Prose – Flowers for Algernon

(short story)

Originally published as a short story in 1958, Flowers for Algernon appeared as a full-length novel in 1966. The story is told as a series of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie Gordon, a thirty-seven-year-old man whose Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 68 is tripled by an experimental surgical procedure. Unfortunately, the effects of the operation wear off after several months, and at the end of the story Charlie is once more of subnormal intelligence.

Although published as a work of science fiction, Daniel Keyes’s story has achieved wide popularity outside the science fiction field. Much of the story’s power comes from Keyes’s use of first-person point of view, as Charlie’s entries move from semi-literacy to complex sophistication and back to semi-literacy. The character of Charlie Gordon is a memorable portrait of alienation, of an individual who is at odds with his society and who struggles to have satisfactory relationships with others.

The idea for Flowers for Algernon came to me many years before I wrote the story or the novel. “What would happen if it were possible to increase human intelligence artificially?” The idea for the character came about four years later when I met and spoke to a retarded young man and thought how wonderful it would be if such a technique were available to help the mentally disadvantaged. But Charlie Gordon is not real, nor is he based on a real person: he is imagined or invented, probably a composite of many people I know — including a little bit of me. After a great many false starts, I discovered the technique of the Progress Reports. With these three elements: the idea, the character, and the narrative strategy, I was well on my way.


Charlie Gordon is a young man with an IQ of 68 who has a job at a box factory and attends night classes in an effort to improve himself. A (very fictional) experimental brain operation becomes available that promises to triple intelligence (it has already done so for a mouse named Algernon), and Charlie excitedly decides that he wants to give it a try. The story consists solely of Charlie’s diary entries from the time he hears about the operation through the operation and his dramatic increase, and subsequent decrease, of IQ.

Charlie’s increased intelligence opens up to him the understanding of everyday things that had been beyond his grasp, and at his peak he soars to the level of genius, ironically identifying the flaw in the scientific work of the two scientists who developed the operation he has undergone, and thus destroying their careers as their shallow research destroys the life that had been his.

Among the everyday things Charlie understands for the first time is the fact that two of his male co-workers have regularly taken advantage of his retarded state to make fun of him, sometimes roughly. Charlie also becomes self-conscious more generally, which makes it impossible for him to stay in the place where he has been so degraded, even after his formerly misbehaving pals become sympathetic.

At the end of the story he has fallen back to his original level of intelligence–and may continue to decline, if we take the suggestion from the fate of his fellow subject, Algernon, who rises, falls, and then dies. Charlie has only a dim memory of having done something important. His self-esteem is strong, however, and he decides to leave his familiar world and find a place where people won’t know about his embarrassment.


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

Science and Technology

Relating the story of a mentally impaired man whose intelligence is increased through surgery and then lost, Flowers for Algernon touches on a number of literary themes. The most obvious of the novel’s themes is the use and abuse of science and technology. While the novel does not specifically take an anti-technology stance, it does make clear the limitations of technology as a “quick fix” to human problems — Charlie’s operation is, ultimately, a failure in that he does not remain a genius. In a reversal of the classic notion of tragedy, the “flaw” which causes Charlie’s downfall is not within him, but in the technology that sought to change him.

Knowledge and Ignorance

The idea that “there are some things humanity was not meant to know” may be traced in modern literature to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), and in some ways Flowers for Algernon contains echoes of Shelley’s tale. This theme is further emphasised by the comments of Fanny Girden, one of Charlie’s co-workers, which compare his operation to the acquisition of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise.

However, Flowers for Algernon does not argue that humans should not try to attain knowledge, but rather that they should be conscious of the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to life. Charlie himself acknowledges that intelligence alone is not enough: “This intelligence has driven a wedge between me and all the people I once knew and loved.”

The Tension between Intellect and Emotion

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 warm-hearted 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.

Alienation and Loneliness

In an early “progress report,” Charlie writes that he wants to be smart “like other people.” Unfortunately, once he becomes a genius, he discovers a whole new set of problems that prevent him from establishing satisfactory relationships with other people. He has substituted one sort of alienation for another, as the condescension and cruelty he once faced has been replaced by misunderstanding, insensitivity, and fear. He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the teacher who recommended him for the operation, but he realises: “No matter what I try to discuss with her, I am unable to communicate… I find that I don’t communicate with people much anymore… I am alone in my apartment at Mrs Flynn’s boarding house most of the time and seldom speak to anyone.”

Atonement and Forgiveness

A major aspect of the novel is Charlie’s efforts to understand and come to terms with the various people who have hurt him throughout his life including his co-workers at the factory, who bullied him and the scientists who raised his intelligence but treated him like a laboratory animal. The tragedy of Charlie’s fall from genius is relieved somewhat by the knowledge that he has come to terms with the people who mistreated him. In his last progress report, he writes, “And P.S. please tell Dr Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at him and he would have more friends. Its easy to make friends if you let pepul laff at you.”

Prejudice and Tolerance

Flowers for Algernon shows a profound concern with the rights of individuals to be treated as individuals, no matter what their condition in life. Many of the early diary entries paint a grim portrait of how the mentally handicapped are treated, as Charlie is continually abused, verbally and physically, by his co-workers at the factory. Then when he becomes a genius, he is subject to a different sort of dehumanisation, as the scientists argue over who should get the credit for the success of their ‘experiment’.” This is perhaps most dramatically expressed when, witnessing a slow-witted boy being ridiculed for breaking dishes in a restaurant, Charlie lashes out at the customers: “Leave him alone! It’s not his fault he can’t understand. He can’t help what he is!  But for God’s sake…he’s still a human being!”

As Charlie grows more intelligent after his operation, effectively transforming from a mentally retarded man to a genius, he realises 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 have treated him with outright cruelty, others have tried to be kind but ultimately have been condescending in their charity. 


Point of View

Keyes’s use of first-person point of view is perhaps the most important source of Flowers for Algernon‘s narrative power. Charlie’s journey from an IQ of 68 to one almost three times as high, and his fall back into subnormal intelligence, is told in the form of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the experiment that raised his IQ. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in non-standard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult.

The issue which lies at the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon’s struggle to be recognized and treated as a human being. Prior to his operation, he was regarded as somehow less than fully human because of his subnormal intelligence. After the operation, he is discriminated against in a different way, as ordinary people shun him and the scientists who raised his IQ treat him as little more than another laboratory specimen.

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 evrey thing that happins to me from now on.” By Progress Report 9, Charlie is beginning to use language figuratively as he describes Algernon as being “soft like a ball of cotton”. Similarly, Keyes initially conveys the loss of Charlie’s intelligence at the end with the erosion of his grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Symbols – objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Algernon, the mouse, was the first subject of the surgery that raised Charlie’s intelligence. Charlie forms a close emotional bond with the mouse, which is the only other creature to have had its intelligence artificially raised. Its experiences, and fate, parallel Charlie’s. 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 symbolises 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.

Fanny Girden is an older woman who works at the factory with Charlie. She is the only employee who does not sign a petition demanding Charlie’s resignation after his IQ is raised. She compares the change in Charlie’s intelligence to Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge

The story of Adam and Eve, mentioned by Fanny at the factory 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 in the form of his growing emotional bitterness and coldness. Fanny implies 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.


Charlie knows that his retardation has cut him off from most of society, but his powerlessness does not upset him. Charlie does not long to join society to increase his social standing; rather, he longs to join primarily because he is lonely. In Charlie’s mind, intelligence is the quality that will gain him entry into a world of friends. The resulting irony is that when Charlie does become incredibly intelligent, he finds himself even lonelier than before.

P.S. please tel prof Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at himand he would have more frends. Its easy to have frends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.

These words constitute Charlie’s second-to-last postscript in his final progress report. Having decided to cut himself off from all the people he has known, Charlie saves a special word of advice for Nemur. Nemur is portrayed as a humourless and intensely career-focused man lacking in human compassion. For a time, at the height of his genius, Charlie’s own intellectual self-absorption threatens to turn him into a similarly cold individual. Upon discovering that his co-workers used to tease him for sport when he was mentally retarded, Charlie becomes understandably angry and embittered, hating the idea that he was the subject of such mockery.

Unlike Charlie, Nemur has not been the target of cruel jokes, but he is nonetheless insecure and fears any challenge to his authority. Charlie comes to learn that intellectual superiority is not the most important goal of a human life. He is able to steer himself away from becoming like Nemur, learning to love and forgive other people. Now, in this report, written after he has fully reverted to his original state, Charlie tries to pass on some of what he has learned to Nemur. Although Charlie is no longer capable of articulately expressing his emotional discoveries to Nemur, his words nonetheless ring with the truth of experience. Nemur would indeed have “more frends” if he were not so focused on maintaining a pointless sense of superiority. Charlie finds that, despite the vast intellectual gulf that separates him from Nemur, the lessons he has learned apply just as much to an esteemed scientific researcher as they do to a simpleminded man confined by mental disability.

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