Flowers for Algernon
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Mistreatment of the Mentally Disabled
The fictional idea of artificially augmenting or diminishing intelligence enables Keyes to offer a telling portrayal of society’s mistreatment of the mentally disabled. As Charlie grows more intelligent after his operation, effectively transforming from a mentally retarded man to a genius, he realizes that people have always based their attitudes toward him on feelings of superiority. For the most part, other people have treated Charlie not only as an intellectual inferior but also as less of a human being than they are. While some, like his coworkers at the bakery, have treated him with outright cruelty, others have tried to be kind but ultimately have been condescending in their charity.
After his operation, Charlie himself drifts into a condescending and disrespectful attitude toward the disabled to a certain extent. Charlie consciously wants to treat his new intellectual inferiors as he wishes others had treated him. When he sees patrons at a diner laughing at a mentally retarded busboy, he demands that the patrons recognize the boy’s humanity. However, when Charlie visits the Warren State Home, he is horrified by the dim faces of the disabled people he meets, and he is unable to muster any warmth toward them. Charlie fears the patients at Warren State because he does not want to accept that he was once like them and may soon be like them again. We may even interpret Charlie’s reaction as his own embodiment of the same fear of abnormality that has driven his mother to madness.
Thus, while Keyes condemns the act of mistreating the mentally disabled, he also displays an understanding of why this mistreatment occurs, enabling his readers to see through the eyes of someone who has experienced such ridicule firsthand. Charlie struggles with a tendency toward the same prejudice and condescension he has seen in other people. However, Charlie’s dual perspective allows him to understand that he is as human as anyone else, regardless of his level of intelligence.
The Tension between Intellect and Emotion
The fact that Charlie’s mental retardation affects both his intellectual and emotional development illustrates the difficulty—but not the impossibility—of developing both aspects simultaneously and without conflict. Charlie is initially warmhearted and trusting, but as his intelligence increases he grows cold, arrogant, and disagreeable. The more he understands about the world, the more he recoils from human contact. At his loneliest point, in Progress Report 12, Charlie shockingly decides that his genius has effectively erased his love for Alice.
Professor Nemur and Fay indicate the incompatibility of intellect and emotion. Nemur is brilliant but humorless and friendless. Conversely, Fay acts foolishly and illogically because she is ruled entirely by her feelings. It is only with Alice’s encouragement that Charlie finally realizes he does not have to choose between his brain and his heart, the extremes represented by Nemur and Fay. Charlie learns to integrate intellect and emotion, finding emotional pleasure in both his intellectual work and his relationships. It is in this phase that he finds true fulfillment with Alice.
The Persistence of the Past in the Present
Charlie’s recovery of his childhood memories after his operation illustrates how significantly his past is embedded in his understanding of the present. Charlie’s past resurfaces at key points in his present experience, taking the form of the old Charlie, whom the new Charlie perceives as a separate entity that exists outside of himself. In a sense, the past, as represented by the old Charlie, literally keeps watch over the present. When Charlie longs to make love to Alice, the old Charlie panics and distracts him—a sign that the shame Rose instilled in Charlie is still powerful, even if he cannot remember the origin of this shame.
Charlie cannot move forward with his emotional life until he understands and deals with the traumas of childhood. Similar ties to the past control Charlie’s mother. When Charlie returns to see Rose, she still harbors her old resentment over Charlie’s lack of normalcy—even after his intelligence levels have increased dramatically. Rose’s attempt to attack Charlie with a knife illustrates that for her, just as for Charlie, the past interferes with her actions and concerns in the present. Rose cannot separate her memories of the retarded Charlie from the genius Charlie who comes to visit her in the flesh. The harrowing turn of events at this meeting is a tragic reminder of the past’s pervasive influence on the present.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Changes in Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
Charlie’s initial leaps forward in mental ability are conveyed less by what he writes than by how he writes. Keyes signals Charlie’s changing mental state through the level of accuracy or inaccuracy of the grammar, spelling, and punctuation in Charlie’s progress reports. The first sentence of the novel, typical of Charlie’s early reports, is rife with errors: “Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.” By Progress Report 9, we see Charlie’s immense progress in his composition of flawless sentences: “I had a nightmare last night, and this morning, after I woke up, I free-associated the way Dr. Strauss told me to do when I remember my dreams.” Similarly, Keyes initially conveys the loss of Charlie’s intelligence at the end with the erosion of his grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Starting in Progress Report 9, Charlie is overwhelmed by a series of flashbacks to events from his youth. These flashbacks are provoked by experiences in the present: when Charlie is propositioned by the pregnant woman in Central Park, for example, he recalls his mother’s pregnancy with his sister. All of Charlie’s memories come in the form of such revelations and recall events of which he was not previously aware. These new memories hold new lessons for Charlie about his past and shed new light on his present neuroses. The flashbacks are interspersed with the narrative, so that the stories of Charlie’s present and past intertwine and reflect upon each other.
The Scientific Method
Charlie and Algernon are subjects in scientific experiments, and as Charlie becomes intelligent, he actually ends up internalizing much of the scientific methodology to which he has been subjected. Not only does Charlie become well versed in the technicalities of science, surpassing Professor Nemur’s knowledge, but he also approaches his emotional problems in a scientific manner. When Charlie realizes that the feelings of shame triggered by his emotional attachment to Alice render him incapable of making love to her, he devises a scientific experiment to test this principle. Charlie decides to try to pretend that Alice is Fay, to whom he is not so emotionally attached, in order to see if doing so will allow him to make love without panicking. Charlie is unable to go through with this experiment, however, because he realizes that he would be effectively placing Alice in the dehumanizing role of laboratory animal, a role he finds deplorable. The scientific pursuit of knowledge becomes Charlie’s guiding principle, but he is aware of the dangers of dehumanization that accompany it. In the end, when Charlie knows his intelligence will desert him and he contemplates suicide, he decides that he must go on living and continue to keep progress reports so that he can pass on knowledge of his unique journey.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
As Algernon and Charlie undergo the same operation and the same testing, Algernon’s developments are good predictors of Charlie’s future. When Algernon begins to lose his intelligence, it is a chilling indication that Charlie’s own mental gains will be short-lived. Algernon also symbolizes Charlie’s status as a subject of the scientists: locked in a cage and forced to run through mazes at the scientists’ whim, Algernon is allowed no dignity and no individuality. Charlie’s freeing of Algernon from his cage and simultaneous decision to abandon the laboratory makes Algernon’s physical liberation a symbol of, and a precursor to, his own emotional independence.
Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge
The story of Adam and Eve, mentioned by Hilda, the nurse, and Fanny at the bakery, and then alluded to again in Charlie’s reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, bears a symbolic resemblance to Charlie’s journey from retardation to genius. Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which costs them their innocence and causes them to be cast out of the Garden of Eden. As the forbidden fruit does for Adam and Eve, Charlie’s operation gives him the mental capacity to understand the world that he previously lacks. Just as it does to Adam and Eve, this knowledge causes Charlie to lose his innocence, not only in the form of his sexual virginity, but also in the form of his growing emotional bitterness and coldness. Hilda and Fanny both imply that Charlie, like Adam and Eve, has defied God’s will by becoming more intelligent. Charlie’s discovery that artificially induced intelligence cannot last implies that God or nature abhors unnatural intelligence. However, Keyes leaves us to judge for ourselves whether Charlie deserves the punishment of mental regression.
Many of Charlie’s childhood memories involve looking through a window, which symbolizes the emotional distance that Charlie feels from others of normal mental ability. Shunned by his peers because of his disability, he remembers watching the other children play through a window in his apartment. When Charlie becomes intelligent, he often feels as if the boyhood Charlie is watching him through windows. The window represents all of the factors that keep the mentally retarded Charlie from feeling connected to society.
Charlie’s increased intelligence enables him to cross over to the other side of the window, a place where members of society accept him. However, in crossing over, Charlie becomes just as distant from his former self as the children he used to see playing outside. When Charlie regresses into disability, he maintains an indefinable sense of his former genius self, but he says, “I dont think its me because its like I see him from the window.” The window is the unbridgeable divide between the two Charlies. The only point at which the brilliant Charlie feels that he is confronting the other Charlie face-to-face is when he drunkenly sees himself in a mirror, effectively a window to one’s interior self.
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