Flowers for Algernon

by: Daniel Keyes

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Algernon

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.

The Window

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.