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Free Study Guide: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON: LITERARY ANALYSIS / STUDY GUIDE

SYMBOLISM / SYMBOLS

A lot of the writing is bare and simple, as befits the narrator, but it is also a psychological study. Hence, the latter part the book has several symbols, sometimes used as links, which set off associations with the protagonistís memories.

The author uses the knife as a repeated symbol of the motherís threats and punishments. He has dreams of sex, ending with the woman carrying a bloody knife. When he tries to make love to Alice, he canít go on. Later, he dreams of being chased by someone holding a bloody knife. This is later connected to his motherís threats when he had an unconscious erection while observing a girl. It is also linked with the knife his mother picks up, when she demands that his father should take him away from home.

Another symbol, which recurs in the novel, is the window. After the operation, the "new" Charlie often imagines that his old self is another person who is often watching him from a window. This window becomes a symbol of the retarded Charlieís alienation from the outside world. It always shows him as an observer, one who is not allowed to actually participate in life but can only watch wistfully while others act.


In the final stages of the novel, Charlie frequently sees his existence as being a journey from a cave into the light, and back again into the cave. The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Platoís "Republic," which contains this idea. There, Plato speaks of the "soul of man" which "has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light." His brief spell as the "new" Charlie is his period in the sun, although he is always haunted by fears of the returning darkness. The cave appears again in the experience Charlie has during his last therapy session with Strauss. He feels faint and sees a brilliant light - "a blue-white glow...gathering into a shimmering ball" later called a "grotto of light" in which the "core of this unconscious" blooms into " a shimmering, swirling, luminescent flower." But "Charlie doesnít want to know what lies beyond" and so he is drawn back to earth. Here the light represents God and death, as a merging with God. The cause symbol becomes "the wet labyrinth," "quiet and dark"-his earthly existence into which he is reluctantly pulled back.

Algernon, the white "super-mouse" is not so much a symbol, as a parallel, an "alter-ego" of Charlie. Initially, he hates Algernon for beating him at every maze. Then he grows fond of him and is comforted to know he is "smart" because of a similar operation. Charlie is upset that Algernon has to "perform" to earn each meal, and later, after they escape, he invents mazes, which will stimulate the mouse, but does not reward him with food. At the convention, he resents their "exhibit" status and frees Algernon from his cage and escapes with him. At the convention, Burtís report on Algernonís erratic behavior reveals to Charlie, his own future doom, making the comparison between them overt. Later, he discovers the plans to dispose of Algernon after his death, and canít bear to think of him being disposed off that way. Ultimately, he buries Algernon in the back garden, and puts flowers on his grave. His last thought in the book is that his friends place flowers on the grave of Algernon. The treatment of the white mouse, as in the case of any other laboratory animal, is exploitative and uncaring. Charlie, being considered sub-human is treated very much the same, hence he considers the mouse as an extension of himself.

Thus, the author, while using symbols common to modern psychology, makes them an organic and essential part of his theme.


THE ELEMENT OF SCIENCE FICTION

This novel received the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the year, awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Thus, it is acknowledged as a work of science fiction. Yet, one associates science fiction with aliens, outer space, conquest of or by strange creatures, or mutant insects or animals accidentally spawned by science. Here for a change, there is a story about experimental surgery for the benefit of the mentally retarded. The idea is an exciting one, so is the approach. The author does not concentrate on a technical description of the surgery or on external observation of the patient. He goes into the mind of the protagonist and tries to depict the changes in his personality.

As science fiction, the book may be disappointing. There is no delving into the procedures of surgery beyond the mention of "psychosurgery" and "enzyme-injection patterns," but the whole conception is viewed from the human angle. Another weakness is the idea that after succeeding on just one mouse, researchers would operate on a human subject.

Only at the Chicago convention is there a more specific technical discussion. Here, Nemur explains Charlieís condition as "phenyl ketonuria" resulting in defective biochemical reactions. He says, "Think of the enzyme produced by the defective gene as a wrong key which fits into the chemical lock of the central nervous system-but wonít turn. Because it's there, the true key-the right enzyme-canít even enter the lock." He explains their surgery in the following way, "we remove the damaged portions of the brain and permit the implanted brain tissue, which has been chemically revitalized to produce brain proteins at a supernormal rate..." It is at this stage that Charlie realizes that both Nemur and Strauss are entirely ignorant of the work done in their field by Indian and Japanese researchers, who are ahead of them. The reason is that they are not linguists as Charlie has become, and are complacent about work done in the West.

It is after this that, Charlie escapes and later returns to the lab with independent authority to analyze the defects in the surgery performed on him and on Algernon. He vows that "I will have lived a thousand normal lives by what I might add to others not yet born."

After this, Charlie concentrates on studying Algernonís deteriorating condition in order to come up with an explanation. Finally, he concludes that, "artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase." Thus, the novel does not depict any glorious advance in medical science, but a daring experiment which fails, and for which the protagonist suffers the consequences. How he faces his own personal tragedy is what the novel focuses on.


STUDY QUESTIONS / BOOK REPORT IDEAS

1. Does Flowers For Algernon fit into the mould of classical tragedy? Discuss.

2. Explain how the theme of self-realization is worked out in this novel.

3. Discuss how this novel fits into the genre of Science Fiction.

4. Flowers For Algernon has been called "an immensely original work." Do you agree?

5. Would you agree that this novel is the story of a "love-triangle?" Explain.

6. Bring out the role of the family in the novel.

7. To what extent is this a novel about the neglect of the mentally retarded?

8. Examine Charlieís role as a tragic hero.

9. Explain the function of Algernon in the plot of the novel.

10. Analyze the role played by women in the novel.

11. Is the novelist unduly harsh towards the medical profession? Discuss.

12. Outline the main themes explored in this novel.

13. Discuss the significance of the title.

14. Is the first person narrative an effective technique here?

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