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Flowers for Algernon: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:04 Flowers for Algernon…
  • 0:55 Charlie and Algernon
  • 3:08 Themes: Happiness & Knowledge
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Brozio-Andrews
''Flowers for Algernon'' is a short story and novel by Daniel Keyes that explores questions about intellect and happiness. The main character, Charlie Gordon, undertakes an intellectual journey that has far-reaching and unforeseen repercussions.

Flowers for Algernon Background

''It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.'' - John Stuart Mill

Algernon is the mouse in the story
white lab mouse

Daniel Keyes' inventive, charming, and melancholy tale of Charlie Gordon puts Mill's claim about wisdom to the test. Is it truly better to be wise than be a fool? In Flowers for Algernon, the mentally handicapped Charlie Gordon is transformed by a surgery that allows him to become intelligent. The short story and later-developed novel explores themes about the cycle of life, the limits of science, and whether knowledge is truly more valuable than happiness. Keyes does not give definitive answers in his short story or novel, but he provides us a new perspective on these questions in his writing.

Charlie and Algernon

Flowers for Algernon opens with a short journal entry by Charlie Gordon that's rife with spelling errors and has no punctuation. The entire novel is told to us from the first-person perspective, meaning told from the perspective of the main characters of a story. The first-person perspective of this story is told from the perspective of Charlie through his journal as part of an experiment to increase human intelligence. Charlie is the first human subject of this process, and he is introduced to Algernon, a white mouse who has undergone this treatment as well. In these early entries, we are given Charlie's backstory of his work at the bakery, his relationship with his parents and sister, and his attraction to his teacher Miss Kinnian.

After the surgery, Charlie's intelligence begins to gradually improve and, at first, all is well as he finds his thinking becomes clearer. Charlie can remember what he learns, and he delights in pleasing his psychiatrists, boss, and Miss Kinnian with his improving intellect. Charlie also begins to remember more about his childhood and grows a fondness for reading. Soon, however, Charlie's improvement destabilizes his relationships; he realizes that he was often being laughed at rather than laughed with at his work. As his intelligence grows, Charlie becomes more aware of how others looked down on him and he becomes less happy. His attraction to Miss Kinnian blossoms into a romantic one, but it's soon clouded as Charlie rapidly advances beyond her intellect, and the intelligence of even his own doctors.

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