Flowers for Algernon Vocabulary

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

In Daniel Keyes' 'Flowers for Algernon', a surgical experiment artificially increases Charlie Gordon's intelligence. As he gets smarter, his vocabulary grows larger. In this lesson, we will take a look at some of the words in that increased vocabulary.

Artificially Increased Intelligence

As we get older, we learn more and more words. Chances are that you do not even remember how you learned most of the words in your vocabulary. Many of those words were learned in school lessons, or reading, or even just hearing other people speak. Sometimes we add new words to our vocabulary every day, but the total number of words we know takes us years to build.

At least, this is how it happens for most of us. Not for Charlie Gordon, though. In Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, Charlie is a man with a severe learning disability. Until, that is, he is chosen to participate in an experiment that artificially increases his intelligence. In a matter of weeks, Charlie's intelligence grows so rapidly that he is like an entirely different person. One of the ways this difference is clearest is in the changing vocabulary he uses to write his progress reports.

At first, Charlie's vocabulary is very simple, and many words are spelled wrong. As he grows smarter, his vocabulary increases. Let's take a look at some of the words that are used by or about Charlie as his vocabulary grows.

Increased Vocabulary

Motivation - the reason causing someone to behave in a certain way, or want a certain thing. One of the reasons Charlie is chosen for the experiment is that he has the strongest motivation to learn. Algernon's motivation for running the maze is that he will get food when he completes the task.

Insight - a deeper understanding, or the ability to gain a deeper understanding, of a person or thing. On his first date with her, Alice Kinnian praises Charlie's insight about how a story does not feel right if the parts are forced together. She says this insight is a sign of his growing intelligence.

Blundering - moving clumsily, as if one cannot see or control one's limbs. Charlie can be very self-conscious at times, perhaps especially when he is around Alice. During their first date, he feels very awkward. When she seems hesitant about him, he thinks she must see him as a blundering teenager.

Etymology - the study of the origin of words, and how the meanings of words have changed over time. One of Charlie's strongest interests is language, and the etymologies of different languages. He learns many different languages, including ancient languages.

Inferior - lower in rank, status, quality, or ability. As Charlie grows smarter, he notices people in his life begin to be angry at him because they feel inferior, or not as good as him. The men he works with at the bakery do not talk to him anymore. Professor Nemur gets upset when Charlie knows more about a subject than he does. Before the operation, they thought Charlie was inferior to them.

Anguish - extreme distress, mental or physical pain or suffering. Charlie loves Alice, and wants very much to be able to physically express his love for her. But every time they get close, he starts to have panic attacks because of the abuse he suffered as a child. One night, he is so upset by this that he is ''unable to control my anguish,'' and cries.

Labyrinth - a complicated network of pathways; a maze. Charlie and Algernon both have to tackle mazes in the earlier stages of their testing. Later, Charlie refers to city streets as a labyrinth.

Resent - feel bitterness, indignation, or deep anger towards a circumstance, action, person, or thing. Throughout the novel, Charlie most resents that Professor Nemur treats him like a creation - as though he did not exist before the experiment made him smart.

Quarrel - an angry argument or disagreement. As he grows in intelligence, Charlie is able to remember more and more about his childhood. His strongest memories are often of quarrels between his parents. Often, these quarrels leave deep psychological impressions on Charlie.

Vacuous - mindless or empty; showing a lack of thought or intelligence. When comparing pictures of Charlie before the operation to pictures of him after, his expression looks vacuous before the experiment.

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