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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON: LITERARY CRITICISM / ANALYSIS

PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The novel is arranged in the classical form of tragedy-the heroís rise to a state of prominence, then a reversal of his fortunes, and his fall. Yet, there is no tragic flaw or fault, which brings about his downfall. The flaw is in the experimental surgery carried out on him.

Thus there is Charlie, thirty-two years old, mentally retarded bakery cleaner who lives alone, and whose whole world is the bakery. His desire for improvement propels him to the special school for slow learners. Here he meets Miss Alice Kinnian, his kindly teacher, who recommends him as the best in his batch to a research team from the Psychology Department. From here on, the readers see Charlie being initiated into the tortuous routine of psychological testing, followed by surgery. The treatment includes, psychosurgery and enzyme-injection patterns, all intended to study whether an adult with a sub-normal I.Q. can be made into a genius. This experimental treatment comes quite early in the book, and is followed by a lull and then rapid improvement in Charlieís mental powers. This results in a traumatic change in Charlieís outlook of the world. He sees people around him in a totally different light and now views their actions and statements critically. This is a source of disillusionment for Charlie. To offset this, the readers can experience his thrill in being able to learn several languages, appreciate music and art, and study and master whichever subject takes his fancy. The climax, eagerly awaited by the research team, not so by Charlie, is the psychology convention at Chicago. Charlie and the mouse, Algernon, are dragged into the glare of the limelight, and displayed as public exhibits. At the same time, the petty vanity, and the hasty and superficial attitude of the experimental team, is laid bare. Charlie becomes aware that the methods used on him are defective, which have already started showing signs of failure in Algernonís case. He releases the mouse and escapes with him in the melee that follows.


Now, Charlie is thrown back on his own resources, and has to find his own way in the outside world. He does this with courage, struggles with his changing identity and two love affairs, and decides to devote himself to finding out the errors in the surgery carried out on him and Algernon. By the end of the book, Charlie has found his answer and is now faced with the possibility of his regression, which he accepts with great dignity. At the end, the old retarded Charlie is back, but he has retained his guts and his self-respect.


POINT OF VIEW / AUTHORíS STYLE

The novel uses the technique of first person narrative. This, against the narratorís background of retardation, makes the novel technically complex and rich. One can see peopleís changing perceptions of him and his of the people around him. His world enlarges as his mind develops. Long-suppressed memories of his traumatic childhood and adolescence emerge from the mists, and this is intermittent, and in the stream-of-consciousness mode. Thus, small incidents in the present trigger-off childhood memories of his family, which are sometimes pleasant, but are most often, frightening. His parents quarreling over him, things he was forbidden to do, his sisterís tantrums, and his motherís hysterical and cruel rejection of him - these are the subject matters of vivid and dream like scenes of his past, which the author inserts into his present life. These scenes then link up with his present actions and problems and help to explain them, not only to the reader, but also to the protagonist himself. That all this is done without interference by an omniscient author makes it far more effective. It also has a structure, which lends itself to easy adaptation for cinema, which was in fact done.

Another important feature of the style is the Project Report format. The arrangement of chapters presented as Reports by Charlie to the research team allows for interesting variations in length and complexity as the Narratorís intelligence slowly expands, and later shrinks. The ideas and the language used also reflect these changes.


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