Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551
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.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218
“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.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595
Civil Rights in the 1960s
The issue which lies at the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon's struggle to be recognized and treated as a human being. Prior to his operation, he was regarded as somehow less than fully human because of his subnormal intelligence. After the operation, he is discriminated against in a different way, as ordinary people shun him and the scientists who raised his IQ treat him as little more than another laboratory specimen. It should come as no surprise that this story of a person who manages to be a member of two different minorities—the mentally handicapped and the mentally superior—should have appeared during a time of growing awareness of the problems and the rights of minority groups.
The period from the first publication of Flowers for Algernon as a short story to its publication as a novel, the period from 1959 to 1966, saw the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. Although most immediately and dramatically focused on the task of securing equal rights for African Americans, the civil rights movement was accompanied by increasing attention to the issue of fair and equal treatment for all. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill prohibited racial discrimination; 1966, the year Flowers for Algernon was published, saw the founding of the National Organization for Women. The rights of the mentally handicapped were also addressed during this time: in 1962 the President's Panel on Mental Retardation was organized, leading in 1968 to the Declaration of the General and Specific Rights of the Mentally Retarded. By the 1970s, the term "retardation" was replaced with "developmental disability," and specific provisions for the protection of the mentally handicapped from violence and discrimination became law. Flowers for Algernon's message of tolerance and understanding for the mentally handicapped reflects the social and political struggles of its day, and the years following the novel's publication saw many of these issues regarding developmental disability finally addressed in the legislature and the courts.
Psychology and the Rise of Scientific Research
In addition to the civil rights movement, the 1950s and 1960s also saw the rise of psychoanalysis as a generally accepted method of dealing with emotional disorders. The theories of Sigmund Freud which saw human motivation as stemming largely from unconscious desires which are often traceable to childhood experiences and which frequently center on sex, were particularly influential during this time. Freud's theories were so widely discussed that most people, even if they were not trained in psychoanalysis, probably had some familiarity with concepts such as repression, neurosis, and the unconscious. Accordingly, the novel's focus on psychological themes, especially Charlie's emotional problems stemming from the abuse he suffered from his mother, was immediately familiar to the readers of the 1960s.
Also on the rise in the 1950s and 1960s was funding for scientific research. Locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and still remembering Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets and the terrifying success of the atomic bomb, the United States during this era spent an unprecedented amount of money on scientific research. Government organizations such as the National Science Foundation, as well as private foundations and corporations, poured millions of dollars into scientific research. This included "basic" research that would not necessarily yield immediate practical applications. With so much money available, competition for funding intensified and universities became increasingly focused on obtaining and keeping research funding. In Flowers for Algernon. Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss's funding from the "Welburg Foundation," as well as the pressure Nemur feels to publish his results and secure his professional reputation, directly reflect this trend.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341
The setting of Flowers for Algernon is New York City, with a brief episode in Chicago, in the present or near future. Although the physical landscape and cultural background is not a major part of the novel, critic Robert Scholes has noted that the very normality and non-distinctiveness of the setting makes the one "different" element of the novel— the surgical procedure that raises Charlie's IQ—all the more distinctive. And at one point in the novel, when Charlie has taken Algernon and is hiding out from the scientists, the crowded urban landscape of New York City becomes an important part of Charlie's attempts to come to terms with his situation: "on a hot night when everyone is out walking, or sitting in a theater, there is a rustling, and for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection between the branch and trunk and the deep root."
Although originally published as a work of science fiction—the short story won the World Science Fiction Convention's Hugo Award and the novel won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America—"Flowers for Algernon" has achieved wide popularity outside the science fiction field. Much of the novel's power comes from Keyes's remarkable use of first-person point of view, as Charlie's entries move from semi-literacy to complex sophistication and back to semi-literacy.
At the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon's struggle to be recognized and treated as a human being. Prior to his operation, he was regarded as somehow less than fully human because of his subnormal intelligence. After the operation, he is discriminated against in a different way, as ordinary people shun him and the scientists who raised his IQ treat him as little more than another laboratory specimen. It should come as no surprise that this story of a person who manages to be a member of two different minorities—the mentally handicapped and the mentally superior—should have appeared during a time of growing awareness of the problems and the rights of minority groups.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047
Point of View
Keyes's remarkable use of first-person "I" point of view is perhaps the most important source of Flowers for Algernon's narrative power. Charlie's journey from an IQ of 68 to one almost three times as high, and his fall back into subnormal intelligence, is told in the form of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the experiment that raised his IQ. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in non-standard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult:
Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.
As Charlie's intelligence grows, his reports become more and more literate and sophisticated.
I've got to realize that when they continually admonish me to speak and write simply so that people who read these reports will be able to understand me, they are talking about themselves as well.
The striking contrasts between the earlier and later entries, both in style and content, dramatize both the changes Charlie undergoes and the obstacles he must overcome. Even more dramatic is the contrast between the high-IQ entries and the final entries, when Charlie loses his intelligence and falls back into the semi-literacy of the earlier entries. Keyes's use of Charlie as the narrator makes the reader's experience of Charlie's inevitable fate more immediate and more moving, and shows that, as a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement put it, Keyes "has the technical equipment to keep us from shrugging off the pain."
Another source of the novel's power is the inevitability of Charlie's fate, once we learn that the results of the experiment will not be permanent. But even before we learn that the experiment has failed, Keyes offers several moments of foreshadowing, events which hint at what is to come. The most obvious of these center around Algernon the mouse, who has had the same operation as Charlie and whose progress and deterioration both mirrors and forecasts Charlie's own. When Algernon begins to grow restive, has trouble running the maze, and starts biting people, it does not bode well for Charlie. In addition, two minor characters—Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery—both invoke the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which foreshadows Charlie's own "fall" from genius. Charlie's trip to the Warren State Home while he still possesses heightened intelligence foreshadows what is in store when he finally loses that intelligence. And, in a more subtle moment early in the novel, as Charlie is on the operating table before the surgery, he tells Dr. Strauss that he's scared. When Dr. Strauss reassures him that he will "just go to sleep," Charlie replies, "Thats what I'm skared about"—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of Charlie's later descent into darkness.
The setting of Flowers for Algernon is New York City, with a brief episode in Chicago, in the present or near future. Although the physical landscape and cultural background is not a major part of the novel, critic Robert Scholes has noted that the very normality and non-distinctiveness of the setting makes the one "different" element of the novel—the surgical procedure that raises Charlie's IQ—all the more distinctive. And at one point in the novel, when Charlie has taken Algernon and is hiding out from the scientists, the crowded urban landscape of New York City becomes an important part of Charlie's attempts to come to terms with his situation: "On a hot night when everyone is out walking, or sitting in a theater, there is a rustling, and for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection between the branch and trunk and the deep root."
Irony—the difference between the way things appear to be and the way they really are—plays an important part in Flowers for Algernon, Early in the novel, we see that Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, especially Joe Carp and Frank Reilly, are condescending and abusive towards him, insulting him to his face and playing cruel tricks on him. Charlie, however, writes that "lots of people laff at me and their my friends and we have fun.… I cant wait to be smart like my best fnends Joe Carp and Frank Reilly." Once Charlie becomes smart, he realizes that these people are not his friends, but he is then faced with another irony. Before the operation, he wanted "to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me." But his increased IQ causes the bakery workers to be afraid of him, the scientists who had been kindly and wise figures turn out to be limited human beings who see Charlie more as a laboratory experiment than a human being, and heightened intelligence is no help when he falls in love with Alice Kinnian. As Charlie the genius notes, "Ironic that all my intelligence doesn't help me solve a problem like this." And in a final irony, when Charlie returns to his IQ of 68 and seeks his old job back, Joe and Frank, the men who had persecuted him before, defend him against an attack from a new worker.
In literature, tragedy refers to works where a person, often of great achievement, is destroyed through a character flaw that he or she possesses. In classic tragedy, this "fall" is often from a great height (Oedipus and Hamlet were both royalty, for example) and is inevitable, given the character's character flaw. Flowers for Algernon is certainly about a fall from a height, and Charlie's descent from genius to subnormal intelligence is inevitable. Charlie does have character flaws—an arrogance and impatience which appear when he becomes a genius— but these do not lead to his fall. Instead, the "flaw" is outside of Charlie, in the technology which raises him to a great height and then allows him to fall back down. In this way, Keyes is able to use the devices of tragedy to make a very modern point: that our technology is as imperfect as we are.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278
1960s: The civil rights movement was in full force, with passage of legislation addressing discrimination against African Americans and increasing awareness of the rights of other oppressed groups, including the mentally handicapped. However, prejudice was still widespread, and there was as yet little to no legal protection for mentally handicapped persons.
Today: Legislative and legal protection for the mentally handicapped is extensive, while public sensitivity to the rights of the handicapped has increased markedly. Terms such as "retarded" and "feeble-minded" have been replaced with less negatively charged terms such as "mentally challenged" and "developmentally disabled." However, civil rights as a whole is in a volatile period, as the public at large seems increasingly resistant to the demands of minority groups.
1960s: Psychoanalysis is increasingly accepted as a means of dealing with mental illness, while the theories of Sigmund Freud enjoy widespread public awareness and acceptance.
Today: The treatment of emotional disorders is increasingly diverse, with traditional psychoanalysis complemented by various holistic, Eastern, and "New Age" approaches, as well as by the development of increasingly effective antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs. However, the theories of Sigmund Freud are not as widely accepted as in the past, and the public at large appears impatient with what it sees as abnormal or dangerous behavior "excused" because of past trauma.
1960s: The pressures of the Cold War lead to an unprecedented amount of spending on scientific research by both the U.S. government and private foundations and corporations.
Today: With the Cold War over and budgets shrinking, competition for research funding is more intense than ever, and funding agencies are increasingly reluctant to support research that does not have immediate, practical results.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137
- The original short story version of Flowers for Algernon was adapted for television as The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon for CBS Playhouse in 1961.
- The novel Flowers for Algernon was made into the feature film Charly in 1968. Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon. Available from CBS/Fox Home Video.
- The novel has also been presented on the stage. David Rogers adapted the novel as a two-act play, Flowers for Algernon, in 1969; a dramatic musical, Charlie and Algernon, was first produced in Canada in 1978 and played on Broadway in 1980. Stage plays based on the novel have also been produced in France Australia, Poland, and Japan.
- Flowers for Algernon has also been adapted for radio: as a monodrama for Irish radio in 1983, and as a radio play in Czechoslovakia in 1988.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111
Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Gollancz, 1986.
Clareson, Thomas D. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970. University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 231-33.
Fremont-Smith, Eliot. "The Message and the Maze," in New York Times, March 7, 1966, p. 25.
Hillegas, Mark R. "Other Worlds to Conquer," in Saturday Review, Vol. 49, March 26, 1966, pp. 33-34.
"Making up a Mind" (review of Flowers for Algernon), in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3360, July 21, 1966, p. 629.
Scholes, Robert. "Structural Fabulation," in his Structural Fabulation-An Essay on Fiction of the Future. University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pp. 45-76.
DISCovering Most-Studied Authors. Gale, 1996. Offers biographical and critical information about Keyes.
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131
"Flowers for Algernon." In Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, Volume 4: World War II to the Affluent Fifties (1940-1950s). Edited by Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Detroit: Gale, 1997, pp. 151-56. Overview of the story, including historical background, publication information, and critical reception.
Small, Robert, Jr. "Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes." In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. Edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 249-55. Small recounts the numerous forms in which Flowers for Algernon has been published and praises the author's ingenuity.
Keyes, Daniel. "Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer's Journey." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 98 (May 2000): 64. Keyes explains the process that led to the completion of Flowers for Algernon.
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