Flowers for Algernon Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

The novel ''Flowers for Algernon'' by Daniel Keyes was published in 1966. This story of a mentally challenged man who risked everything for learning explores the idea of artificially enhanced intelligence while following Charlie's emotional personal journey.

Overview

Charlie Gordon is a mentally challenged man living on his own and working in a bakery. His co-workers often make him the scapegoat of jokes and pranks, but he continues to think of them as friends. Before he has experimental surgery, Charlie's world is made up of the bakery and the small room he lives in. He is fairly content, however, and always tries to be kind to others and to improve himself.

Charlie Before the Experiment
Bakery

Part of Charlie's disability is that he doesn't remember much that happened earlier in his life--or even what he has tried to learn at night school, where Alice Kinnian has been patiently teaching him to read and write. Charlie, although he finds learning almost impossible, has the persistence to keep coming back to night school to try night after night.

This characteristic of Charlie's is apparent from the beginning of the story, and his ability to persevere is what makes him a good candidate for the experimental surgery he is chosen to undergo. Charlie has a unique opportunity to have surgery to increase his intelligence, just like the experimental white mouse Algernon who becomes his friend.

At first, Charlie is astounded at how smart a mouse could be! Later, they race to complete puzzles, and Charlie gets better and better at beating his small friend. When Algernon starts to decline in ability and then dies, Charlie vows to remember him always.

Life-changing Surgery for Charlie
surgery

The operation is a success at first, and Charlie devours all the information and material he is given. His intelligence increases to genius level and he becomes something of a celebrity in the scientific community. In spite of his social awkwardness, his friendship with Alice Kinnian blossoms into romance.

Tragically, while Charlie is experiencing the emotional issues of the adult world, the doctors who performed the experiment with both Algernon and Charlie discover that the mouse is losing his gains in intelligence and failing physically. Charlie also regresses rapidly after that, and the final scene shows him in a group home, befriending an even more profoundly disabled man.

Charlie's Developing Mind

One way to track the development of the plot is by noticing the changes in how Charlie, the narrator, tells his own story. At the beginning, his word choice and sentence construction are quite simple and childlike. Of course, as you have probably experienced, children tend to see things in a very straightforward and honest way.

''If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.'' (p. 11)

Children also trust easily, sometimes even though they have been hurt repeatedly. Because Charlie loves and trusts Alice Kinnian, he also trusts the doctors who experiment on him. When Charlie is less intelligent, it is easy for him to invest emotion in others. With his increasing intellectual ability comes increasing doubt as to the motives of the doctors and others who seem to want something from him.

As Charlie's mind develops, he is excited about his new ability to learn rapidly. He also finds the excitement of an adult, romantic relationship with his former teacher, Alice Kinnian. In the central part of the book, when Charlie is at the height of his intellectual development, the reader can see his changing mind reflected in his writing. Also apparent is his growing understanding of adult human motivation. He says about the doctors he once trusted:

''Our relationship is becoming increasingly strained. I resent Nemur's constant references to me as a laboratory specimen. He makes me feel that before the experiment I was not really a human being.'' (p. 79)

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