Abstract illustration of a mouse inside a white human head inside a red human head

Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

Start Free Trial

In Flowers for Algernon, how can it be argued that Charlie is better or worse off after surgery?

In Flowers for Algernon, it might be argued that Charlie is better off after surgery because, although Charlie is cruelly used in a failed experiment in which his needs are not considered, in the end, he comes out very narrowly better because of the experience and wisdom he has gained.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charlie's treatment indicates the way scientific "advancements" often take advantage of society's most vulnerable members. The scientists convinced Charlie to take part in the surgery without truly attempting to prepare him for the reality of achieving mental greatness and then losing it all again. While they did mention the possibility to him, they cover their caution with praise, telling Charlie that he has incredible motivation. They talk about Charlie as if he isn't in the room:

Dr Nemur said remember he will be the first human beeng ever to have his intelijence trippled by surgicle meens.Dr Strauss said exakly. Look at how well hes lerned to read and write for his low mentel age its as grate an acheve H as you and I lerning einstines therey of **vity without help. That shows the intenss motor-vation. Its comparat** a tremen~d' achev~d' I say we use Charlie.I dint get all the words and they were talking to fast but it sounded like Dr Strauss was on my side and like the other one wasnt.

Unable to comprehend the depth of this argument, Charlie instead sees this as a fight about who is "on [his] side." He is desperately in need of a medical advocate in this situation who could present a more unbiased view, particularly about the dangers of the experiment, in a way that Charlie could understand.

Charlie proceeds with the surgery and becomes an entirely different man. He is well-respected and finds a mutual love. He is able to see the world around him with clarity and is able to examine the motivations of people whom he'd once believed were his friends, such as Joe Carp and Frank Reilly. Yet in the end, he loses everything he had accomplished as his intellectual abilities return to their pre-surgery levels.

When this happens, Charlie begins to withdraw from society. Although he claims to be thankful for having the chance to learn "a lot of things that [he] never even new were in this world" and is "grateful that [he] saw it all for a littel bit," Charlie is also filled with a new sense of loneliness, deciding to leave New York because he doesn't want to face the pity of those who had once seen him at his greatest. It is clear that Charlie lacks a supportive social network, so the question of where he will go and how he will integrate himself into a new society is difficult to envision. In Charlie's final words, his view of himself as a "dumb person" is repeated numerous times, reflecting that he now has a lessened sense of self-efficacy and self-worth.

Following the surgery, Charlie loses his friends, his job, and his belief in himself, and this is replaced with the certainty that as long as he allows people to laugh at him, he will have plenty of "friends." Charlie is more lonely and isolated at the end of the story than he was at the beginning, making a case...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

that he is worse off than he was before.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On the plus side, Charlie was better off after his surgery because he became a genius, albeit for only eight months. In this brief period of time, Charlie the genius was able to rack up an impressive list of intellectual achievements that would otherwise not have been possible.

Charlie was also better off in that he was able to realize just how badly he'd been treated by the men of science, people like Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, who never saw him as anything more than a guinea pig.

On the whole, as Charlie's exploitative treatment indicates, he is worse off for having had surgery. Now that his genius is wearing off, Charlie must somehow pick up the pieces of his life and try to figure out how to put them back together again. This task is made all the more difficult by the lack of support from the scientists who experimented on him. Now that the experiments have been concluded, Charlie's of no further use to them, so they no longer feel the need to offer him any support.

Charlie has been used and abused, chewed up and spat out by the scientific community. He has every right to feel bitter and disillusioned over his experiences. On the whole, we may conclude that it would have been better for him had he not undergone experimental surgery in the first place.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On one hand, it can be argued that Charlie is worse off after his surgery because it gives him a taste of what life is like as a highly intelligent, respected adult. This makes the realization that the experiment is a failure and that he will lose all he has briefly gained bitter and heartbreaking for Charlie. He has arguably been cruelly used by being offered a taste of a much fuller, richer life only to have it snatched away again as his intellect descends back into its handicapped state.

This is a bitter experience, yet in the end, it seems to have benefitted Charlie, if only by a narrow margin. The story condemns Dr. Nemur for rushing into the experiment for the egotistical reason of wanting one last success before he retired. Dr. Nemur did use Charlie, who couldn't really give informed consent to the operation, as if he were a lab mouse or guinea pig and threw him away when he was no longer needed.

Nevertheless, Charlie did have the chance to experience what it was like to be a genius and to have a mature relationship with a woman. Even though he went back to his handicapped self, he was not the same, because he carried some of his experience and wisdom, if not intellect, into his new life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The mental illness that defines pre-surgery Charlie allows him to function in society, but it prevents him from forming meaningful relationships with others. Many people mock him for his illness, while others are sympathetic but see no reason to form a friendship. After the surgery, Charlie becomes aware of the stigma of his mental illness, making him angry and bitter about his treatment.

"The more intelligent you become the more problems you'll have, Charlie. Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth."(Keyes, Flowers for Algernon, Google Books)

However, Charlie's increased intellect also allows him to become aware of the things he was missing; real love and friendship, and rational understanding of the world. Had the surgery been permanent, Charlie would have slowly acclimated himself to life and people, and become a normal member of society. When his mind begins to revert, the one thing that he mourns the most is the loss of reading and writing; since Charlie records his thoughts, the inability to perform these tasks hurts him more than losing his friends. However, even when his mental state has regressed further than before the surgery, Charlie's mind itself has been expanded; he is aware more than ever of his place in the world, and so is better equipped to handle situations and people who would take advantage of him. Overall, despite the loss of his intellect, Charlie is better off after the surgery, even if only a little.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Flowers for Algernon", why does Charlie say that in some ways he was better off before the operation?

With great intelligence comes a greater awareness of the fault of everything and the greater the chance that he is isolated or alienated. Charlie realizes that before he had no realization of the truth of things. Ignorance was his best policy. He was not aware of people treating him differently and did not have to worry about fitting in or becoming smarter than anyone else. He had his routine, he did his work, he was peaceful and comfortable because he didn't know any differently. With a greater awareness and greater intelligence, he could see what was wrong with things and he is now the object of jealousy and resentment.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Flowers for Algernon, what are some improvements that take place in Charlie's life after the surgery?

Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68; in the 1960s, this IQ level was classified as mentally retarded (what we would today refer to as "developmentally disabled"). Although a happy adult with a job at a bakery and friends, Charlie agrees to take part in an experiment recommended by Alice, his adult education teacher. Within a few short weeks after the surgery, Charlie's progress is dramatic. The book portrays many of the changes he undergoes by way of Charlie's written journal. The evolution of Charlie's spelling, vocabulary and complexity of thought indicate the success of the surgery in improving Charlie's intelligence. A white mouse named "Algernon" has the same surgery and is also subjected to some of the same tests that Charlie undergoes, to measure their improvement.

But Charlie's mental capacity is not the only thing that changes; his social and emotional intelligence also grows in leaps and bounds. He begins to understand that his fellow employees at the bakery where he worked had previously not been his "friends" but had made fun of him. He has never known mature love or affection for a woman before, but finds both of these with Alice. His intelligence surpasses even that of the doctors conducting the experiment. When it becomes clear that the effects are temporary, however (as evidenced by the decline in Algernon's health and intelligence), Charlie is distressed to realize that his new life, made richer by his newly-acquired intelligence, may not flourish for much longer.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on