Author Daniel Keyes
Type of work Novel
Genre Science fiction
Time and place written Original short story written in
Date of first publication Short story published in
Publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Narrator Charlie Gordon, an intellectually disabled man who undergoes experimental surgery to increase his intelligence
Point of view The novel is told in the form of first-person “progress reports” Charlie keeps throughout the course of the experiment. Everything is filtered through Charlie’s mind, the capacities of which change drastically over the course of the novel, as Charlie’s IQ triples and then plummets back to its original level.
Tone The tone of the novel varies with Charlie’s intellectual acuity. Sometimes, however—particularly when Charlie is writing as an intellectually disabled man at the beginning and end of the novel— Keyes allows him to provide hints in his narration that allow us to grasp the significance of events that Charlie cannot himself understand.
Tense Past; Charlie is always writing about the days he has just lived through. Charlie experiences numerous flashbacks to his childhood, which are usually narrated in the present tense.
Setting (time) There are no direct references to time period in the novel, but we can assume the events take place around the time the novel was written, the mid-
Setting (place) New York City; one chapter takes place in Chicago
Protagonist Charlie Gordon
Major conflict Charlie struggles to reach emotional maturity and feel like a whole person before his skyrocketing intelligence reverses course and returns him to his initial intellectually disabled state.
Rising action Dr. Strauss performs an experimental surgery on Charlie that catapults his intelligence to genius levels; Charlie falls in love with Alice but finds he is unable to consummate their relationship because he feels unresolved childhood shame about his sexuality.
Climax Charlie asserts his independence by running away from the scientists who are observing him; Alice tells Charlie that his work at the laboratory is more important than his relationship with Fay; Charlie realizes in this moment that he can no longer run from his fate or the seriousness of his emotional journey.
Falling action Charlie discovers the flaw in Nemur’s hypothesis that proves that he will soon lose his intelligence; Charlie locates his mother and sister and is able to find forgive them for how they treated him as a child; Charlie has a brief, fulfilling romantic affair with Alice; Charlie returns to his original intellectually disabled state and checks himself into the Warren State Home.
Themes Mistreatment of the intellectually disabled; the tension between intellect and emotion; the persistence of the past in the present
Motifs Changes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation; flashbacks; the scientific method
Symbols Algernon; Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge; the window
Foreshadowing Professor Nemur tells Charlie at the outset of the experiment that his gains in intelligence may not be permanent, which turns out to be the case. Later, Charlie has a memory of his young sister, Norma, obnoxiously threatening to lose her own intelligence, another reference to Charlie’s eventual downfall. Finally, Algernon’s decline, beginning in Progress Report