Important Quotes from Flowers for Algernon

Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

''Flowers for Algernon,'' a novel that explores the nature of knowledge, leaves readers wondering about the idea of intelligence. Do humans with different levels of intelligence experience life differently? By using Charlie's reports to examine topics of intelligence, ignorance and isolation, this novel challenges the idea of what it truly means to be smart.


So many questions arise when we begin to examine the issues in Flowers for Algernon. Charlie Gordon is a man with a very low IQ (intelligence quotient), the number used to express intelligence based on standardized testing. To put this perspective, a score of 100 is considered an average intelligence level while under 70 qualifies you as being borderline for mental retardation. Charlie's score is 68.

Doctors Nemur and Strauss test Charlie's intelligence in various ways before choosing to have him undergo an operation that will increase his intelligence exponentially. Charlie records his thoughts, feelings, and experiences in entries called progress reports.

Towards the beginning of the novel, he is asked to take the Rorschach test which measures a person's personality (said to be linked to intelligence) based on what they see in a pattern of inkblots. Charlie records the experience in his second progress report:

'I dint see nuthing in the ink but he said there was picturs there other pepul saw some picturs. I couldnt see any picturs. I reely tryed to see. I held the card close up and then far away. Then I said if I had my glases I could see better...I got them...I tryed hard but still I couldnt find the picturs I only saw the ink. I told him maybe I need new glases.'

His first person perspective gives the reader insight into his thoughts. This incident shows the initial level of intelligence Charlie has where he seems to lack imagination and interprets concepts literally. In his mind, if he could only have glasses... he would be able to see the pictures better. When Charlie is asked to continue his pre-operation tests, he performs a race in a maze against Algernon, the lab's test mouse. His response to this test is:

'Anyway that test made me feel worser than all the others because they did it over 10 times with difernt amazeds and Algernon won every time.'

Charlie lost each race against Algernon.


The transformations in Charlie's intelligence throughout the course of the novel change the dynamics of his friendships and allow him to explore whether it is better to be aware or unaware of how others perceive him. Shortly after his operation, Charlie displays a sense of ignorance, or lack of understanding, about the interactions with his friends Joe Carp and Frank Reilly:

'Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in...Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laff. Their really my friends and they like me. Sometimes everybody will say hey look at Joe or Frank or George he really pulled a Charlie Gordon. I dont know why but they always laff.'

After the operation begins to take effect Charlie is more aware of the true dynamics between himself and others. Frank and Joe trick him into drinking alcohol and he makes a fool of himself dancing with one of the women. He writes ' I didn't know what to do or where to turn. Everyone was looking at me and laughing and I felt naked. I wanted to hide myself. I ran out into the street and I threw up. Then I walked home. It's a funny thing I never knew that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around all the time to make fun of me. Now I know what it means when they say 'to pull a Charlie Gordon.' I'm ashamed.'

The increase in his IQ from the surgery allows his naive ideas of friendship to develop from thinking his 'friends' are laughing with him to understanding that, in reality, they are laughing at him. This quote helps to establish the idea that there may be such a thing as being too aware or having too much intelligence.

A larger question of ignorance is presented to the reader as they read about Charlie's very cyclical experience with his IQ levels. He goes from being extremely low to extremely high making comments such as 'How was I to know that a highly respected psychoexperimentalist like Nemur was unacquainted with Hindustani and Chinese. It's absurd when you consider the work that is being done in India and China today...' His attitude towards others is now much less tolerant as he seems to consider himself above them intellectually. Socially, though, he remains ignorant of how to interact with others.

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