In this story, which was the basis for the film Charly (1968), Charlie travels from ignorance to great intelligence and back again. Ironically, that same journey takes him from innocence to disillusionment to innocence recaptured. Charlie’s fleeting intellectual prowess carries an exorbitant price: an excruciating awareness of the cruelty that he has suffered at the hands of his coworkers. Charlie also finds pain in self-knowledge. He hides a picture of “the old Charlie Gordon” from himself in the hope of escaping the specter of his former illiteracy and childish naïveté, but he is haunted by the suspicion that he always saw—even through the veil of his dullness—his own isolating inferiority. He writes, “A child may not know how to feed itself, or what to eat, yet it knows of hunger.”
Charlie’s expanded intelligence fails to deliver the expected benefits. Although he delights in his newfound capacities for reading, memory, and logic, Charlie finds himself in a lose-lose situation with people. He writes on April 30: “The intelligence has driven a wedge between me and all the people I once knew and loved. Before, they laughed at me and despised me for my ignorance and dullness; now, they hate me for my knowledge and understanding.”
Fanny Girden, one of Charlie’s coworkers, invokes the Garden of Eden story from the Bible to explain the fear that Charlie’s intellect provokes: “It was evil when Eve listened to the snake and ate from the tree of knowledge. It was evil when she saw that she was naked. If not for that none of us would ever have to grow old and sick and die.” Charlie understands her message. His recognition of his coworkers’ attitudes toward him has made him feel naked and ashamed.
Through Charlie, Daniel Keyes probes societal attitudes toward the mentally handicapped. Charlie’s darkest hour comes at the peak of his intelligence, when he finds himself laughing along with everyone else at the clumsiness of a mentally handicapped boy. Charlie, unlike the others, becomes furious with himself for laughing and defends the boy: “He can’t help what he is! But for God’s sake . . . he’s still a human being.”
Keyes also questions the nature of friendship. As Charlie’s intelligence declines to its preoperative level, he concludes that because letting people laugh is a good way to make friends, he should have lots of friends in his new home.
The only true love demonstrated in the story is Charlie’s devotion to Algernon. He hates the mouse at first for winning all the races, but soon he develops an affection for the animal so intense that Algernon’s death evokes profound grief. Charlie’s friendship with Algernon grows from shared experience. He and the mouse face the same trials and endure the same painful outcomes. Keyes implies that the victories and defeats of life might link human beings in a similar way if only we could learn mutual trust and respect despite our differences.