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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON: LITERARY ANALYSIS / STUDY GUIDE

THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

An Understanding of Self

In first-person narratives, the narrator may play one of two types of roles. He may be a low profile, colorless character, who acts as a medium to convey the actions of others around him who are more dramatic and colorful. Alternately, he may be one of the central characters in the literary work. Charlie belongs to the latter category. What makes him stand out is that he doesnít know who he really is. The Charlie with an I.Q. of 68 is wildly different from the one who is a genius. The person considered sub-human by his surgeons goes on to become the one, capable of detecting the errors in their work. The Charlie, who was forbidden by his mother to even look at a girl with sex in his mind, finds that there are two women who find him attractive, but he canít deal with the change.

How Charlie charts his passage through the strange territory into which his operation throws him, is one of the themes of the novel. Before the operation, Charlie longed to "be smart and have lots of frends." Afterwards, he finds himself looking at the old "frends" with new eyes and gradually getting alienated from them. His conscious mind doesnít remember much about his family, but he has constant flashes of memory about them, and their rejection of him. Thus, Charlie after the operation is lonelier than ever before. He then uses his new powers to understand the new, larger world before him. He equips himself with a variety of knowledge. Yet, close personal ties evade him.

Charlieís earlier dependence on Miss Kinnian has developed into love. He is conscious of this, but canít bring his feelings to sexual completion. He realizes this is due to his motherís forceful conditioning in early days. He then attempts to achieve sexual fulfillment and friendship with Fay. This works for sometime, but Fay does not know the Ďrealí Charlie. Charlie doesnít ever commit himself to the point of telling her about himself, and she drifts away.

At the climax, Charlie has the revelation that the experiment is defective and will definitely fail. He then escapes with Algernon and works feverishly till he has the answer to the puzzle, that is, how the treatment has failed. With no hope of a future, but with the triumph of achieving his work goal behind him, Charlie seeks out his family and lays his ghosts. He forgives his mother and accepts his sister, who is very happy to see him. His greatest conflict is his divided self. He finally accepts that the "old Charlie" will not go away, and the "new" one has a short life. He strongly feels that the "old Charlie" is a human being who has a right to live. With this understanding, he puts aside the temptation of death. After making peace with his past, he is able to reach Alice, at last, as a lover. They live together for a short time, till his regression takes over, but that is worth "more than most people find in a lifetime." Charlie sinks steadily but keeps his control and admits himself to the Warren Home voluntarily. He concludes, "Iím glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned a lot of things that I never even new were in this world and Iím grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit."

Treatment of the Retarded by Society


While the novel is part of the mode of science fiction, it also makes a strong plea for the acceptance of the retarded. The cruelty with which Charlie is treated is all the more painful because he is the one who tells the readers about it and they suffer with him.

In his childhood, his high-strung mother slaves over his education, determined to make him "normal," even by force. His fatherís softer and more positive influence is subdued. That this is linked with her ego is clear with the birth of a second "normal" child, when she shuts him out totally, and devotes herself to the younger child. The smaller cruelties like not letting him hold the baby, or hiding him in the cellar when visitors call, are painful. But the harsh threat of caging him for life if he shows "sexual" interests in anyone and the final rejection and dumping him at the Home, are traumatic. Her treatment also brings out the worst in Norma, his sister, who rejects him with childish insensitivity.

Donnerís kindness brings him out again into the bakery. But while Donner himself treats him with kindness and respect, Charlie is constantly pushed around by the more insensitive of the workers. Sometimes they are friendly and even protective, but it is a patronizing friendliness, with no respect for the retarded person as a human being.

Finally, the researchers, especially Nemur, regard him as the raw material that they can "use" for their work. Nemur considers him an object, a burden on society, and congratulates himself on having "made" him a useful citizen. He expects "gratitude" for what he has done, and cannot understand Charlieís suffering when he knows he is losing his intelligence.

The novel thus makes a strong plea to the readers to enter into and empathize with the problems of a retarded person and to accept him as a human being, who is different, and needs perhaps more love than the ordinary person.

The Theme of Love

Charlieís overwhelming need for love compels him towards one of the few women who has cared for and cherished him --Alice Kinnian. When his mind develops, he sees her as a young and very attractive woman. That, plus the fact that he can be himself with her, as she knows both his selves, inevitably propels him to love her. Alice too returns his feeling of attraction and even friendship. But, she is wary of anything more because of the rapid changes in him and the feeling that his emotional dependence is not love. Yet she canít cut herself off, in spite of repeated attempts. Their relationship then runs aground because of his sexual repression. They try to step back into friendship and Charlie depends on her support and criticism. Since he canít settle his sexual problems with Alice, he enters into an affair with Fay.

Fay, depicted as Aliceís opposite, being unconventional and sexually permissive, is also physically attractive to Charlie. She is a vital colorful, strong-willed and outspoken individual. Charlie is initially bowled over physically, but this generous and eccentric woman, so different from his past experience fascinates him. He is aware that he loves Alice, but Fay and he share a mutual attraction. He decides to have an affair with Fay almost as a means to liberate himself. He is close to her, and tries to fulfill some of her conditions but finds her life-style too erratic for him. Besides, he has never considered Fay capable of understanding what he really is. Thus, the affair peters out.

He finally achieves fulfillment with Alice, but it is short-lived. His regressing mind resents her criticism, her tidiness, and even his attachment to her. Thus, they part, but Alice continues to care for him and arrange for his welfare till the end. This is a modern love story in an unconventional setting, not the traditional boy-meets-girl, with rivals, petty jealousies, and villains.


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