Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
In the form of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, Flowers for Algernon tells an emotionally wrenching story and implies much about human nature, psychology, and values. Charlie, a thirty-two-year-old with an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 68, is the first human subject of an experimental procedure to increase intelligence, funded by the Welberg Foundation and conducted at Beekman University (somewhere in New York City) by Professor Harold Nemur, psychiatrist and neurosurgeon Dr. Strauss, and Burt Selden, a graduate student in psychology. Charlie is suggested as a candidate by Alice Kinnian, his teacher at the Center for Retarded Adults at Beekman, because of his kind temperament and desire to learn.
At the laboratory, Charlie meets Algernon, a white mouse that has undergone the procedure and that can beat Charlie at running mazes. At Dr. Strauss’s suggestion, Charlie begins keeping what he calls “progris riports”; their bad spelling and misunderstandings show Charlie’s mentally handicapped state. After the surgery, Charlie’s intelligence and memory both increase, which is conveyed by his writing: in better spelling, more elaborate sentences, expanded vocabulary, and intellectual references.
The changes, however, bring problems and unhappiness as well as abilities and enjoyment. Charlie loves learning, and he happily reads (at greater and greater speeds) and discusses abstract ideas with Beekman students. He also realizes that the people around him make fun of him—including Gimpy, Joe Carp, and Frank Reilly, his “best friends” at the bakery where he works—and he begins to remember childhood traumas. Charlie catches Gimpy cheating the bakery; the men at the...
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Flowers for Algernon unfolds in a series of diary entries. In the first, dated “martch 3,” Charlie describes himself as a thirty-two-year-old man who works at a bakery and attends “Miss Kinnians class at the beekmin colledge center for retarted adults.” Ensuing entries chronicle Charlie’s progress as the first human subjected to an intelligence-boosting surgical procedure.
Before the operation, Charlie undergoes a series of tests that measure his intelligence. In one, he tries in vain to pencil through a maze faster than Algernon can run it. Algernon is a laboratory mouse that already has undergone the surgical procedure. After the surgery, sleep learning accelerates Charlie’s mental development. By the end of the month, he outraces Algernon. In early April, he comprehends a grammar book overnight and shows signs of increased self-awareness, staying home from Donner’s Bakery after realizing that he has long been victimized by coworker “friends” Joe Carp and Frank Reilly.
Counseling Charlie is Dr. Jay Strauss, a neurosurgeon and psychiatrist who, with Professor Harold Nemur, is responsible for the experiment. Together with lab assistant Burt Selden and teacher Alice Kinnian, they guide Charlie as he begins a long-delayed maturation process.
Two months after the operation, Charlie is able to converse intelligently with college students but is stymied in acting on his amorous feelings for Alice. Although she...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Flowers for Algernon” is a classic “what if?” story. Keyes explores the proposition, “What if an operation could increase human intelligence?” from the point of view of an experimental subject, using the intimacy of a diary to immerse readers in Charlie Gordon’s reality. Keyes uses a bittersweet, but always respectful, humor to illuminate Charlie’s interpretations of events. For example, when one coworker accuses another of “pulling a Charlie Gordon” when he loses a package, Charlie reflects, “I dont understand why he said that. I never lost any packiges.”
Charlie’s spelling, grammar, and syntax mirror his changing intellectual and emotional states. His first “progris riport” on “martch 5” establishes Charlie as uncomplicated, guileless, and eager to please. His elation as his intelligence grows is reflected in later entries when he uses punctuation marks with exuberant abandon. In the ensuing weeks, his writing becomes flawless, and his subject matter grows increasingly complex. As his intelligence declines, his grammar, spelling, and punctuation revert to substandard forms.
“Flowers for Algernon” is a science-fiction story because it is set in a future time and involves a speculative technology. Keyes needs no distant, alien civilization to expose the failings of contemporary human interactions. Instead, he probes the inadequacies of a society uncomfortable with human diversity through the eyes of an unforgettable character.
Compare and Contrast
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Clareson, Thomas D. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990
Clute, John, and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Gunn, James. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.
Pringle, David. Science Fiction: The One Hundred Best Novels. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1985.
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