What is the significance of Charlie’s relationship to Fay? How does he feel about her? What role does their relationship play in his development?
Though Charlie’s romantic entanglement with Fay is short-lived, the lessons she teaches him about pure emotion and pure sex are a crucial stepping-stone in his development. Charlie struggles to reconcile his intellect and his emotions and longs to consummate his true love for Alice. Among the characters who are unaware of Charlie’s history as a mentally retarded man, Fay is the only one with whom Charlie has a meaningful relationship. As such, she is the only person who is free to relate to Charlie without interference or influence from the “other” Charlie. After failing to consummate a burgeoning yet confusing romance with Alice, Charlie meets Fay and is amazed to discover how uncomplicated a sexual relationship can be. Charlie is not in love with Fay, but he is fond of and attracted to her, and since there is no history between them, he is able to put aside his impulsive feelings of shame and learn about very straightforward physical pleasures, such as drinking, dancing, and, most important, sex. Fay is smart but utterly nonintellectual—she does not care about the life of the mind and therefore is a perfect teacher for Charlie in his quest to learn about the emotional spectrum beyond his intellectual pursuits.
Do you think that Charlie’s writings as a mentally disabled man at the beginning and end of the novel accurately represent the way a disabled person genuinely might write? Defend your answer, and explain why you think these passages are written as they are.
Keyes attempts to create a believably disabled character in the Charlie of the early progress reports. Charlie’s grammatical errors are internally consistent and logically suggest the way a mentally retarded man might misconstrue the complex rules of the English language. Yet Keyes clearly takes artistic liberty with the tight structure of these reports—almost all of the information conveyed in these early segments is important to the plot that later develops. Charlie’s ideas never seem scattered, and his thought process is never obscured by poor writing ability. What Keyes presents is thus not a strictly realistic portrayal of a retarded man’s composition but makes for economical and exciting storytelling. Keyes often employs devices, such as Charlie’s tendency early on to write down words he does not understand (like “PSYCHOLOGY LABORATORY”), that enable us to understand elements of Charlie’s world that he himself does not. In these segments, Keyes strikes a delicate balance between making Charlie believable and keeping the narrative moving forward at a compelling pace.
What is the role of memory in the novel? How do Charlie’s flashbacks further the general themes of the novel?
Throughout the novel, Charlie’s gradually recovered memories of childhood tell a story that parallels the story that unfolds over the course of the experiment. As Charlie struggles to become emotionally independent and tries to form a deep bond with Alice, his memories shed light—for him and for us—on why this development is so difficult for him. Memories of his mother, Rose, instilling sexual shame in him arise when Charlie experiences this shame in the present. Likewise, Charlie’s memories of being mistreated for his disability arise concurrently with his attempts to determine his new status in society. Charlie’s increased intelligence enables him not only to recall things he has forgotten but also to understand the context of thoughts that earlier confused him. Charlie can see his past more clearly than he saw it while he was living it; in effect, he is learning about his past life as vividly and quickly as he is learning about his new life. The information Charlie garners from one life is always relevant to his grappling with the dilemmas of the other.
1. How does the diary or journal-entry form of the novel affect the emphasis of the narrative? Is Charlie dependable as a narrator as he progresses through his various stages? Is Charlie capable of providing insight into the other characters, or is he too preoccupied with himself?
2. How has Charlie changed at the end of the novel? Is he different from the person he is at the beginning of the novel, and if so, how? Do you consider the novel’s ending to be tragic or inspiring?
3. Does the novel make a definitive statement about the role of intelligence in human life, or does it simply explore this idea as an open-ended question?
4. Compare and contrast the characters of Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss. How do their reactions to Charlie’s intelligence differ? How do their approaches to science differ?
5. How does Algernon function as an alter ego for Charlie? How does Algernon’s condition represent Charlie’s condition?