Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.
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.