Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1809

Algernon Algernon is the mouse who was the first subject of the surgery which raised Charlie's intelligence. Charlie forms a close emotional bond with the mouse, who is the only other creature to have had its intelligence artificially raised. Its experiences, and fate, parallel Charlie's.

Fanny Birden Fanny Birden is...

(The entire section contains 3140 words.)

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Algernon
Algernon is the mouse who was the first subject of the surgery which raised Charlie's intelligence. Charlie forms a close emotional bond with the mouse, who is the only other creature to have had its intelligence artificially raised. Its experiences, and fate, parallel Charlie's.

Fanny Birden
Fanny Birden is an older woman who works at the bakery with Charlie and who is the only employee who does not sign a petition demanding Charlie's resignation after his IQ is raised. She compares the change in Charlie's intelligence to Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and wishes that Charlie "could go back to being the good simple man you was before."

Joe Carp
Joe Carp is one of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, and, with Frank Reilly, one of his chief tormentors.

Mr. Arthur Donner
The owner of the bakery where Charlie works, Mr. Donner is a friend of Charlie's Uncle Herman and gave Charlie his job there. Unlike many others at the bakery, he treats Charlie decently, if condescendingly.

Gimpy
Gimpy is a worker at Donner's bakery who treats Charlie better than many of the other workers do. However, Gimpy is the cause of one of the post-operative Charlie's first major crises when Charlie sees him stealing from the cash register. When Charlie confronts him about stealing, Gimpy says, "I always stood up for you. I should of had my head examined."

Charlie Gordon
The narrator and central character of Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon is a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. As a child, Charlie had a father who loved him and tried to take care of him, but he was abused by his mother, an emotionally unstable woman. His mother at first refused to admit that there was anything "wrong" with Charlie and beat him when he did not perform up to the standards of other children. When Charlie's sister was born with normal intelligence, his mother admitted his handicap but became obsessed with the fear that Charlie would harm his sister—especially, that he would sexually molest her. This unreasoning fear led Charlie's mother to violently repress any display of sexuality on Charlie's part and, eventually, to threaten to kill him if he was not removed from their home.

This pattern of childhood abuse marked the adult Charlie in two significant ways: with repressed sexuality and with a strong desire to learn. It was the latter that led him to take night classes at the Beekman School and which led to his being accepted as a subject for an operation that would raise his intelligence. Before the operation, Charlie is perceived as a "good, simple man" and a "likeable, retarded young man." His main goal in undergoing the operation is "to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of friends who like me."

However, once Charlie attains normal intelligence, he sees that many people he thought were his friends were actually ridiculing and abusing him, and once he attains a genius IQ, he finds himself as remote and alienated from other people as he had been previously. He struggles to deal with the emotions he now has the intellect to recognize, but which his intellect alone cannot control. He also works to recover and come to terms with memories of his childhood. Through it all, Charlie's main desire is what it always has been: to be treated as a human being and to be able to establish satisfactory relationships with other human beings.

Although Charlie demonstrates some character flaws after his intelligence peaks, such as arrogance and self-absorption, he is basically a good man. When he realizes that the surgical procedure is flawed, he throws himself into research to discover the flaw, feeling that if his efforts contribute at all to "the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied." When he finally determines that nothing can be done to prevent his return to his pre-operative state, he does what he can to come to terms with his family and those around him, and they in turn recognize his worth as a human being. Even after Charlie returns to his previous subnormal level of intelligence, he has learned to be understanding of the failings of others because they are "not so smart like you once thot they were." Although the experiment has failed, Charlie Gordon has not.

Matt Gordon
Charlie's father, a salesman of barbershop supplies. He is basically a kind man who loves his son and tries to protect him but who is consistently overpowered by his wife: first, by her hysterical denial that Charlie is handicapped, and then by her equally hysterical conviction that Charlie is a danger to their daughter. When Rose threatens to kill Charlie, Matt takes Charlie to his Uncle Herman, who offers Charlie a refuge. Years later, Matt finally leaves Rose and opens his own barbershop. When the adult Charlie seeks him out, he does not recognize his son.

Norma Gordon
Norma Gordon is Charlie's sister. Charlie's memory of her is of a "spoiled brat" who hated him and treated him badly. However, when the adult Charlie visits the adult Norma, who now has full-time care of their senile mother, he finds a grown woman who is "warm and sympathetic and affectionate." She genuinely regrets her youthful hostility towards her brother and wants to reestablish contact with him.

Rose Gordon
Charlie's mother, Rose Gordon is an emotionally unstable woman who was largely unable to cope with having a mentally handicapped child. During Charlie's early childhood, she refused to admit that he was anything other than "normal" and beat him when he was unable to perform at the same level as other children. After Charlie's sister Norma was born without mental handicaps, Rose quit trying to make Charlie "normal" and became obsessed with "protecting" Norma from him. Eventually, Rose breaks down completely, declares that Norma is in danger of being sexually molested by Charlie, and threatens to kill him if he is not removed from their home. When Charlie reestablishes contact with his mother many years later, he discovers an old woman far gone into senility who barely recognizes her son.

Hilda
Hilda is a nurse who attends Charlie immediately after the operation and who tells him that the scientists should not have altered his intelligence. She compares the action to Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and being cast out of Eden.

Miss Alice Kinnian
Miss Alice Kinnian is Charlie Gordon's teacher at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults, the person who recommends Charlie for the procedure which raises his intelligence, and the woman Charlie loves. Alice is an intelligent and dedicated woman who takes a strong personal interest in Charlie and consistently treats him in a responsible and respectful manner. As Charlie's intelligence increases, she guides him as best she can; when he falls in love with her, she gently declines. However, they maintain a close friendship, and Alice eventually finds herself returning Charlie's feelings, only to discover that the traumas of his past prevent him from making love to her. She remains his friend, despite the increasing distance his towering intelligence places between them. When the operation finally fails and Charlie enters his decline, they are finally able to have a romantic relationship. Alice tries her best to stick by Charlie, even when he pushes her away, but when he is finally back where he began, with an IQ of 68, she is forced to admit that he is lost to her and that she has to go on with her life.

Fay Lillman
Fay Lillman is a free-spirited artist who lives across the hall from Charlie when he "disappears" in New York. When Charlie first sees her painting in her underwear, she thinks nothing of it, and she does not hesitate to crawl along a window ledge to get to Charlie's apartment. Charlie eventually enters into a sexual relationship with her, although he does not love her, and she provides Charlie with a whirlwind social life of drinking, dancing, and having a good time. Although she evidently feels genuine affection for Charlie, she is uninterested in his research, perhaps in part because she does not know that Charlie has had his intelligence artificially raised. When Charlie moves into the lab because Fay is interfering with his work, she loses interest in him and drifts away.

Bertha Nemur
Professor Harold Nemur's wife, Bertha Nemur is an ambitious woman who used her father's influence to get Professor Nemur the grant that funded his research and who is constantly pressuring her husband to excel and produce great results. According to Burt Selden, she is why Nemur is "under tension all the time, even when things are going well…."

Professor Harold Nemur
The psychologist who developed the theories behind the operation which raised Charlie's intelligence, Nemur is a brilliant scientist but egotistical and ambitious, the latter stemming partially from pressures from his wife. He is eager to establish his reputation as the discoverer of the process that made Charlie a genius and rushes to make the results of the experiment public, against the advice of the other scientists working on the project. He does not initially want Charlie to be the subject of the experiment, and after Charlie's IQ is raised, relations between the two are often strained, as Charlie's intelligence eventually exceeds Nemur's. This hostility culminates in a shouting match between the two, during which Charlie accuses Nemur of treating him as less than a human being and Nemur accuses Charlie of having become "arrogant, self-centered," and "antisocial."

Frank Reilly
Frank Reilly is one of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, and, with Joe Carp, one of his chief tormentors.

Burt Seldon
Burt Seldon is a graduate student who assists Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss. He is in charge of Charlie's psychological testing, and he treats Charlie in a more relaxed and friendly fashion than either of the senior scientists. It is through Burt that Charlie gets much of his information about Nemur and Strauss, and it is Burt who suggests that the post-operative Charlie needs to develop "understanding" and "tolerance."

Dr. Strauss
Dr. Strauss, Professor Nemur's partner, is the neurosurgeon who performs the surgery that raises Charlie's IQ. He is more sympathetic to and concerned for Charlie than is Nemur. He advocates that Charlie be chosen for the experiment, intervenes when Charlie has a potentially violent confrontation with Nemur, and tries to look after Charlie when the effects of the experiment have finally worn off.

Thelma
Thelma is a nurse at the Warren State Home who impresses Charlie by her devotion to her patients. Because he already knows he is regressing and could end up as a resident of Warren, Charlie wonders what it would be like to have her care for him.

Character Analysis

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The narrator and central character of Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon is a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. As a child, Charlie had a father who loved him and tried to take care of him, but he was abused by his mother, an emotionally unstable woman. His mother at first refused to admit that there was anything "wrong" with Charlie and beat him when he did not perform up to the standards of other children. When Charlie's sister was born with normal intelligence, his mother admitted his handicap but became obsessed with the fear that Charlie would harm his sister—especially, that he would sexually molest her. This unreasoning fear led Charlie's mother to violently repress any display of sexuality on Charlie's part and, eventually, to threaten to kill him if he was not removed from their home.

This pattern of childhood abuse marked the adult Charlie in two significant ways: with repressed sexuality and with a strong desire to learn. It was the latter that led him to take night classes at the Beekman School and which led to his being accepted as a subject for an operation that would raise his intelligence. Before the operation, Charlie is perceived as a "good, simple man" and a "likeable, retarded young man." His main goal in undergoing the operation is "to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of friends who like me."

However, once Charlie attains normal intelligence, he sees that many people he thought were his friends were actually ridiculing and abusing him, and once he attains a genius IQ, he finds himself as remote and alienated from other people as he had been previously. He struggles to deal with the emotions he now has the intellect to recognize, but which his intellect alone cannot control. He also works to recover and come to terms with memories of his childhood. Through it all, Charlie's main desire is what it always has been: to be treated as a human being and to be able to establish satisfactory relationships with other human beings.

Although Charlie demonstrates some character flaws after his intelligence peaks, such as arrogance and self-absorption, he is basically a good man. When he realizes that the surgical procedure is flawed, he throws himself into research to discover the flaw, feeling that if his efforts contribute at all to "the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied." When he finally determines that nothing can be done to prevent his return to his pre-operative state, he does what he can to come to terms with his family and those around him, and they in turn recognize his worth as a human being. Even after Charlie returns to his previous subnormal level of intelligence, he has learned to be understanding of the failings of others because they are "not so smart like you once thot they were." Although the experiment has failed, Charlie Gordon has not.

Characters Developed

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Relating the story of a mentally impaired man whose intelligence is increased through surgery and then lost, Flowers for Algernon touches on a number of literary themes. The most obvious of the novel's themes is the use and abuse of science and technology. The critic Mark R. Hillegas has identified Flowers for Algernon as the type of science fiction that deals with "problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses"—in this case, a surgical procedure that can turn a person of subnormal intelligence into a genius. While the novel does not specifically take an anti-technology stance, it clearly identifies the limitations of technology as a "quick fix" to human problems—Charlie's operation is, ultimately, a failure in that he does not remain a genius. In a reversal of the classic notion of tragedy, the "flaw" which causes Charlie's downfall is not within him, but in the technology that sought to change him.

The idea that "there are some things humanity was not meant to know" may be traced in modern literature to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818), and in some ways Flowers for Algernon contains echoes of Shelley's tale. The critic Thomas D. Clareson has directly connected Keyes's novel to Frankenstein in that Keyes combines the figures of the mad scientist and the "inhuman" creation into "the single figure of Charlie Gordon." This theme is further emphasized by the comments of Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie's coworkers, both of whom compare his operation to the acquisition of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise.

However, Flowers for Algernon does not argue that we should not try to attain knowledge, but rather that we should be conscious of the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to life. When Charlie buries himself in research to try to find the solution to the flaw in the operation, he declares, "I'm living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed." But later, during an argument with Professor Nemur, Charlie acknowledges that intelligence alone isn't enough: "intelligence and education isn't worth a damn... all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love."
In an early "progress report," Charlie writes that he wants to be smart "so I can have lots of friends who like me." Unfortunately, once he becomes a genius, he discovers that there is a whole new set of problems that prevent him from establishing satisfactory relationships with other people. He has substituted one sort of alienation for another, as the condescension and cruelty he once faced from humanity has been replaced by misunderstanding, insensitivity, and fear. He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the teacher who recommended him for the operation, but he realizes, "I am just as far away from Alice with an I.Q. of 185 as I was when I had an I.Q. of 70." Almost everything Charlie does in the novel is motivated by his desire to understand himself and establish functional relationships with others, perhaps most dramatically expressed when he wanders the streets of New York City by himself: "for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection."

A major aspect of the novel is Charlie's efforts to understand and come to terms with the various people who have hurt him throughout his life: his mother, who physically and emotionally abused him; his father, who failed to defend him; his coworkers at the bakery, who brutalized him; the scientists who raised his intelligence but treated him like a laboratory animal. It is significant that when Charlie realizes the effects of the operation will not last, his major goal is to locate his family and establish some sort of peace with them. When he finally locates his mother, he tells himself, "1 must understand the way she saw it. Unless I forgive her, I will have nothing." The tragedy of Charlie's fall from genius is relieved somewhat by the knowledge that he has come to terms with the people who mistreated him. In his last progress report, he writes, "if they make fun of you don't get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were."

Although the novel is not primarily focused on sexual issues, a good deal of attention is paid to the fact that Charlie is sexually repressed as a result of an abused childhood. His mother, terrified that her "retarded" son would sexually assault his "normal" sister, violently repressed all normal displays of adolescent sexuality. The adult Charlie, once his intelligence has been raised to where he can understand the issues involved, initially has difficulty establishing a sexual relationship with Fay Lillman, a neighbor who seeks out his company, and is unable to have a physical relationship with Alice Kinnian, the woman he is in love with. Charlie's ability to have sex with Fay and, eventually, with Alice, is seen as an important step in overcoming past traumas and becoming a fully functional adult.

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