Flowers for Algernon Conflict

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  • 0:04 Definition of Conflict
  • 0:32 Internal: Person vs. Self
  • 1:29 External: Person vs. Person
  • 3:17 External: Person vs. Society
  • 3:56 Theme & Analysis
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Facing our fears can be difficult, but the character Charlie Gordon shows us the importance of doing so. In this lesson, we will analyze the theme of 'Flowers for Algernon' by examining Charlie's conflicts.

Definition of Conflict

We are constantly facing conflicts in our daily lives, and these problems can change who we are. But it's not the conflicts that define us, it's the way in which we handle each conflict that defines and creates our identities. In literature and in life, a conflict is a problem or struggle that a person or character faces. Let's take a look at the different types of conflicts in the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and connect these problems to the overarching theme.

Internal Conflict: Person vs. Self

An internal conflict is when a character faces a problem or struggle in his or her own mind. In Flowers for Algernon we can identify two types of internal conflict.

The first is Charlie versus intellectual ability. Charlie fights to become intelligent his entire life. He has battled his disability since childhood, so much so that he takes classes at a local college to increase his intelligence. This struggle is the main conflict in the novel: one that sends Charlie on his journey to an operation that changes his entire life.

In this novel, we also see the conflict of Charlie versus trauma. Charlie's childhood was traumatic due to his emotionally abusive mother. He battles his triggers and what we would call PTSD today as he becomes intelligent, trying to bridge the gap between his current feelings and his past experiences. As he becomes more aware of himself, Charlie attempts to accept his abusive childhood so that he can be intimate with Alice.

External Conflict: Person vs. Person

An external conflict is when a character faces a problem or struggle with any outside force, such as another person, society, fate, or environment. One example of an external person versus person conflict is Charlie versus Professor Nemur. Charlie and Professor Nemur never see eye to eye. Charlie wants Professor Nemur to understand that he is (and was, even before the surgery) a human. Professor Nemur wants Charlie to be thankful for everything that the research group has done for him and play the part of a lab rat at times to keep the scientific evidence pure and valid.

Charlie versus Fay is another example of a person versus person conflict. Once Charlie breaks free from the lab, he takes his money and finds an apartment. Across the hall lives Fay Lillman, an eccentric artist who symbolizes freedom and rebellion. While she helps Charlie grow as a man, their nights of partying and her possessive ways end up pushing Charlie back to the lab to continue his research.

Charlie versus Alice is another example of external conflict. Miss Alice Kinnian is a teacher at the college that Charlie attends before his surgery. She recommends Charlie for the research study. The two end up falling in love, but Charlie's sexual immaturity causes several conflicts between them throughout the story. Alice wants Charlie to explore his options and grow emotionally into a man, while Charlie feels Alice is the only one for him.

Finally, we have Charlie versus Mom. As Charlie becomes intelligent, he remembers pieces of his past that all reflect negatively on his mother and childhood. He begins to connect the dots between the period of time when his mother tried to 'fix' his disability and when she disowned him after having a second, 'normal' child. He battles his past memories of his mother until he's finally able to confront her at the end of the novel.

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