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Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
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Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

Full title   Flowers for Algernon

Author  Daniel Keyes

Type of work  Novel

Genre  Science fiction

Language  English

Time and place written  Original short story written in 1959, in New York City; expanded novel version written from 1962 to 1965 in New York and Ohio.

Date of first publication Short story published in 1959; expanded novel form first published in 1966

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-1960s.

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 13, is a reliable predictor of Charlie’s impending deterioration.

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