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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Rose Gordon, Matt Gordon & Norma

Charlie’s mother isn’t introduced in the novel, until after the operation. Then Charlie lets the readers know that his mother had taught him to pray to God "a lot when I was a kid that he shoud make me get better and not be sick." Then he mentions "Miss Kinnian was a nice lady like my mother use to be." The first clear memory that Charlie has of his mother is when she returned home from hospital with his new baby sister, after which her entire attitude to him changed. After this, she is revealed in a series of vivid and disturbing flashes of memory. She haunts Charlie still in his permanent feeling of rejection and his repressed behavior with women.

The readers see her intense involvement in Charlie’s welfare as a young child. She even attacks the teacher who suggests that they move him to a special school, saying. She won’t let him play as he likes but drives him to learn various things; to read and write, to got to the bathroom by himself. Charlie remembers her as soft and warm but this changes after Norma’s birth. Charlie recalls, "Norma showed all signs of normal intelligence, my mother’s voice began to sound different. Not only her voice, but her touch, her look, her very presence - all changed. It was as if her magnetic poles had reversed and where they had once attracted now repelled."

This repulsion becomes an obsessive concern for Norma who must have the best of everything. Charlie is denied outings, pets, and is hidden away from "company" and the outside world. In all this, Charlie only remembers Matt, his father, as a protective influence, constantly pointing out injustice, attempting to curb Norma’s rudeness to her brother, and desperately trying to control his wife’s hysteria. Charlie remembers his father warning Rose not to drive Charlie too much but accept and love him as he is. In later years, he tries to reason with her, to reduce her obsessive fears for Norma’s safety. Matt’s is therefore the voice of reason and acceptance, which is never allowed to prevail before Rose’s stronger will.

Another difference between the parents is the father’s working class, laid-back attitude towards social behaviour. Rose, on the other hand, has middle-class aspirations. This is seen in her constant desire to keep everything impossibly clean, to make her children "amount to something." Rose screams at Matt’s dream of having his own barbershop, by saying, "that a sales man was at least a dignified occupation, but she would never have a barber for a husband." Matt gives in for some time, but he can never live up to Rose’s dreams. Neither can Charlie, who becomes a serious obstacle in her path.

Charlie’s adolescence becomes a new terror for her. She fears that he may sexually assault either a girl visitor or his own sister. On finding him observing Norma dressing, she chases him with a leather belt and threatens to put him away in a cage, for life.

Charlie leaves his home the night, Rose picks up a knife and demands that Matt take Charlie away, that moment, to the Warren home, for good. Alternately, she argues that he’s better off dead. Fearing her hysteria, Matt takes him away to Uncle Hermann. Later, Matt himself walks out on his wife and daughter, and buys the barbershop that he had always longed for.

Years later, after the operation, Charlie finds Matt at the barbershop. He hasn’t changed much. He is now at peace with himself although he is not prosperous. Charlie’s dreaded meeting with his mother reveals her as a helpless and senile woman, a source of constant worry to his sister Norma. Norma herself is overburdened and lonely, worn out between her work and caring for her mother. The rational Charlie forgives Norma for all her cruelty to him, in their childhood. His mother’s pride on hearing of his achievements is balm to his old wounds. Even then, her feelings towards him are divided, the senile mind veering between maternal pride and suspicion.

Through Rose’s character, the author depicts the characteristics of the families with handicapped children - the inability to accept the handicap, denial of its existence, or rejection. The situation becomes more difficult when the resources are scarce. Charlie understands this in later life, but he will always bear the emotional scars of the denial of love when he needed it the most. On the positive side, Charlie realizes that he owes his tremendous motivation to learn and improve, to his mother’s training. Some of the most vivid and disturbing passages in the novel are the ones dealing with the Gordon family.

Harold Nemur & Jay Strauss

They are both neuro-surgeons with a psychiatric background and are the senior members of the Beekman research team. Nemur is the more egotistical of the two. Initially, they are simply "the men in white coats," remote and powerful enough to transform Charlie’s life. Nemur’s aim is to create an intellectual superman of a retarded adult. He thinks of it as an act of creation. So far, he has successfully experimented with just one mouse, and is now trying it out with a human subject. Having accepted Charlie, he is scrupulous about explaining to him all the pitfalls of the operation.

Charlie, with an I.Q. of just 68 can’t observe him critically, but the reader can form an impression through the words used by the researchers-"they will see if they can use me." On the other hand, they make Charlie compete with the white mouse, without even telling him about Algernon’s "superior" intelligence and the fact that, they explain the dangers of the experiment to a subject who cannot possibly understand the consequences.

After the operation, Charlie’s view of the researchers changes. Their reactions to him change too, especially in Nemur’s case. When the "TV" machine is to be installed in Charlie’s room, he demands to know its effects. Nemur is furious at being questioned by Charlie. Only Strauss is sensitive enough to notice and appreciate the changes in Charlie.

Both the researchers have a heated quarrel over the Chicago convention. During this Nemur is revealed as being an ambitious man and a careerist, who is willing to risk the integrity of his research for fame and promotion. Strauss is more concerned about validating their work and it's reliability, but both are egotistical. Nemur gets very tense as the psychology convention draws closer, and vents this on Charlie. Strauss is closer to Charlie as a person, and understands his changing mind. He asks Charlie to write his reports simply, so people can understand what he has written. He does not dismiss Charlie’s worries about co-workers at the bakery, but advises him about the steps that he can take. From Nemur’s attitude towards him Charlie realizes, "He makes me feel that before the experiment I was not really a human being."

Nemur resents the limelight on Charlie, when they go to Chicago for the convention. When Charlie draws him into the discussions, Nemur lectures at length on his technique. This is the moment when Charlie finds out that, Nemur and Strauss are not aware of the new developments, in the field, in Asian countries! Charlie learns that, it is Nemur’s wife and her ambition that is driving him to premature publication. He finds that Nemur has "the teacher’s fear of being surpassed by the student." This is aggravated by the fact that Charlie was not even his student but was a sub-human laboratory specimen! Nemur calls the old Charlie "a feeble-minded shell a burden on the society that must fear his irresponsible behavior." He plays God, behaving as if he has "created" the new intelligent Charlie and has been rewarded with ingratitude. To the end, he does not realize what Charlie means when he says-"the other Charlie who walked in the darkness is still here with us. Inside me." Strauss, on the other hand, understands at once. Strauss, during his therapy sessions, is sympathetic and does not rise to Charlie’s provocation as he realizes that it is because of his frustration. He also advises Charlie when he is facing a moral dilemma over Gimpy, not like Nemur, who dismisses the problem. Strauss, along with Alice, continues to visit and support Charlie till the end of the novel, when Charlie leaves for the Warren State Home.

Minor Characters

Burt Selden

Burt is the member of the team of researchers who experiment on Charlie. He is perhaps the only one who spends time with Charlie. The readers are told that he is kind and speaks slowly, so that he can be understood. Burt’s character is colorless and not clearly defined. He serves as a medium to express views on his seniors - as when he tells Charlie about Nemur’s ambitious wife who pushes him to seek publicity and promotion. Later, when Charlie is bitterly critical of the team at the convention, Burt defends Nemur by saying, "He’s just an ordinary man trying to do a great man’s work, while the great men are all busy making bombs."

Charlie considers Burt a friend, but Burt thinks nothing wrong in concealing from Charlie, the extent of Algernon’s decline.

Thus, the author underlines the general lack of humility and the aloof bureaucratic attitude, by which scientists distance themselves from those they ‘use,’ visualizing them as "objects" to works on.

The bakery workers: Frank Reilly, Joe Carp and Gimpy

Frank and Joe are important to Charlie, who calls them his good "frends," and wants to become "smart" like them. However, to the reader, they are clearly loutish bullies, whose idea of "fun" is to pick on anyone with a physical or mental handicap. Their favorite game is to kick out Charlie’s legs from under him, when he’s not looking. They exploit his gullibility for laughs. Once, hoping he will sabotage the machine, they egg him on to work the dough-mixer in the regular operator’s absence. This incident occurs a little after the operation and therefore Charlie masters the task easily. He’s promoted, and his "frends" are mad at him. Only Fanny Berden, a woman worker, is happy for him.

Gimpy, the baker, is another of Charlie’s "frends." He himself has a bad leg and, in his blunt way, is very protective towards Charlie. He is surly and rough, but kind. He is also one of the senior employees, who is trusted by the proprietor. After the operation, Charlie finds Gimpy has been conniving with the customers to cheat Mr. Donner. On being challenged by Charlie, Gimpy turns hostile and nasty. Then most of the workers gang up on Charlie and demand his dismissal. However, towards the end, when Charlie returns to the bakery in a regressing state, they accept him and promise to "look out" for him. Their mixed approach to Charlie is typical of that of many uneducated and unthinking people towards someone with a handicap.

Mr Donner

The kind proprietor of the bakery is an old friend of Charlie’s Uncle, Herman. A father figure to Charlie, Donner is one of the old school - a paternal employer who looks after his workers as one looks after his or her family. It is he who rescues Charlie from the Warren State Home where his family dumps him. Acting as Charlie’s guardian, he gets him a permit to work and live outside the home, and even employs him. However, when the delegation of workers demand Charlie’s dismissal, as they can’t adapt to the "new Charlie," he reluctantly lets him go. Again, he takes back Charlie in his state of regression. Mr. Donner is an idealized figure, one of the few who represents security and warmth in Charlie’s chaotic life.

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