, Miss Kinnian, helps explain the importance of writing the progress reports. Strauss and...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Progress Report 2 Summary

The next day, March 4, Charlie goes to Professor Nemur’s lab for the first of many tests. Charlie begins this progress report by expressing fear that he failed the test and will no longer be considered for the experiment.

Charlie describes the “psych dept” as a long hall that includes a lot of little rooms with only a desk and chairs. In his assigned room, he meets Burt, who is to give him the test. Burt’s white coat makes Charlie think that Burt is a doctor. Charlie admits that he cannot remember Burt’s last name. Because he confesses more than once to his trouble remembering things, Charlie is evidently concerned that his memory issues will also prevent him from being considered for the experiment.

...

(The entire section is 333 words.)

Progress Report 3 Summary

On March 5, Charlie meets with Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur to discuss the Rorschach test. Charlie defensively tells them that he did not spill the ink on the cards, nor could he see anything in the blots as Burt wanted him to. Strauss and Nemur assure Charlie that they may still be able to use him. When Charlie says that Miss Kinnian never gave him any tests except reading and writing, Dr. Strauss mentions that his teacher said he was the best pupil as far as effort and motivation. Charlie explains that he went to Beekman University Center because he wanted to be smart. His mother always told him to “try harder” to be smart, but he never was able to make much progress in school. Even in Miss Kinnian’s class, Charlie...

(The entire section is 360 words.)

Progress Report 4 Summary

On March 6, Charlie reports that he returned to the lab for more tests. The lab tester tells Charlie that he is going to take a “Thematic Apperception Test.” Charlie asks her how to spell it for his report, which shows that even before the operation, Charlie is “trying hard” to be smart. His focus is now on doing the “right” things in order to be viewed as a fitting candidate.

In the Thematic Apperception Test, Charlie is shown pictures of people. Initially, Charlie thinks this test will be easier than the Rorschach Test because he can actually see what is in the picture, unlike in the inkblots. The tester tells him that he must make up a story about the people in the picture, but Charlie refuses, believing...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Progress Report 5 Summary

On the same day, March 6, Charlie is present during a discussion among Strauss, Nemur, and Burt Seldon. Charlie’s sister, Norma, has been found and has granted permission for the operation. Professor Nemur, however, is hesitant about using Charlie. Strauss states that Charlie is the best candidate of all those tested. Burt adds that Miss Kinnian recommends him as the best of all her pupils at Beekman University, the source for the test subjects. Strauss emphasizes that Charlie has a high level of motivation for a person with a 68 IQ. He explains to Charlie that "motivation" is something that Algernon has as well; for the mouse, the motivation is cheese. Charlie is confused, since he says he did not have cheese that week.

...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Progress Report 6 Summary

It is March 8, and Charlie is prepared for the operation. Numerous visitors come to wish him luck. Burt Seldon brings him flowers from the people at the psych department (flowers will also play a role at the end of the story, functioning as bookends to Charlie’s new life). Charlie has his rabbit’s foot and his lucky penny to take with him into the operating room. Dr. Strauss chides him for being superstitious: the operation does not involve luck, the doctor says; it is "science." Charlie is confused because he believes that "science" is simply something that helps you have good luck. Joe Carp, a coworker from Donner’s Bakery, brings him a chocolate cake and tells him to get better soon. On Professor Nemur’s orders, Charlie...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Progress Report 7 Summary

Following the operation, Charlie’s eyes are bandaged for three days. It is not until March 11 that he can write another "progress report" (which Hilda, the nurse, shows him how to spell correctly). He tells of his fear prior to the procedure, of being wheeled into an operating room with tiers of doctors waiting to view the historic surgery. Dr. Strauss tries to calm Charlie, but when his arms and legs are strapped down, his fear increases significantly. After the anesthesia mask is lowered, Charlie calmly goes to sleep.

When Charlie awakens, he finds that his eyes are bandaged and he cannot remember the surgery at all. Burt monitors Charlie, taking his vital statistics, recording them for “science,” as Charlie...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Progress Report 8 Summary

In the days following the operation, Charlie becomes increasingly frustrated. He thinks the puzzles, the games, and especially the progress reports are “stupid.” He gets headaches from trying to remember as Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur want him to. Miss Kinnian assures him that he will get smarter, but it will happen without his realizing it.

Charlie eats lunch with Burt in the college cafeteria. He listens to the students around them and hopes that he will soon be able to have similar conversations about serious topics. Burt promises him that eventually he will be smarter than the students. Charlie almost tells the students that he will be very smart like them, but Burt interrupts him, as the experiment is still...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Progress Report 9 Summary

On April Fools' Day, Charlie’s coworkers plan to play a trick by getting Charlie to run the bread-making machine, a task that usually takes a year in baking school to accomplish. When Charlie is able to do this, and to do it better than the previous worker, the crowd is silenced and eventually becomes sullen.

In his studies, Charlie is progressing rapidly. He is able to look up words he does not know how to spell. In addition to his subconscious nighttime routine and his lessons with Miss Kinnian, Charlie is able to read independently. His memory also is improving. He remembers several incidents from his childhood. He connects an incident involving a girl in his class with his blossoming feelings for Miss Kinnian....

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Progress Report 10 Summary

Charlie’s intelligence grows, including his problem-solving abilities. He devises a new layout of the mixing machines at the bakery, increasing the speed of production. Mr. Donner is impressed, giving him a raise and a bonus. Charlie wants to celebrate with his coworkers, but the men are becoming distant, even afraid of Charlie. Charlie believes that with time they will get used to the changes in him.

He remembers the times when Frank tormented him and Gimpy stood up for him. In one incident, Gimpy wanted to teach Charlie how to make rolls, promising a medal made out of a tin lid. Patiently showing him, Gimpy repeated the steps over and over, but Charlie could not remember. In disappointment, Gimpy told him to go back...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Progress Report 11 Summary

It is May 1, and Charlie asks Miss Kinnian (Alice) out for dinner and a movie. He is obsessed with her closeness, the times when they accidentally touch. He is unsure of himself and how he is supposed to react. He is bothered by the unreality of the movie, that all its conflicts were wrapped up nicely but artificially. He is at the point of being angry, but Miss Kinnian calms him down, pointing out that he is rapidly becoming more analytical. At the end of the evening, Charlie is not sure how he is supposed to act. His awkwardness reveals that he is still emotionally immature despite his now genius-level IQ. They agree that it was probably not a good idea for them to have gone out, and Miss Kinnian prevents Charlie from moving too...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Progress Report 12 Summary

It is June 5, one week until the convention in Chicago, and Charlie has not filed any progress reports for two weeks. Professor Nemur is upset because he feels Charlie is jeopardizing the presentation. Charlie understands this, especially now that the Welberg Foundation is paying him a salary. But he is irritated that Nemur keeps referring to him as a "lab specimen." Charlie reminds him that he is a person.

Dr. Strauss suggests that Charlie learn how to type, since Charlie is frustrated that his thoughts now come much faster than he can write them down. He does not pursue a romantic relationship with Alice Kinnian, but he is still tormented by dreams of the teenage Charlie. He remembers when his sister Norma came home...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Progress Report 13 Summary

Charlie fears flying, so he is acutely nervous when he boards the plane for Chicago. He thinks about crashing, which leads him to reflect on the existence of God. He had always thought of Him as akin to Santa Claus. His mother believed in God, feared Him, and prayed to Him. Charlie’s father, however, thought of God as one of his wife’s relatives whom he did not want to associate with.

Charlie’s anxiety heightens when he is requested to put on his seat belt. He flashes back to an incident in his childhood when he was around five years old. His mother (and unwillingly his father) took him to a quack doctor who claimed to be able to cure Charlie’s mental handicap. Charlie was strapped down, so frightened that he...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Progress Report 14 Summary

Charlie sees a newspaper picture of his mother and sister, who were questioned by a reporter following Charlie’s escape with Algernon from the convention. From the article, Charlie learns the address of his mother, as well as the fact that his father and mother have separated and his father owns a barbershop in the Bronx. The sight of his mother’s face reminds him of the final showdown between his parents: his mother wanted Charlie to be placed in the Warren home, but his father instead takes him to his brother Herman’s.

Charlie finds an apartment in midtown New York City. He continues his studies and builds a new maze for Algernon. Across the hall is a free-spirited painter named Fay. Sexually attracted to her,...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Progress Report 15 Summary

Charlie returns to the lab with Algernon. He has gone over Nemur’s head and received authorization by the Welberg Foundation to head the investigation into Algernon’s reversion. Nemur is furious but has no other option but to aid Charlie in any way he can. If Charlie cannot come up with an explanation, then Nemur’s entire life’s work will have been proved valueless. If Charlie does determine the cause and can correct it, not only Charlie but Nemur and the rest of the crew will benefit.

After examining Algernon, Burt determines that the mouse has lost much of his ability to problem solve. Charlie wonders if the regression is the result of Algernon being away from the lab for so long. Burt works with Algernon to...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Progress Report 16 Summary

Charlie goes out to the Warren state home. He is initially shocked at the condition of the four thousand residents. They are classified into “tidy” and “untidy,” depending on their level of independence. He contemplates that eventually he will most likely be one of those residents.

Alice and Fay meet at Charlie’s apartment. Alice is intrigued by the carefree nature of the other woman, but she is more concerned about Charlie’s drinking. Eventually, Charlie feels that Fay becomes too possessive. He moves a cot into the lab, and Fay finds another boyfriend.

Charlie works almost around the clock on his investigation of the intellectual regression of Algernon. He knows that his own time is limited,...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Progress Report 17 Summary

Charlie can feel the deterioration accelerating. He thinks about suicide as a means to avoid the inevitable, but he cannot take the shadow Charlie’s life from him. He feels that he has simply borrowed his life and now must return it. He is becoming irritable and aggressive. He plays the stereo turned up loudly all through the night, not wanting to go to sleep and waste whatever time he has left. Eventually the landlord reports him to the police. He shatters the records and leaves them lying on the floor.

At his last therapy session with Dr. Strauss, Charlie has a strange episode in which he imagines that he is trying to get into a cave full of light but keeps banging into the entrance. He is afraid of the nothingness...

(The entire section is 555 words.)