Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Flowers for Algernon unfolds in a series of diary entries. In the first, dated “martch 3,” Charlie describes himself as a thirty-two-year-old man who works at a bakery and attends “Miss Kinnians class at the beekmin colledge center for retarted adults.” Ensuing entries chronicle Charlie’s progress as the first human subjected to an intelligence-boosting surgical procedure.

Before the operation, Charlie undergoes a series of tests that measure his intelligence. In one, he tries in vain to pencil through a maze faster than Algernon can run it. Algernon is a laboratory mouse that already has undergone the surgical procedure. After the surgery, sleep learning accelerates Charlie’s mental development. By the end of the month, he outraces Algernon. In early April, he comprehends a grammar book overnight and shows signs of increased self-awareness, staying home from Donner’s Bakery after realizing that he has long been victimized by coworker “friends” Joe Carp and Frank Reilly.

Counseling Charlie is Dr. Jay Strauss, a neurosurgeon and psychiatrist who, with Professor Harold Nemur, is responsible for the experiment. Together with lab assistant Burt Selden and teacher Alice Kinnian, they guide Charlie as he begins a long-delayed maturation process.

Two months after the operation, Charlie is able to converse intelligently with college students but is stymied in acting on his amorous feelings for Alice. Although she is attracted to him, both fear that they may jeopardize his development.

As Charlie accumulates knowledge at a breathtaking rate, his illusions are shattered at a similar clip. He sees the fallibility of his mentors and realizes that their interest in him stems largely from selfishness. Charlie rebels at a scientific conference in Chicago, where he and Algernon are put on display. Freeing the mouse from its cage, Charlie takes his counterpart back to New York and moves into an apartment near Times Square.

Independent after years of institutionalization, Charlie initiates a new phase of his education, entering into an affair with free-spirited Fay Lillman and visiting his father, Matt, who fails to recognize him. Charlie also applies his brainpower to studying Algernon’s regressive tendencies. Suspecting that he also may regress, Charlie visits the Warren State Home and Training School, where his doctors and family had arranged to send him if the experiment failed.

In late August, Charlie concludes that the experiment’s results are indeed temporary and potentially fatal. After Algernon dies on September 17, Charlie spares the mouse from laboratory incineration by burying its remains in his backyard.

Mindful of his inevitable decline, Charlie visits his mother, Rose, and sister, Norma, both of whom he remembers as hostile. He finds that Rose has entered senility and Norma feels remorse over her past unkindness toward him.

Charlie consummates his relationship with Alice on October 11. Though heartened by their shared love, ten days later he tells her to leave in a fit of anger over his deterioration. Having already lost his multilingual abilities, he rapidly loses his typing prowess and command of English. Isolating himself from the Beekman staff, he returns to Donner’s Bakery, where newly sympathetic coworkers welcome him.

In his last entry, dated “nov 21,” Charlie writes of his decision to go to Warren. Bidding farewell to Alice and the others at Beekman, he asks that the reader “put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Flowers for Algernon” is a classic “what if?” story. Keyes explores the proposition, “What if an operation could increase human intelligence?” from the point of view of an experimental subject, using the intimacy of a diary to immerse readers in Charlie Gordon’s reality. Keyes uses a bittersweet, but always respectful, humor to illuminate Charlie’s interpretations of events. For example, when one coworker accuses another of “pulling a Charlie Gordon” when he loses a package, Charlie reflects, “I dont understand why he said that. I never lost any packiges.”

Charlie’s spelling, grammar, and syntax mirror his changing intellectual and emotional states. His first “progris riport” on “martch 5” establishes Charlie as uncomplicated, guileless, and eager to please. His elation as his intelligence grows is reflected in later entries when he uses punctuation marks with exuberant abandon. In the ensuing weeks, his writing becomes flawless, and his subject matter grows increasingly complex. As his intelligence declines, his grammar, spelling, and punctuation revert to substandard forms.

“Flowers for Algernon” is a science-fiction story because it is set in a future time and involves a speculative technology. Keyes needs no distant, alien civilization to expose the failings of contemporary human interactions. Instead, he probes the inadequacies of a society uncomfortable with human diversity through the eyes of an unforgettable character.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Mentally handicapped children in school, Sonoma, California, 1962. Published by Gale Cengage

Civil Rights in the 1960s
The issue which lies at the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon's...

(The entire section is 595 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The setting of Flowers for Algernon is New York City, with a brief episode in Chicago, in the present or near future. Although the...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Keyes's remarkable use of first-person "I" point of view is perhaps the most important source of...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Written during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Flowers for Algernon shows a profound concern with the...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1960s: The civil rights movement was in full force, with passage of legislation addressing discrimination against...

(The entire section is 278 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the history of public attitudes towards mental retardation in the United States and discuss the problems Charlie Gordon faces in...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Research the history of public attitudes towards mental retardation in the United States and discuss the problems Charlie Gordon faces in...

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Minds of Billy Milligan is Daniel Keyes's 1981 nonfiction study of the case of Billy Milligan. When Milligan was arrested and...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • The original short story version of Flowers for Algernon was adapted for television as The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The Minds of Billy Milligan is Daniel Keyes's 1981 nonfiction study of the case of Billy Milligan. When Milligan was...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Gollancz,...

(The entire section is 111 words.)


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Suggested Readings

Clareson, Thomas D. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990

Clute, John, and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Gunn, James. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.

Pringle, David. Science Fiction: The One Hundred Best Novels. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1985.

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Flowers for Algernon." In Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That...

(The entire section is 131 words.)