Flowers for Algernon

by: Daniel Keyes

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
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.

Flashbacks

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.