Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Charlie Gordon is a mentally challenged, 32-year-old man. He works at Donner’s Bakery and attends the Beekman School for Retarded Adults. When research scientists Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur learn about him from his beloved teacher, Alice Kinnian, they invite him to participate in a groundbreaking procedure to increase his intelligence.
Charlie loves the idea of being smart. His estranged mother and sister give their consent for the surgery. The doctors have already performed this procedure successfully on a lab mouse named Algernon. Now they’re ready to revolutionize the human world.
At the doctors’ request, Charlie records his journey in a series of progress reports. The early reports are written simply, full of misspellings, as he explains the preparations and pretesting he receives before surgery. The scientists make Charlie solve mazes on paper at the same time as Algernon runs them. The mouse always wins.
After the procedure, Charlie initially doesn’t feel different. But soon he begins devouring books and increasing his knowledge of the world at a rapid rate. His emotional development happens more slowly. The doctors have forbidden him to tell anyone about his surgery, so his co-workers at the bakery don’t know what to make of his change in behavior. The man they once mocked for his ignorance now develops procedures to streamline the breadmaking processes. They react with suspicion and hostility.
Charlie begins remembering experiences from his past. He realizes his “friends” at the bakery had been making fun of him, as were so many with whom he interacted in his early life. The once-cheerful Charlie becomes increasingly angry and skeptical and has difficulty trusting others.
He remembers the endless conflict between his parents. His mother was determined to make him like the other kids and punished him harshly for things like soiling himself out of nervousness or fear. His father tried to defend him. When his mother gave birth to a baby girl, she decided the new, healthy child deserved to live a normal life unhampered by a handicapped brother. Against his father’s will, she sent Charlie to an institution.
Charlie becomes increasingly aware of his needs for love and sex. He falls for Alice Kinnian, who likes him as well. Both realize they must enter into a relationship slowly. The doctors have hinted at the possibility that Charlie’s results might not be permanent. Still, Charlie continues to grow more intelligent and soon begins doing research on his own case.
The old Charlie, the mentally challenged man watching from the shadows, continues to haunt New Charlie. Old Charlie won’t set New Charlie free emotionally to have sex with Alice. Instead, Charlie begins an affair with his free-spirited neighbor, Fay. He doesn’t love her like he loves Alice, so he can have sex with her without fear.
As Charlie becomes more and more engrossed in his research, his relationship with Fay dissolves. Charlie becomes increasingly cynical and angry as he realizes the scientists still see him as a lab rat, like Algernon, rather than a human being. He also studies research even his doctors haven’t seen and becomes increasingly convinced his condition may regress.
Without having sufficient results, the scientists present Charlie and Algernon at an elite convention. Charlie listens to their pompous speeches and is tired of being considered subhuman. He unlatches Algernon’s cage and the audience erupts into confusion as the mouse escapes. Charlie finds Algernon in another area of the building and leaves with the mouse in his pocket.
Time passes, and Charlie agrees to rejoin the scientists in their work. Algernon’s condition regresses, and eventually he dies. Charlie realizes he can expect the same fate. He visits the Warren State Home, where he knows he will eventually return to live. For a brief time, Charlie is able to experience a romantic and sexual relationship with Alice. She moves in to care for him, even as his mental condition begins to deteriorate.
Eventually he dismisses her, choosing to endure his descent back into mental disability alone. Before he’s completely incompetent, he visits his mother, father and sister to gain some closure. He ultimately checks himself back into the Warren State Home and begins to live life much like he did before the operation. The cheerful spirit he had as a mentally challenged person returns, and his bakery co-workers begin to stand up for him.
Charlie’s mother took him to church when he was young and told him to pray to God that he would get better. He thought of God like Santa or a distant uncle. He remembers his mother being afraid of God and his dad ignoring Him.
When Charlie gains intelligence and starts talking with college students, he hears them speculate about how God doesn’t exist. He decides college is a place where you realize all the things you thought were true might not be.
One nurse makes several mentions of how she thinks the scientists are tampering with God’s plan by changing Charlie. A woman suggests that getting too much knowledge is evil, like Adam and Eve in the garden, and that there’s something sinful about Charlie getting smart.
As a mentally challenged person, both in the beginning and the end of the story, Charlie believes in luck and is superstitious.
The researchers on Charlie’s case are often self-absorbed and concerned with their reputations. They treat Charlie like a lab rat rather than a valuable human being. Mr. Donner is hospitable to all his employees and ensures Charlie has a job.
The Lord’s name is used in vain frequently. The words a–, d–n, crap, h—, slut, b–ch, b–tard, p— and whore appear. Kids beat up on Charlie. Both children and adults play pranks at his expense.
Charlie first experiences sexual feelings when a woman rubs up against him while dancing. He has a wet dream and tells the doctor, who assures him his feelings are normal. He remembers feeling confused upon seeing his sister naked and glimpsing her bloody underwear.
As his past comes back to him in memories, he sees his mother getting angry with him on a number of occasions for things like getting an erection. Charlie mentions a mentally challenged female student who is picked up by men and impregnated several times.
After Charlie becomes smarter and more sexually aware, he starts to make love to a woman in a park. She opens her coat and reveals she is pregnant. Charlie runs away, and the woman tells bystanders to catch this man who tried to rape her.
Charlie’s neighbor Fay often runs around in a bra and panties. She also paints nude portraits. Charlie says everything about her was an invitation. He is initially uncomfortable that he can picture her naked at will and imagine what she’s doing with men she brings home. Before long, Fay offers herself sexually to Charlie. When he seems resistant, she asks him if he’s homosexual. He vehemently replies that he’s not.
One night, she sleeps at his house and runs around naked. Later, she becomes his regular sexual partner when he cannot bring himself to have sex with Alice. The text describes them preparing for sex. Charlie finally allows himself to sleep with Alice and describes it in detail as a spiritual, otherworldly experience.
After Charlie begins reverting to his former state and no longer sleeps with either woman, he buys pornographic magazines and watches a neighbor lady showering through his window.
Theft: One of Charlie’s bakery co-workers is charging people the wrong amount and pocketing the money. Charlie ponders whether to let his boss know. He finally offers the co-worker a warning to stop.
Suicide: As Charlie begins to deteriorate, he contemplates suicide. He decides he cannot kill himself because he needs to finish the cycle to help the world, and he owes it to the old Charlie to stay alive.
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