The short story "Flowers for Algernon" is told from the point of view of a 37-year-old man named Charlie, who has an IQ of 68. Because of his low intelligence, Charlie has a very innocent and childlike understanding of the world and the people around him. The story details Charlie's experiences as he partakes in a scientific experiment that will attempt to raise his IQ. At first, he is thrilled by his new-found understanding, but as the story progresses Charlie is forced to understand that the world around him is not as kind as he once believed.
He has worked as a janitor at Donnegan's Plastic Box Company for many years and has always enjoyed his job. He believes himself to be good friends with the other men that work there. The author reveals the truth through his heartbreaking use of dramatic irony, which occurs when the reader knows or understands something about the events taking place in the story that the characters do not. In one early scene, Charlie describes the way that the men at the factory talk to him, saying, "We had a lot of fun at the factery today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in...Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laft. Their really my friends and they like me." The reader, of course, knows that the men are making fun of Charlie, but due to his low intelligence, he cannot see the cruelty behind their words.
The factory workers at Donnegan's have always been able to get away with mistreating Charlie because they know that he does not understand. However, as his IQ rises, he begins to realize that these men are not really his friends. One night, Charlie goes out to a bar with the men from work. The men get Charlie to dance with one of the women they are with, and are standing around laughing and sticking out their legs to trip him as he dances. Charlie falls to the floor, and in a moment of clarity he notices the way that the men are looking at him. He writes, "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. Then I walked home. It's a funny thing I never knew that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around all the time to make fun of me. Now I know what it means when they say 'to pull a Charlie Gordon.' I'm ashamed."
Over time, Charlie's performance at work improves and he begins doing more important jobs at the factory. The other factory workers don't react well to this, however. Charlie writes, "I guess it'll take a little time for them to get used to the changes in me. Everybody seems to be frightened of me. When I went over to Amos Borg and tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped up in the air. People don't talk to me much any more or kid around the way they used to. It makes the job kind of lonely." Eventually, Charlie is told by his boss, Mr. Donnegan, that it would "be better for all concerned" if he left the company. He finds out that almost everyone in the company has signed a petition demanding that he be fired. Charlie is completely surprised and confused by this; he does not understand why everyone is so angry with him. He asks Fanny, the only person at the company who does not sign the petition. She replies, "You used to be a good, dependable, ordinary man--not too bright maybe, but honest. Who knows what you done to yourself to get so smart all of a sudden. Like everybody around here's been saying, Charlie, it's not right."
Technically, Charlie quits his job, but he only does so because he is driven out by his coworkers. They feel so uncomfortable with his sudden transformation that they refuse to work with him, and this leaves him feeling very lonely and depressed. Part of their discomfort likely comes from their guilt over their previous treatment of Charlie. They know that he now understands their cruel words for what they truly were, and they cannot face him.