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Foreshadowing in Flowers for Algernon

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The use of foreshadowing in Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon often generates dramatic irony. As we will see in this lesson, the first-person narrator, Charlie Gordon, is himself innocent of a sense of foreboding throughout the first part of the novel. His own sense of impending crisis is never equal to the reader's.

Flowers for Algernon: Structure and Foreshadowing

Daniel Keyes' 1966 novel, Flowers for Algernon, is about the possibilities and limitations of scientific progress. The narrator, Charlie Gordon, is a mentally impaired man who becomes the subject of an experiment. Foreshadowing of the possibility that all may not go well becomes more intense throughout the novel.

Before the Operation

At the opening of the novel, Charlie's narration is naive and literal-minded. Told by his teacher about the existence of a project that might 'make him smart,' he eagerly goes to a lab for intelligence testing. In Progress Report 2, he describes one of the tests he undergoes there as a 'raw shok test.' Readers will, of course, know that this is a Rorschach test; the difference between Charlie's understanding and ours generates dramatic irony. What kind of shocks might the experiment yet have in store for him?

Charlie's poor performance on the intelligence tests leaves the supervising scientists, Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur, with a difference in opinion. Charlie's report of their conversation enables us to understand the different approaches of Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur, and maybe even their differences in character (Progress Report 5). Dr. Nemur is more clearly empathetic, and concerned about Charlie's well-being. Eventually, Strauss convinces Nemur that Charlie's extreme stupidity, combined with his unusually good nature and motivation, makes him an ideal subject for their experiment.

Writing later, Charlie records the outcome of the scientists' discussion: Nemur finally agrees that they can use Charlie, as long as they 'make him understand that a lot of things can go wrong with the experamint. When he said that,' records Charlie, 'I got so happy and exited I jumpd up and shaked his hand for being so good to me. I think he got skared when I did that.' This poignant moment allows readers to sympathize with both Charlie and the kindly Nemur.

After the Operation

In hospital, Charlie is first looked after by a nurse named Hilda. She is friendly, garrulous, and pious. Referencing the Biblical story of the Tree of Knowledge, she expresses uneasiness at the attempt of Charlie's operation to change nature. Rather sinisterly, she is replaced the day after their conversation. After returning to his job at the bakery, Charlie is delighted to be among his 'friends' again. With a note that sounds a warning for the readers, however, he observes that the young, newly-hired errand boy, Ernie, 'is very smart but the other pepul in the bakery dont like him so much.'

As Charlie's intelligence grows, he begins to interact with his teacher, Miss Kinnian, as a friend. First, they read Robinson Crusoe together, a story about a man desperately applying his intelligence to overcome isolation. Then they go to see a movie together, and he analyzes it (disapprovingly.) Charlie has made himself his own absolute standard, contrasting sharply with Robinson Crusoe's learned humility. Miss Kinnian (like the readers!) is a bit worried about possible consequences of his accelerated development. She tells Charlie: 'You'll see how all the different worlds of learning are related. You'll keep going up and up, and see more and more. And each step will reveal worlds you never even knew existed…. I just hope to God...that you don't get hurt.' Charlie brushes her worries off. The readers can't.

Charlie's innovations - and interferences - at the bakery make him unpopular, ironically. He's fired, and is devastated by this consequence of an operation he hoped would bring him more friends. 'Now, I'm more alone than ever before. I wonder what would happen if they put Algernon back in the big cage with some of the other mice. Would they turn against him?' The comparison between Charlie and the lab mouse - captive, condemned to ceaselessly repeat exercises - is an ominous one. As Charlie does not himself observe, he is less compassionate and less kind than he was before the operation.

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