Charlie is the narrator and the main character of the novel, and his miraculous transformation from mental disability to genius sets the stage for Keyes to address a number of broad themes and issues. Charlie’s lack of intelligence has made him a trusting and friendly man, as he assumes that the people in his life—most notably, his coworkers at Donner’s Bakery—are as well intentioned as he is. As his intelligence grows, however, Charlie gains perspective on his past and present. He realizes that people have often taken advantage of him and have been cruel to him for sport, knowing that he would not understand. Likewise, he realizes that when people have been kind to him, it usually has been out of condescension or out of an awareness that he is inferior. These realizations cause Charlie to grow suspicious of nearly everyone around him. Interestingly, the experimental operation elevates Charlie’s intelligence to such an extent that his new genius distances him from people as much as his disability does. Charlie eventually convinces himself that he has lost feeling even for Alice Kinnian, the one person whom he feels has never betrayed him and the only one for whom he has maintained a deep affection throughout his life.
Feeling isolated from humanity, Charlie pursues a course of self-education and struggles to untangle his emotional life. He comes to feel that his mind contains two people: the new, genius Charlie, who wants to reach emotional maturity, and the older, disabled Charlie, whose actions are largely informed by the fear and shame his mother, Rose, instilled in him. To reach his goal, the new Charlie must come to grips with the traumas the old Charlie experienced.
Although Charlie resents the mistreatment he endured while disabled, he harbors hostility toward his old self and, ironically, feels the same lack of respect for his intellectual inferiors that many others used to feel for him. It is only in the final weeks of Charlie’s heightened intelligence, before he reverts to his previous mental retardation, that he learns to forgive his family and give and receive love. Charlie’s brief moment of emotional grace comes in the form of the fulfilling but fleeting romantic affair he has with Alice. Finally, though Charlie lapses back to his original state at the end of the novel, a newfound sense of self-worth remains within him, despite the fact that he has lost his short-lived intelligence.
Alice Kinnian is the one person with whom Charlie comes to experience a truly fulfilling personal relationship. It is fitting that throughout the novel Alice represents the human warmth and kindness that persist in the face of the intellectual and scientific focus of many of the other characters. Alice teaches literacy skills to mentally retarded adults because she cares about and enjoys working with her students; she does not believe that their disabilities make them lesser human beings. She takes genuine satisfaction in helping people and recommends Charlie for Nemur and Strauss’s experiment because she admires Charlie’s desire to learn. Charlie appreciates Alice’s concern for his well-being; she is a constant presence in his earliest progress reports, even though she is not a member of the scientific team that is examining him.
In Alice’s concern and affection lie the seeds of her eventual romantic love for Charlie. Though she is often deeply confused throughout their relationship, uncertain of what is and is not appropriate in their unique situation, Alice displays unwavering care for Charlie as his IQ boomerangs up and back down again. Her ability to accept Charlie as a person of any level of intelligence sets Alice apart from the other characters in the novel, who consistently judge Charlie only on his intellect. Though she is driven by emotion, Alice is not at all anti-intellectual; on the contrary, she is fascinated by academia and high culture. Though intellect and emotion seem to be opposed throughout the novel, Alice’s intellectual leanings demonstrate that one need not sacrifice his or her ability to love in order to enjoy a life of the mind.
If Alice represents the possibility of an emotionally healthy adulthood, Nemur represents the opposite. He is a man of great intellect but little ability to relate to others. Unlike his partner, Dr. Strauss, Nemur is never interested in Charlie’s human emotions; he cares only about Charlie’s quantifiable progress as an experimental subject. Professor Nemur thinks of Charlie just as he thinks of Algernon—as a laboratory animal. Pressured by a domineering wife, Nemur is desperate to advance his career and longs for his peers to regard him as brilliant. Nemur cannot stand to be shown up by anyone—not by Strauss, and certainly not by Charlie. He is deeply perturbed when Charlie surpasses him intellectually and takes command of the experiment. Though Charlie resents Nemur for most of the novel, we see after the operation that Charlie himself is potentially at risk of becoming cold and loveless like Nemur.
Obsessed by an imaginary ideal of normalcy, Rose initially responded to Charlie’s mental disability with denial. She insisted that her son was normal, and she developed a delusional theory that he was brilliant but was cursed by jealous neighborhood mothers. Her refusal to accept her son’s disability was demonstrated by her decision to name Charlie’s younger sister Norma because it sounds like “normal.” After Norma’s birth, Rose turned her full attention to Norma’s success and tried to ignore Charlie altogether. Signs of Charlie’s progression toward adulthood, especially his manifestations of sexuality, infuriated Rose. She demanded that Charlie be removed from her home. By denying his existence, she also denied what she perceived to be her failure as a mother.
When Charlie, now brilliant after his operation, visits an aged Rose near the end of the novel, her capacity for denial has grown into full-fledged dementia. She switches back and forth from recognizing Charlie to thinking he is a stranger, and back and forth from pride at his recent accomplishments to an irrational fear that he has come back to molest Norma. In her old age, Rose has been driven entirely mad by her overwhelming yet doomed desire to be what she perceives as normal.