Flowers for Algernon

“Flowers for Algernon” is a novel written by Daniel Keyes and published in 1966. The book received critical acclaim despite some backlash for it’s representation of sexual themes and is still considered one of the classics of the 20th century. It has been adapted a variety of times including television, radio, theater and an Academy-Award winning film named “Charly” in 1968. The plot of the novel revolves around the main character, a thirty-two-year-old mentally handicapped man named Charlie Gordon. The book is told in an epistolary style through the usage of Charlie’s handwritten “progris riports”.

Through the reports, Charlie takes the reader on a journey in which he undergoes an experimental medical procedure designed to make him grow exponentially more intelligent. After having an operation, Charlie does begin to grow more intelligent until he eventually becomes a genius. However, a mouse named Algernon who had the same procedure before Charlie begins to grow sickly and die and Charlie fears that he, too will experience this degradation of his new found intelligence.

Eventually, Charlie realizes that his mental handicap is coming back and takes himself to a state home to leave in peace. He buries Algernon and requests that people leave flowers for him when they can.

Book Summary

The story of “Flowers for Algernon” is told through the eyes of Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded adult man who has been chosen to take part in an experimental procedure designed to incrementally increase his intelligence. Every section is formatted as a progress report on Charlie’s part. In the first “progris riport”, Charlie’s spelling is very poor. He details that he is thirty-two years old and has an IQ of sixty-eight. He has a job at Donner’s Bakery and takes a literacy class with a woman named Miss Alice Kinnian three times a week.

A man named Dr. Strauss, who is conducting the experiment along with a Professor Nemur, has instructed Charlie to keep the progress reports of his thoughts and emotions.

Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur ask Charlie about his love of learning and he explains that his mother encouraged him to learn as much as he could from a young age. The doctors tell Charlie that they will need his mother’s permission on his behalf to begin the procedure and Charlie confess that he has no idea where his family is or if they are still alive.

Charlie worries that the stress of the procedure and the progress reports are taking their toll on him at his bakery job where a coworker recently scolded him for dropping a tray of rolls.

Charlie is taken to the laboratory where the experiment has already been performed on several mice and meets a mouse named Algernon who has already undergone the procedure.

One day, Charlie writes that the doctors have found his sister and gotten her permission to go through with the experiment. He overhears the doctors talking and Nemur fears that increasing his intelligence so dramatically will make him mentally ill. The doctors tell Charlie that the operation is purely experimental and may not actually work but he does not understand this. There is a potential that the operation will succeed on a temporary basis but that Charlie will slowly revert back to his former mental retardation and ultimately end up worse off than he ever was before. Charlie is blithely unaware of the risk and tells them that he is not worried and that he will “try awful hard” to make the experiment work.

While Charlie is awaiting his operation in the hospital, his teacher, Alice comes to visit him. Charlie tells her that he is excited about the prospect of becoming more intelligent and cannot wait to finally beat Algernon in the maze race. Charlie wants to become more intelligent so he can fit in more and make more friends.

Three days after the experiment, Charlie still does not feel any differently. He recovers in the hospital where a nurse informs him of the correct spelling of ‘Progress Report’ and he begins spelling it correctly in his writings.

Alice comes to visit shortly and Charlie tells her that he is disappointed that the procedure does not seem to have worked. Alice tells Charlie to wait and says that she has faith in him.

Charlie soon returns to his work at the bakery and the reader is introduced to his co-workers, Joe Carp, Frank Reilly and a man called Gimpy. Charlie does not realize that he is often the butt of his co-workers jokes. When another worker misplaces a cake, it is referred to as “pulling a Charlie Gordon”. Charlie asks his boss, Mr. Donner if he can be promoted to an apprentice baker but Mr. Donner turns him down and encourages him to focus on the work he’s been given.

Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur bring Charlie a television-like device and instruct him to turn it on while he sleeps. The device plays images and speaks to him. Charlie dislikes the machine as it keeps him awake at night but one night the machine triggers a memory of the first time that Charlie attended Alice’s class. Alice begins visiting Charlie more often and helping him with his spelling and reading skills.

Every night Charlie recovers more and more memories from his childhood and many of them are painful. Charlie begins referring to his past self in the third person, (not as “I” but as “Charlie”). He finally earns his promotion at the bakery by reconfiguring the machines to increase productivity. At the bakery, he notices that his increase in intelligence does not make his coworkers befriend him as he’d hoped it would, but instead makes them uncomfortable around him.

Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur begin taking about presenting their findings in the experiment at a conference in Chicago. Strauss is unsure if they should present it as the experiment is only in its early stages but Nemur overrides him as the senior member of the research team.

Charlie begins meeting and befriending college students on the campus of the laboratory where he attends his therapy sessions. He talks about Shakespeare with them and religion. This conversation later triggers a dream in which Charlie remembers his mother screaming “He’s normal! He’s normal!” when he was a small child.

Charlie asks Alice out to a movie to celebrate his success with the experiment. While at the movie, he begins to realize that he is attracted to her and admits the attraction to her over dinner. Alice tells him that a relationship between them would be inappropriate.

After he learns that Gimpy has been stealing from the bakery he struggles with the moral decision of whether or not he should tell his boss. Charlie asks the doctors for advice and another argument ensues between them. Nemur says that Charlie was not accountable for such decisions before the operation as he was basically an “inanimate object”. This accusation angers Charlie, who tries to convince the doctor that he was still a human being even though he was mentally disabled. Alice advises him on the dilemma as well, saying that he should follow his heart. Charlie is overwhelmed but happy to find that he is now capable of making moral judgments by himself. He decides to tell Gimpy that he has found him out and give him time to mend his ways before he tells Mr. Donner. Gimpy agrees to this grudgingly.

During this time, Charlie’s mental capability beings to advance beyond average and he starts finding the doctors and professors at the college to be too dimwitted for him to hold a conversation with. Charlie begins to believe that he is having hallucinations that he believes are coming from his intellectual growth outpacing his emotional growth.

Mr. Donner fires Charlie from the bakery because of pressure from his employees.

Charlie’s relationship with Nemur begins getting strained. Nemur worries that Charlie is not writing as many progress reports as he used to and Charlie agrees that he has been too busy learning all that he can. Charlie remembers another incident when he was a boy and his sister was promised a puppy for getting good grades. Later, when she was told she wouldn’t be getting the puppy, Norma became upset and shouted that she would start acting “dumb” like Charlie if her hard work was not going to be rewarded anyway. Charlie wishes that he could go back and tell his sister that he never meant to hurt or upset her.

Charlie’s relationship with Alice also begins to strain. She feels that he is not the warm person he once was and that he has become cold and aggressive.

On the plane to the conference in Chicago, Charlie hesitates to put his seat belt on and remembers a time when his mother took him to a doctor who strapped him to a table and promised that he could “cure” Charlie.

While at the conference, Charlie meets with many scientists and students with whom he is able to hold intelligent conversations. While discussing an article in the Hindu Journal of Psychopathology, Charlie discovers that Nemur cannot read the article because he cannot speak Hindi. Strauss tells him that he cannot speak the language either but that he speaks six others. This number does not mean much to Charlie who has learned more than that in the past two months since the experiment alone.

Later, Charlie returns for the presentation of his case and sits on the stage while Strauss and Nemur discuss their findings. While listening to this presentation, Charlie learns that after the experiment was done on Algernon, the little mouse became erratic and self-destructive once he reached the height of his intelligence. Charlie, realizing the implications of this finding, becomes worried that this was hidden from him. He grows annoyed of being referred to as a specimen and privately wonders what kind of havoc he could create if he were to let Algernon out of his cage.

During the presentation, Charlie realizes that Nemur failed to calculate whether or not Algernon’s increased intelligence would be permanent. This is the last straw for Charlie who grows so upset that he does decide to let Algernon out of his cage.

He soon sees a newspaper article about him in which his sister, Norma tells the reporter that she has no idea where he is. Charlie assumes that his mother told Norma that he had been sent to a state home and died years ago.

In his apartment, Charlie builds a large maze for Algernon to run through but finds that the mouse is having trouble concentrating and keeps banging himself against the walls of the maze.

He befriends a neighbor named Fay who finds the neatness of his apartment irritating. Fay is a heavy drinker and one night she convinces Charlie to drink with her. Charlie soon passes out and when he wakes the next morning he is naked and in bed with Fay. She tells him, however, that they did not have sex and asks him if he is gay. She tells him that he acted oddly when he was drunk, saying that he was behaving like a little kid.

Charlie visits Alice and tells her that he worries that he has become emotionally detached from everyone around him. He wonders if he would be able to have sex with Alice if he pretended that she was Fay because he does not have any strong feelings for Fay.

Returning home, Charlie waits for Fay and when she arrives home they have sex. Charlie can feel his “other self” watching him but not panicking. Soon, Charlie decides that he is going to go back to the lab and take over the experiment himself. He manages to convince the group running the experiment and they allow him to lead the team without reporting to doctor Nemur.

Noticing the way Algernon’s intelligence has regressed, Charlie asks what contingency plans have been set in place if his own intelligence should start to diminish. Nemur tells him that he would be sent to the state home and Charlie decides to visit the home. The visit upsets him as, although the staff is friendly, the resident’s vacant stares remind him of what he will be returning to.

Charlie begins to work feverishly in the lab to prevent this. Daunted by his concentration, Fay moves on to another boyfriend. At a party for the foundation that provided the funding for the experiment, Charlie gets hopelessly drunk and Strauss scolds him. Strauss tells him that he is not appreciative enough for what the experiment has given him and Charlie confirm that he isn’t because he feels that all he has discovered is that people are uncomfortable around him no matter his level of intelligence. In his drunk, emotional state, Charlie feels his inner, former self-starting to come to the forefront. Charlie rushes to the bathroom and looks into the mirror, telling his mentally handicapped self that they are enemies and he will fight as long as he can to keep him at bay.

Charlie has a huge breakthrough in his findings which he writes a paper on. He finds that the more artificially induced intelligence a person gains, the sooner it will break down and deteriorate.

As he feels his intelligence beginning to decline, Charlie goes to see his mother. His mother panics when she sees him and Charlie try to tell her what has happened to him as quickly as he can. Charlie realizes this his mother has become delusional and although he has now fulfilled her dreams for him she does not understand this. Norma, who has been caring for their mother, arrives home and is happy to see Charlie. Norma apologizes for being so cruel to Charlie when they were children. However, this happiness is dashed when Charlie’s mother comes at him with a knife, assuming that he is trying to molest her daughter. Charlie leaves his family in tears. As he leaves the house he thinks he sees his own boyhood face looking through the window.

Charlie’s intelligence begins to decline further and his frustration grows. He contemplates committing suicide but feels that he has to keep writing his progress reports for the sake of the experiment. Charlie decides not to visit the lab anymore and begins keeping to his apartment. Alice comes to stay with him. The couple begins to become intimate and Charlie does not feel the panic that he once felt with her. However, Charlie cannot bare to let Alice see his descent into retardation again he makes her promise that when he asks her to leave she will do so and not come back.

When he tries to re-read his paper on the Algernon-Gordon effect, Charlie is unable to understand it and he can no longer remember the languages he learned.

Charlie wonders if he can at least maintain his current level of intelligence, however, his progress reports begin to descend into their old style of poor grammar. As his regression continues, Charlie returns to Donner’s bakery and gets his old job back. This time, his co-workers treat him with more respect and protect him from the new employee who does not like him. Charlie realizes that they are his friends after all.

Forgetting that he is no longer enrolled in Alice’s class, Charlie shows up for his next lesson. Alice sees that he has fully regressed back into his mentally handicapped state and becomes upset, running from the room. Sensing that he is upsetting people, Charlie decides to go and live in the state home and in his final progress report, says that he is glad that he had the experience of being smart for a short time and that he got to learn about his family. He now only retains vague memories of his time as a genius. He writes a goodbye note to Strauss and Alice and tells Nemur that he thinks he can make more friends if he tries not to get upset when people mock him. The final entry ends with Charlie’s postscript, inviting people to put flowers on Algernon’s grave if they can.

Characters Analysis 

Charlie Gordon – the main character of the story. Charlie is a mentally handicapped thirty-two-year-old man who begins undergoing a procedure designed to make him more intelligent. Charlie is the narrator of the story, telling the events of the months leading up to and after the procedure through the narrative usage of progress reports that he writes himself.

At the beginning of the novel, Charlie works a menial job at Donner’s Bakery and although he is generally a happy man, he wishes that he had more friends. Charlie’s main object in undergoing the procedure is becoming more intelligent so that he will fit in with what he sees as “normal” people and be able to make more friends. Charlie does not remember his past at the beginning of the novel but starts to remember pieces as the story progresses. Through these memories, he recalls his mother’s abuse of him and his father’s neglect. Charlie realizes that he has many phobias related to his mother’s treatment of him including a phobia of sexual contact or sexual thoughts.

Charlie manages to overcome this phobia while he is a genius.

Alice Kinnian – – Charlie’s teacher in his literacy class. Alice recommends Charlie for the experiment because of his love of learning and his longing to be more intelligent. Alice is a kind, forgiving woman who loves her students and cares about their development. After the experiments effects begin to take hold, Alice realizes that she is attracted to Charlie but knows that a relationship between them would be inappropriate. She tells him this but several months later relents and begins a brief sexual relationship with Charlie before he reverts back to his former state. Alice appears to clearly love Charlie as her last scene in the novel is one of her running from the room in tears when she sees him again as his former self.

Rose Gordon – – Charlie’s mother. Rose is only briefly shown in the novel but her effect on Charlie controls much of his actions throughout the entire length of it. Rose is a domineering, controlling woman who finds her son’s mental retardation shameful and regularly tries to “cure” him of it. Rose ignores her husband’s pleas for her to be more rational and slowly grows more and more hysterical as Charlie grows into a man. Charlie feels that his mother only tried to change him before his younger sister was born and that after Norma came into the world his mother gave up on him and wanted him to disappear. Rose regularly punished Charlie for any sign of sexual interest and is responsible for the phobia that Charlie later develops of sex.

Daniel Keyes Biography

Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 9th, 1927. Keyes briefly attended New York University before enlisting in the United States Maritime Service at the age of seventeen. After the end of World War II, Keyes returned to New York and attended Brooklyn College where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology 1950.

After graduating, Keyes joined the magazine company, Magazine Management where he went on to become an editor of their pulp science fiction magazine, Marvel Science Stories. In the 1950’s, he began writing for the company’s comic line Atlas comics which later became Marvel comics, one of the most successful comics companies in the world. Keyes became the editor of Atlas comics under the editor-in-chief, Stan Lee.

At this time, Keyes wrote a short story called “Flowers for Algernon” which was later adapted into the full-length novel of the same title. The idea came from a circumstance that arose when Keyes was teaching special needs students English. One of his students asked him if he would be allowed to attend a regular class if he put in a lot of work and became smart. Keyes also saw a dramatic change in one student who regressed greatly after he was removed from routine lessons. The book was a success and was adapted into a major film titled “Charly” in 1968 just two years after it was published. The film won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Keyes won both of the most coveted awards in science fiction writing, The Hugo Award in 1959 and the Nebula Award in 1966 for the book.

In 1966, Keyes began teaching English and Creative Writing at Ohio University where he was later honored as a professor emeritus in the year 2000. Throughout this time, Keyes continued to write and in 1981 he published a successful non-fiction novel called “The Minds of Billy Milligan” which portrays the life of Billy Milligan, the first person in United States history to be acquitted of a major crime by arguing that he had multiple personality disorder.

On June 15th, 2014, Keyes died from complications of pneumonia in his home. He was survived by his two daughters, his wife, Aurea Georgina Vazquez having died the year before.