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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Charlie Gordon is the protagonist and the most clearly drawn character. He is the narrator and the readers see everything in the book from his angle. The original feature of the novel is that Charlie changes due to surgery, and the readers can see Charlie the retarded person, and Charlie the ‘genius’ behaving like two different people.


There is no ‘antagonist,’ in the sense that, there is no ‘villain’ in the story. But different characters come into conflict with the protagonist at different stages. Charlie’s mother Rose Gordon, her obsession with ‘making’ him normal, her suppression of his sensuality and her complete rejection, all combine to destroy his self-esteem and make him crave for approval. This makes her the antagonistic influence in his past, which also carries over to the present. Prof. Nemur with his arrogance and his attempts to keep away information from Charlie regarding himself, is also a hostile force at one stage. At one point, Charlie himself can be seen as the antagonist. For instance, the retarded Charlie constantly makes the ‘genius’ Charlie feel that he is lurking in his consciousness, by watching and inhibiting his actions. But this antagonism is neutralized when the ‘new’ Charlie accepts that they are one person. The main conflict in the book is not with any particular individual, but with Charlie’s handicap, and later his struggle to control his life and mind.


After the operation Charlie alters very gradually. Even then, he is rather docile and willing to abide by the research team’s decisions. The turning point comes at the Chicago psychology convention. It is here that Charlie gets disgusted with his and Algernon’s ‘exhibit’ status and with the way he is spoken of as if he was not human before the operation. The last straw is hearing of Algernon’s erratic, unexplained behavior, which has been concealed from him. He then decides to release Algernon from his cage and together they escape to New York. After this point he lives in a new apartment with Algernon, takes charge of his life and relationships, and faces the outside world on his own.


The novel is undoubtedly a tragedy. It takes Charlie from a below-normal intelligence to the level of a genius. He then develops the ability to look at himself, his family, and his environment with new eyes, and become his own man. This also gives him the capacity to realize that, the experimental surgery was defective and the research, incomplete. Ironically, it is he, the research ‘object’, who is able to track down the faults in the process, and hence foresee what a brief escape he has had from a retarded intelligence. He also has the intelligence at this stage to suffer agonies as he ekes out each precious day, till the old sub-normal intelligence claims him once again. As in classical tragedy, the hero is able to come to a painful acceptance of his condition, and accept it with dignity.


The novel’s action begins in Charlie’s thirty-second year in Donner’s Bakery, New York, where he works. Charlie narrates his experience through ‘progress reports,’ which he has to submit to the research team from Beckman College. Charlie is a retarded adult, and he has agreed to submit himself to experimental surgery in order to improve his intelligence. The reports reveal Charlie’s experiences in the bakery to which the owner, his uncle’s friend, has brought him from the Warren State Home for retarded people. Charlie becomes a part of the bakery, and considers the people there as his friends. Yet, he is dissatisfied and wants to be ‘smart.’ So, he joins a special school for retarded people at Beckman College. After this, his teacher, Alice Kinnian, recommends him to a research team at Beckman psychology department. The team is in search of a retarded volunteer, for the experimental surgery to increase intelligence.

Charlie then undergoes weeks of testing and competing with a white mouse, Algernon at completing mazes. He is depressed when the mouse beats him every time. The operation takes place and Charlie is disappointed at not ‘getting smart’ immediately. However, he is assured that he will progress gradually, but steadily. Over a period of time, Charlie finds himself being able to read more, win some mazes and master complex processes at the bakery. The other workers resent him. He is disillusioned with many of them. He has to spend a lot of time reading and being tested at the Beckman lab. By now, he knows that Algernon has also had surgery similar to his, which accounts for his intelligence. Charlie surges ahead in gathering knowledge and mastering languages. He begins to see his supportive teacher Alice, as an attractive young woman. They become close and he tries to make love to her. On several occasions, he finds he has a violent physical reaction when he is making love to her and therefore has to stop. He can’t understand why this happens. Around the same time, Charlie’s repressed memories of his home, surface. Disturbing scenes, like, his mother pushing him to study or others when he is being pushed aside in favor of his younger sister, flash through his memory. Charlie is upset, but he finds his newfound intellectual ability thrilling and works hard.

He finds that he and Algernon are to be taken to Chicago for a convention, at which Nemur will present the findings of the team. Once there, Algernon and Charlie are the prime ‘exhibits,’ objects, and humiliating remarks are made in his hearing. He also discovers that the researchers have not given sufficient time to verify their experimental findings before performing the experiment on him. Charlie releases Algernon, and runs away with him to New York. He hides here for some time and rents a house. He understands that his time is short and decides to check the same experiments, in order to trace the reasons for its failure.

Charlie gets permission from the sponsors, to work independently on this subject at Beckman. His relationship with Nemur becomes tense and hostile. He can’t overcome his problems with Alice and gets involved with Fay, an unconventional artist living next door. With her, he can defeat his inhibitions. But as his work gets more demanding, their relationship becomes strained and finally breaks. In the meantime, Algernon’s condition gets worse, and he dies. Charlie knows this indicates his own approaching end, and therefore he seeks out his parents. His father is alone in the Browse. Charlie meets him but can’t bear to reveal who he is, for fear of disappointment. His meeting with his mother and sister is anticlimactic, as the mother is old and senile, and his sister is having a bad time coping with the responsibility alone. He is satisfied that he can tell them of his achievements. He makes his peace with them and leaves. He confronts Nemur at a party and charges him of being insensitive. Charlie is also charged of selfishness and arrogance, which he admits is the truth. He accepts that the retarded Charlie is an important and enduring part of him. He and Alice get together but only find fulfillment for a short time. As Charlie’s mind gets worse, he forces her to leave him. He works at the bakery, and when his condition becomes very bad, he moves to the Warren Home.

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