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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Major Themes

The Theme of Self-realization or an Understanding of Self

This is the chief need for Charlie and it makes the book one with a universal significance. Although the situation in which Charlie finds himself is a bizarre one, with his rapid movement towards high intellect and an equally rapid regression, it gives him the mental capacity to analyze and voice his need for achievement, acceptance and love. He is also able to fulfill these needs and then accept his regression in a philosophical manner, though after much suffering.

The Treatment of a Retarded Person by Society

This is another important theme of the novel, made more complex by the dramatic changes in the hero, and in his awareness of people. The readers see the injustice against him, first in the family, where egotism and frustration blind his mother to his tremendous need for love and support. Then the readers see him with the crowd at the bakery, where a few are unreservedly kind and the others make him the butt of their tricks. Finally, even the medical men, whose professed aim is to improve the sad lives of mentally retarded people, treat him as an ‘object’ and a laboratory animal.

The Theme of Love

Charlie is shown to have a tremendous need for love. Having been pushed out by his family, he seeks it among his coworkers in the bakery. This love is just affection and acceptance. He is not shown to have a strong sex drive except after the operation. One notices that his genuine love for Alice is constantly hampered by the repressive attitudes that have been fostered by his mother since his adolescence. Yet, Alice and he do not part ways, but have a deep friendship. A relationship develops between him and his neighbor Fay. He likes and admires many of Fay’s qualities, but he seeks her only for a sexual outlet, not at an emotional level. His love for Alice reaches fulfillment only in the final stages of the book but its intensity comforts him for all the lost days, and his bleak future.


The novel is very much a part of popular fiction. Thus, Keyes has varied the mood throughout the book, and rarely allowed it to get too heavy or solemn. In spite of the hero being mentally retarded or perhaps because of it, there is a lot of humor in the introductory section. This gentle laughter gives way to excitement, as Charlie finds himself able to understand whole worlds of knowledge that he never knew existed! Interspersed with this, are the disturbing memories of his family. The seriousness of the mood deepens, as Charlie begins to view people around him with increasing skepticism and even disillusion. His frustration in love depresses him immensely and evokes ugly flashes from his adolescence.

At the climax, at the Chicago convention there is a farcical scene, with underlying bitterness. The sight of the learned gathering ‘chasing a white mouse smarter than many of them’ is hilarious. But this humor is superficial - almost macabre (black humor).

The poignancy of his visits to his father, and then to his mother and sister is heightened by the knowledge that they don’t know about his approaching decline. There is a brief respite with the fascinating Fay and later the intense rapture of fulfillment with Alice. But the rest of this section captures the deep anguish of a human being who has enjoyed the heady heights of mental activity, only to know that it is being snatched away, and even his mind is not his own to keep. As in classical tragedy, when the suffering reaches an unbearable pitch, the individual, wanting to keep his dignity intact, pulls himself together and forces himself to accept his fate. This is how the novel ends.

Daniel Keyes - BIOGRAPHY

Daniel Keyes was born in New York and had a varied and interesting career profile, before he settled down to creative writing. He has worked in the US Maritime Service, and then he worked as an editor and a fashion photographer. Meanwhile, he got a B.A degree in psychology, a subject that has been of enduring interest to him.

Still later, Keyes taught English in city schools in New York, and simultaneously worked for his post-graduate degree in English and American literature. After getting his M.A., he has taught Creative writing at Wayne State University and Ohio University, where he was a professor.

Flowers For Algernon was his first novel and won the Nebula Award for the Best Novel of the year, from the Science Fiction Writers of America. First published in 1966 by Harcourt and in 1968 by Bantam, the novel, initially enlarged from a short story, has been through over thirty printings. It has, since then, been produced as a stage play and as a musical in England, France, the US, Poland and Japan. The novel was also adapted for the movies under the name ‘Charly.’ Cliff Robertson, in the title role, won an Oscar.

Obviously fascinated by psychology and having majored in the subject, Keyes went on to write three more novels with a psychological background. The Touch - (1968) on the terrible effects of a radiation accident; The Fifth Sally (1980) whose subject is the multiple personality disorder; and Until Death about a double murder in Florida. He has also written the following books in the category of non-fiction: The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981) an award winning study of a man acquitted of guilt for serious crimes on account of multiple personality disorder. This was followed by The Milligan Wars: A True Story Sequel (1994). In 1986, he wrote Unveiling Claudia about the secrets behind a woman’s false confession to murder.

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