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Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

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Compare the experiences of Charlie and Algernon in Flowers for Algernon.

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In both Charlie and Algernon the same process has been carried out in which intelligence is artificially increased, though the result is not permanent. Charlie experiences life as a brilliant man, then has to suffer a reversal of the change in which his intelligence level begins to decrease, and he once again becomes mentally disabled and awaits his probable death, just as has happened to Algernon.

Your question brings up the issue of what animals are capable of experiencing both intellectually and emotionally. The poignancy of Charlie's story lies in his awareness of what is happening to him as the process reverses itself and he realizes he'll become what he once was, a man who is (in the parlance of that time) mentally retarded. From the standpoint of emotion and self-awareness, Charlie would have been better off if the experiment had never been carried out and he had never been given a chance to experience life as not only a mentally "normal" person, but a genius as well.

Can a mouse, or any animal, feel the same sense of loss and impending doom that a person feels ? The famous poem "To a Mouse" by Burns reflects our conventional assumption that this is not so, and in Burns's view this is to the mouse's advantage:

For thou art blessed, compared with me,

The present only toucheth thee.

But och ! I backward cast my eye

On prospects drear,

And forward, though I canna see,

I guess and fear !

Yet none of us can know the inner mental experience of an animal. The fact that animals do not possess language, the chief element of communication from the human perspective, has made us assume that they cannot think on any but the most rudimentary level. But how do we know this ? A secondary question relates to Algernon's intelligence having been artificially raised to a level not possible in the natural environment. So the possibility does exist that Algernon has been able to feel the same level of loss, regret, and terror of both the reversion to his former self and his impending death, just as Charlie tragically does.

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Charlie the human and Algernon the mouse are on parallel trajectories in the story. Both receive operations that greatly increase their intelligence. Charlie is even, at first, made to compete with Algernon to test who is more intelligent, until Charlie surpasses his rival.

Both have a similar rapid loss of intelligence. Further, as Charlie realizes they are both victims of the ambitions of Dr. Nemur, who rushed into his experiment prematurely because he was aging, Charlie experiences a sense of even closer bonding with Algernon. He recognizes that both of them are "lab rats," subjected to an experiment they didn't fully understand until it was too late. Their interests were never paramount, and their fates never really mattered.

When Charlie puts flowers on Algernon's grave and grieves his passing, he is grieving the passing of his own brief life as a brilliant person with a high IQ.

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In the short story "Flowers for Algernon," Charlie Gordon, like the mouse Algernon, receives an operation to improve his intelligence. They are both the first of their kinds to go through this process. Also like Algernon, it takes a while for Charlie to become more intelligent. Algernon becomes a super mouse, able to navigate mazes that no other mouse could, and Charlie's intelligence and knowledge skyrocket to genius levels. For example, he knows Hindustani and Chinese and understands the mathematical variance equivalent in Dobermann's Fifth Concerto

However, over time, Algernon becomes uncooperative and no longer wants to run the mazes. Charlie notes that Algernon is starting to regress mentally, and that his glandular activity has slowed. In addition, he is showing signs of progressive amnesia, meaning he can't form new memories or learn new tasks. Charlie uncovers what he calls the Algernon-Gordon Effect, which states that one's intelligence (after one has gone through the surgery and become smarter) declines as rapidly as it increased. Algernon dies, and the dissection shows his brain had decreased in size. Charlie also begins to suffer from deterioration and can't remember what he learned recently. He becomes slothful and unmotivated, and he can no longer understand the books he once read. He returns to his old janitorial job, and he asks his former teacher to place flowers on Algernon's grave, as Charlie fears his own death is also near. Both man and mouse go through the same process of rapidly increasing their intelligence and then going through a rapid decline, and their lives are sacrificed to science. 

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In the story Flowers for Algernon, in what ways are Charlie and Algernon similar and different?

Charlie is a thirty-two-year-old intellectually disabled adult with an IQ of sixty-eight who works at Donner's Bakery and attends Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults before undergoing experimental neurosurgery to significantly increase his intelligence. Algernon is the mouse that undergoes the same surgery and becomes extremely intelligent. Both Charlie Gordon and Algernon experience a significant increase in their intelligence following the surgery and impress Professor Nemur and the scientific community. After the surgery, they are both able to complete tasks that were previously considered much too difficult for them to accomplish. Both Charlie and Algernon are viewed as simple test subjects by Professor Nemur and contribute to the scientist's experimental research. Algernon's erratic behavior and health mimic and foreshadow Charlie's dramatic decline. They also suffer as a result of the surgery, and Algernon ends up dying before Charlie regresses back to his former intellectually disabled state.

Being that Charlie is a human and the protagonist of the story, his emotions, feelings, and actions take center stage and are significantly more complex than Algernon's. Despite Charlie's increased intelligence, he suffers severe emotional trauma as he reflects on his difficult childhood and adolescence. Charlie also develops feelings for Alice Kinnian and Fay and has brief relationships with both women. Charlie also gets into a heated argument with Doctor Nemur, and his increased intelligence significantly impacts his personality. Before Charlie experiences a sharp mental decline, he works feverishly to contribute to Nemur's body of work regarding neurosurgery to increase human intelligence.

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In the story Flowers for Algernon, in what ways are Charlie and Algernon similar and different?

At the beginning of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Charlie Gordon is a 32-year-old man with a very low IQ. He has a simple menial job and attends Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults to try to learn how to read and write. Algernon is a mouse.

These characters are similar in that they become subjects in scientific experiments that are designed to increase their intelligence. In both cases, these experiments are successful. Charlie and Algernon become much more intelligent than they used to be. Ultimately, the experiments end in failure because Charlie and Algernon both lose the intelligence that they gained through the surgery and revert to the way that they were before.

The difference between Charlie and Algernon lies in Charlie's human understanding of the situation. Although Algernon becomes very intelligent and can quickly run mazes and perform other tricks, because he is only a mouse, it's certain that he never understands what has happened to him and why. When Algernon regresses, he dies. Charlie, on the other hand, becomes even more intelligent than the scientists who conducted the experiment and figures out that the experiment is defective and that he will not be able to retain his intelligence. He undergoes the added suffering of being aware that his mental state is deteriorating. In the end, Charlie does not die, but he retains the memory of having once been smart, and this makes him unable to continue living around the people who once knew him as a genius.

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