Flowers for Algernon is told in a first-person narration so that readers follow Charlie in a close perspective. What is the effect of this first-person narration? What does it tell that other perspectives might not tell? Why do you think the author chose to make Charlie a first-person narrator?
The first-person narration keeps readers close to Charlie, and makes Charlie both an identifiable and likeable character. When characters have disagreements with Charlie (such as Nemur saying he has become arrogant and selfish), readers are more apt to side with Charlie. Of course, this limits the amount of information that can be delivered, since what is told must be something that Charlie knows. However, the choice of using a first-person narrator in general also increases the pathos of the story, as it heightens the sense of sadness at Charlie’s eventual deterioration. It also gives insight into what Charlie is thinking, which is remarkably important in a story that is concerned with the mind.
The story is delivered in an epistolary fashion, that is, conveyed in Progress Reports styled like diary entries. What is the effect of this narrative choice? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way?
The epistolary fashion lends first-person credibility to Charlie as a narrator. Keyes also takes this as an opportunity to show Charlie’s physical-mental enhancement and deterioration through the way he manipulates the actual writing of these progress reports. The diction and writing style of Charlie at his intellectual peak is also different than that of when he is improving or when he is deteriorating. These reports also make sense given the plot of the story, and the necessity of documenting the experiment given the scientific method.
Interpersonal relationships are especially important in Flowers for Algernon, and for the narrator, Charlie. Choose two relationships in Charlie’s life, and explain how they change after his operation. Why is this change significant?
Students should choose individuals who see Charlie both before and after his operation. These include: Matt, Rose, Norma, Prof. Nemur, Dr. Strauss, Burt, the bakery workers, and Alice Kinnian.
When Charlie starts remembering his childhood memories, he also begins reflecting on what these memories mean in the context of his present. What does it mean for reality to be tied to the present, and memory to be tied to the past? Why is it important for Charlie to understand his present in context of what happened in his past?
Charlie realizes that a person is not just the sum of his past memories, but also what he is currently doing in the present, and what he will experience in the future. However, in order to really discover who he is, he must understand how his past shaped him, and how his family shaped him, to be the person he is now. Originally, Charlie talks about how the “present” is “reality,” and the “past” is made up of “memories,” but then he realizes that the past is just as real as the present (154). Memories construct an individual, who exists in the present.
Map the significances of the places where Charlie stays.
Charlie was born in Brooklyn, and the Beekman Lab is in New York. Like Charlie, Brooklyn is not the center stage for groundbreaking research or generally exciting activities; he has to move in to New York, near Times Square, for that. After the convention, Charlie stays in an apartment of his own near Times Square, and the excitement and hustle reflects his current state in life of being busy and enthusiastic. In order to go to the convention, however, Charlie has to fly out to Chicago to discover the truth behind the experiment/his own life to come, demonstrating that sometimes answers only come when an individual removes himself from his current activities to examine things with an outside perspective.
What significance, if any, does Charlie’s age or his current state of life/being have?
Charlie is 32 at the start of the novel, and stays this age for the rest of the story as well. The effects of the experiment only last 8 months or so. Charlie is middle-aged (albeit on the young end of the spectrum), and technically at the “prime of his life.” His intelligence increases and then fades just as quickly. The story begins “en media res” (in the middle of things happening), and just as quickly, Charlie fades out of significance, and the passage of time goes on. Keyes likely chose this age to emphasize how much of life Charlie was missing out on for someone his age, as well as to emphasize the qualities of “en media res” which permeate the novel.
Consider the two prominent women in Charlie’s romantic life: Alice Kinnian and Fay Lillman. Charlie once says “Just goes to show you can’t have everything you want in one woman. One more argument for polygamy” (162). Is Charlie joking? What does each woman have? Why does Charlie need both of them in his life?
Charlie makes the argument for polygamy with some ounce of sarcasm because he realizes that he has only ever truly been in love with Alice. Alice was Charlie’s teacher before they were lovers, and to him she still represents much of the mystery of learning, humanity, and the human capacity for profundity. Fay is wonderful in her own ways, and Fay and Alice actually like each other. Fay is open, honest, and generous. Her quirkiness, sexuality, and energy help Charlie along during a difficult time in his life. His relations with her are purely sexual, and provide for him the necessary catalyst for approaching someone with whom he is emotionally invested.
Why does Charlie use so much nature imagery when he describes his intellectual growth? Use specific examples.
Charlie often describes his mental growth or expansion of his intelligence as “the open sea” (96) or memories which wash up like “high-breaking waves” (112). Later, in Dr. Strauss’ office, he has a mystical experience/hallucination filled with natural imagery (216). This collection of natural imagery forms an interesting counter to the artificial origins of Charlie’s intelligence. They provide great metaphors for the endlessness that is nature, but in using such descriptions, Charlie actually reminds himself and readers that human lives are short and mortal, and that his intelligence is even shorter and bounded, like nature.
What is the importance of dreams in Flowers for Algernon? Think about the psychological implications.
On page 37, Strauss tells Charlie that he might not understand all of his dreams and memories, but that they will all eventually come together so that he can understand more of himself. Strauss explains the conscious and the subconscious to Charlie, as two minds or two worlds which never touch. Charlie retrieves most of his memories through dreams, and it is only through parsing his subconscious through his dreams that he can understand his past, and thus understand his present and future.
Consider the title. Why might Algernon be so important to the story (even if the title is taken directly from the last line of the book)? How does Charlie understand more of himself by being with Algernon?
Algernon provides for Charlie the physical warning signs of his deterioration, but he also acts as more than just that. Before his procedure, Algernon provides an objective standard for Charlie, a physical manifestation for what he wants to be and what he can be — he wants to beat the mouse in a race. After Algernon begins to deteriorate, he shows to Charlie how small humanity can be, and how easy it is to pass away without achieving anything. This inspires Charlie to work harder and more on his research. Lastly, Algernon is also an “object” of sentimental value for Charlie, so that he even desires to put flowers on Algernon’s grave. This is an incredibly human act, and humanizes the mentally ill Charlie just as much as it attempts to personify Algernon.
full title · Flowers for Algernon
author · Daniel Keyes
type of work · Novel
genre · Science fiction
language · English
time and place written · Original short story written in 1959, in New York City; expanded novel version written from 1962 to 1965 in New York and Ohio.
date of first publication · Short story published in 1959; expanded novel form first published in 1966
publisher · Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
narrator · Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who undergoes experimental surgery to increase his intelligence
point of view · The novel is told in the form of first-person “progress reports” Charlie keeps throughout the course of the experiment. Everything is filtered through Charlie’s mind, the capacities of which change drastically over the course of the novel, as Charlie’s IQ triples and then plummets back to its original level.
tone · The tone of the novel varies with Charlie’s mental acuity. Sometimes, however—particularly when Charlie is writing as a retarded man at the beginning and end of the novel— Keyes allows him to provide hints in his narration that allow us to grasp the significance of events that Charlie cannot himself understand.
tense · Past; Charlie is always writing about the days he has just lived through. Charlie experiences numerous flashbacks to his childhood, which are usually narrated in the present tense.
setting (time) · There are no direct references to time period in the novel, but we can assume the events take place around the time the novel was written, the mid-1960s.
setting (place) · New York City; one chapter takes place in Chicago
protagonist · Charlie Gordon
major conflict · Charlie struggles to reach emotional maturity and feel like a whole person before his skyrocketing intelligence reverses course and returns him to his initial mentally disabled state.
rising action · Dr. Strauss performs an experimental surgery on Charlie that catapults his intelligence to genius levels; Charlie falls in love with Alice but finds he is unable to consummate their relationship because he feels unresolved childhood shame about his sexuality.
climax · Charlie asserts his independence by running away from the scientists who are observing him; Alice tells Charlie that his work at the laboratory is more important than his relationship with Fay; Charlie realizes in this moment that he can no longer run from his fate or the seriousness of his emotional journey.
falling action · Charlie discovers the flaw in Nemur’s hypothesis that proves that he will soon lose his intelligence; Charlie locates his mother and sister and is able to find forgive them for how they treated him as a child; Charlie has a brief, fulfilling romantic affair with Alice; Charlie returns to his original mentally retarded state and checks himself into the Warren State Home.
themes · Mistreatment of the mentally disabled; the tension between intellect and emotion; the persistence of the past in the present
motifs · Changes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation; flashbacks; the scientific method
symbols · Algernon; Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge; the window
foreshadowing · Professor Nemur tells Charlie at the outset of the experiment that his gains in intelligence may not be permanent, which turns out to be the case. Later, Charlie has a memory of his young sister, Norma, obnoxiously threatening to lose her own intelligence, another reference to Charlie’s eventual downfall. Finally, Algernon’s decline, beginning in Progress Report 13, is a reliable predictor of Charlie’s impending deterioration.