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 bakery protest the presence of the new Charlie, and he is fired. Even Fannie Birden, a kind coworker, declares that Charlie’s change is against God’s will.
Charlie’s intelligence soon reaches genius level (an IQ of 185), causing problems with Strauss, Nemur, and Kinnian. Charlie falls in love with Alice, but she knows that he will soon be too intelligent for her. Charlie thinks that Nemur treats him like a laboratory animal, and, when he surpasses Nemur in intelligence, both behave badly. Nemur is condescending, and Charlie has grown arrogant and unforgiving.
When Charlie is taken to a psychological conference in Chicago, he flees with Algernon, returning to New York City but not to Beekman. There he begins a casual affair with his neighbor Fay Lillman, a painter whose trust and openness to life are needed by the now-cynical Charlie. Charlie remembers more about his childhood, including his mother’s desire to make him “normal” and his parents’ arguments. He goes to the Bronx to see his father but leaves without identifying himself. When drinking with Fay, Charlie regresses to his preexperiment self.
Increasing evidence indicates that the procedure is temporary, leaving its subjects worse than before. Algernon grows irritable and forgetful, then alternately lethargic and violent. Charlie persuades the Welberg Foundation to put him on the project as a scientist, and his genius reveals a central error by Strauss and Nemur. In “The Algernon-Gordon Effect: A Study of Structure and Function of Increased Intelligence,” Charlie proves that he too will regress. He visits the Warren State Home in Long Island, where he may have to be placed.
Furiously working in his remaining time, Charlie moves into the laboratory; Fay resents this abandonment but soon finds a new boyfriend. Charlie is almost haunted by his old self, and he realizes that “intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection” cannot succeed. Algernon dies, and Charlie buries him.
The last three months of entries document Charlie’s regression, worsening in spelling and grammar. Charlie visits his mother and sister Norma while he can, shocked to find his mother senile and Norma a kind person, proud of Charlie. Alice returns to Charlie, stating that they are now again on the same level; they make love—“a mystery,” “more than sex”—and she stays until Charlie drives her away.
In the end, Charlie is back working at the bakery, sexually adolescent again, barely able to read and write; he even shows up for his old adult reading class, to Alice Kinnian’s distress. He seems to have regained his old sweetness while having learned some things about human nature.