Note: Flowers for Algernon is told in the form of “progress reports” kept by Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded man who is chosen as the subject of a laboratory experiment designed to increase his intelligence.
In his first “progris riport,” Charlie has an IQ of sixty-eight and is a poor speller. He is thirty-two years old, has a menial job at Donner’s Bakery, and takes Miss Alice Kinnian’s literacy class three times a week at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults. Dr. Strauss, who along with Professor Nemur is a director of the experiment, has instructed Charlie to write everything he thinks and feels in these progress reports.
A man named Burt Selden has given Charlie a “raw shok” test. Burt shows Charlie a stack of white cards with ink spilled on them—called a Rorschach inkblot test—and asks Charlie to tell him what he sees in the ink. The literal-minded Charlie, unable to grasp the concept of imagination, says that he sees only spilled ink. He worries that he has “faled” the test.
Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur have tested an intelligence-building procedure on animals and are now looking for a human subject. Alice has recommended Charlie because of the eagerness to learn he has displayed in her literacy class. When Strauss and Nemur question Charlie about this eagerness, Charlie mentions that his mother encouraged his education as a child. The doctors tell Charlie that they need permission from his family to go ahead with the operation, but Charlie is not sure where they live or whether they are still alive. Charlie worries that staying up late to work on reports is making him tired at his bakery job, where a coworker recently yelled at him for dropping a tray of rolls.
A woman gives Charlie a test in which she shows him pictures of people he has never seen and asks him to invent stories about them. As with the “raw shok” test, Charlie does not understand the point of making up stories and tells the woman that as a child he would be hit if he lied. Burt then takes Charlie to a psychology laboratory, where he shows Charlie a mouse named Algernon who has already undergone Strauss and Nemur’s experimental surgery. Burt has Charlie compete with Algernon by attempting to solve a maze on paper while Algernon runs through an identical maze. Algernon beats Charlie every time.
Charlie says that the scientists have located his sister and have received her permission to proceed with the operation. He listens to a conversation between Strauss, Nemur, and Burt. Though Nemur fears that dramatically increasing Charlie’s “eye-Q” will make him sick, Strauss argues that Charlie’s motivation to learn is a great advantage. Nemur tries to explain to Charlie that the operation is experimental and that they cannot be certain that it will succeed in making Charlie smarter. There is even the potential that the operation will succeed temporarily but ultimately leave Charlie worse off than he is now. Charlie is not worried, however, as he is thrilled to have been chosen and vows to “try awful hard” to become smarter.
I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.
Charlie is in the hospital awaiting his operation. Alice visits him, and Charlie senses that she is concerned. He is nervous but still excited by the prospect of becoming smarter, and he cannot wait to beat Algernon in a maze race. Charlie also looks forward to being as intelligent as other people so that he can make friends.
Three days have passed after the operation, and Charlie does not feel any change. A nurse named Hilda tells him how to spell “progress report,” so he diligently begins to correct his misspellings. Hilda also suggests to Charlie that God did not make him smart to begin with and that perhaps Nemur and Strauss should not be tampering with God’s will. The next day, Hilda is replaced. When Charlie asks the new nurse how babies are made, she is embarrassed and does not answer. Alice comes to visit. When Charlie expresses disappointment that the operation has not made him smart right away, she reassures Charlie that she has faith in him.
These opening scenes present the main characters and situations of the novel and introduce the novel’s unusual narrative form. Charlie’s diary-like progress reports gracefully mirror the focus of the story—the rise and fall of his mental abilities. Everything we see is filtered through Charlie’s mind, so as his intelligence increases, we see gradual improvements in his vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. In a sense, by peering into his progress reports, we are thrust into the role of doctor, cued to be alert to signs of Charlie’s changing mental ability.
Keyes strikes a balance between staying true to Charlie’s rough writing style and giving us enough information to understand the situations in which Charlie finds himself, even in instances when Charlie himself does not understand these situations. Though Charlie does not know what a “raw shok” test is, we can surmise from his description that he is being given a Rorschach test. Similarly, when Hilda the nurse disappears the day after she suggests Charlie’s operation is sinful, we assume that Nemur and Strauss have removed her, though this idea does not occur to Charlie.
While Charlie’s cumbersome language is crude, he includes enough details for us to learn quite a bit about his temperament and background. These details suggest that there is far more to Charlie than initially meets the eye. For instance, he frequently mentions his extraordinary desire to “get smart,” a detail that resurfaces when Charlie hears the doctors mention his motivation as the reason he has been chosen for the experiment. Charlie clearly illustrates his motivation through his habit of writing down words he does not know, such as “PSYCHOLOGY LABORATORY” and “THEMATIC APPERCEPTION TEST.” Furthermore, Charlie’s remarks that his mother encouraged his education as a child but would also hit him for lying begin to hint at the complex nature of Charlie’s relationship with Rose. This mother-son relationship provides much of the hidden motivation for Charlie’s actions, and the novel explores it in great depth later, as Charlie recovers forgotten memories of his youth.
Nearly all of the novel’s major characters are introduced in this opening section, and we can see early on that Charlie’s assumptions about these characters are often incomplete or incorrect. When Charlie writes of a bakery coworker, “Gimpy hollers at me all the time when I do something rong, but he reely likes me because hes my frend,” we wonder whether Gimpy might be less of a “frend” than Charlie realizes. Most significantly, we meet Alice Kinnian, whose mere presence in these early scenes is a strong indication of her attachment to Charlie. While Strauss and Nemur are present to observe Charlie scientifically, Alice is always there strictly out of concern for his welfare. Because we are seeing everything through Charlie’s eyes, which at this point are limited in their perception, the depth and origins of Alice’s care for Charlie remain cloudy to us. However, Keyes has Charlie drop hints for us, mentioning that Alice looks “kind of nervus and skared” when she visits just before Charlie’s operation. Her apparent anxiety demonstrates that she is worried about the experiment going wrong.
Hilda’s comment that Strauss and Nemur are overstepping their moral boundaries alludes to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, and God’s punishment of the couple for eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. The sin of Adam is an important metaphor for Charlie’s situation in the novel—like Adam, Charlie yearns for knowledge but can only attain it by unnatural means without understanding the consequences. After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve lose their innocence, experience a sexual awakening, and are forced to enter the world outside the Garden of Eden. By drawing a parallel to this story, Keyes foreshadows the fate that awaits Charlie.