Flowers for Algernon Climax

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.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, was first published as a short story in 1959, and then as a novel in 1966. The story is told as a series of journal entries written by mentally-challenged adult Charlie Gordon. The climax of the story occurs when the intelligence-enhancing surgery for which Charlie volunteered fails, with tragic consequences.

Story Summary

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a mentally challenged adult named Charlie Gordon, who has an unusually persistent desire to learn. He works in a bakery, where he is often the brunt of cruel jokes, but spends many evenings at a free school trying to improve his reading and writing. His teacher, Miss Kinnian, knows how hard he tries; through her contacts with the medical community, Charlie is chosen for a surgical experiment to enhance his intelligence. The preliminary animal experiment involves a mouse named Algernon, with whom Charlie forms a friendship based on their shared journey.

Initial Gains

At first, the experimental surgery is a huge success, both for Algernon and Charlie. Charlie learns rapidly, and masters many academic subjects in a miraculous manner. Along with his increased mental capacity comes an increased awareness of the many facets of the human experience; his teacher appears to him in a new light, as a young, attractive woman. Their changing relationship mirrors the huge changes that take place in every part of Charlie's life. He can no longer do his menial job at a bakery, because he constantly has new ideas about how to improve the operation. However, he no longer needs that job, as he becomes recognized widely as the man who rocketed from retardation to genius-level functioning. Imagine the changes in Charlie's day-to-day activities and his personal relationships as he moves at lightening speed from being viewed as retarded to being hailed as a super-intelligent scholar!

The Turning Point

As Charlie and his doctors prepare for a presentation to promote the method used to enhance intelligence, it becomes clear that the mouse Algernon is not doing well. Instead of his usual post-treatment stellar performance, Algernon can't seem to figure out the maze. He also seems ill and out of sorts. The doctors are afraid to tell Charlie what this likely means for his own future. Before long, Charlie himself realizes that he has lost many of his gains in functioning. He spends most of his time alone in his apartment, trying desperately to remember things he knows he used to know. Perhaps this is the most tragic part of the story: before the experiment, Charlie lived a relatively quiet existence, able to hold a job and eagerly looking forward to his sessions at the night school. He knew who he was and what he could do.

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