Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Context


Inspirations from Life

The novel Flowers for Algernon was inspired by a number of events in the author's life. As a student in a biology class at New York University, Keyes had to dissect a white mouse. Partway through the dissection, he discovered the mouse had been pregnant. Keyes never forgot the mouse that lost its life and its young for his education. The sacrifice the mouse made for science and his own learning would later inspire the character Algernon.

While teaching high school English, Keyes taught some writing classes modified for students with lower IQs. In one such class he encountered a student who made a unique request. The boy knew that he was in a remedial situation and asked if he might be able to take a regular class if he worked hard enough. He said he wanted to be "smart." Keyes was struck by the student's awareness of his lack of ability and strong desire to participate in the class with the other students. The poignancy of that moment stayed with Keyes for years, and the boy would later become the inspiration for the character Charlie.

After a few years of teaching, Keyes took a leave of absence to focus on writing, and he decided to explore two ideas related to intelligence, both based on his own experiences: intelligence as a wedge that can divide people (as was the case with his parents and himself), and intelligence as a dreamed of, life-altering goal (as in the case of the student he met in the modified English class). He became interested in the idea of writing a tragedy and realized the plot would work only if the hero had something great to lose or descended from a height. Keyes decided on height: the achievement of peak intellectual ability. The tragedy would come when the character lost this ability. This was the basis for Keyes's short story "Flowers for Algernon."

Education and Intellectual Disability

For much of history, intellectual disability was attributed to poor heredity; people with intellectual disability often were considered a threat to society, even thought to be evil. Some were cast out of society, forcibly sterilized, or institutionalized and forced to work to help pay for their care.

The idea of educating people with intellectual disabilities gained momentum in the mid-20th century, as parents of intellectually disabled children increasingly rejected the advice of doctors to institutionalize their children, instead lobbying for state-sponsored modified educational services. Books such as The Child Who Never Grew (1950) by renowned author Pearl S. Buck (whose daughter had an intellectual disability), and Angel Unaware (1953) by the popular entertainer Dale Evans Rogers (whose daughter had Down syndrome) helped lessen the stigma of intellectual disabilities.

In the 1960s, advocacy efforts by the National Association for Retarded Children led some public schools to begin offering vocational education classes and programs for intellectually disabled students. Programs similar to the classes Charlie attends in Flowers for Algernon were designed to teach life skills and encourage self-reliance; educational policies continued to change over subsequent decades, and 1975 saw the passage of Public Law 94-142 (known as FAPE), which recognizes every student's right to free appropriate public education. The landmark court case on racial segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education of 1954, had ramifications for students with disabilities as well, further establishing their educational rights by denying segregation of students according to ability.


Brain surgery to treat mental illness, known as psychosurgery, is in some ways similar to the fictional surgery performed on Charlie in Flowers for Algernon. Scientists have discovered evidence of trephination, or holes made deliberately in skulls, in prehistoric skeletons and believe the procedure was intended to relieve headaches and behavioral problems. The most dramatic evidence of the effects of brain trauma on personality and behavior was observed in the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker whose personality changed drastically after an 1848 accident in which his skull was impaled by an iron rod, destroying most of his brain's frontal lobe.

Experimental brain surgery to treat humans with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression began with the work of António Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist and physician, in the 1930s. He used a procedure called a leucotomy, which involved drilling small holes in the brain's frontal lobe. In 1935 Walter Freeman, an American neurosurgeon, learned of Moniz's work; he adapted the procedure and gave it the name "lobotomy." He believed a lobotomy could stabilize a patient's personality by severing nerves in the brain's prefrontal lobe; these nerves, he believed, were responsible for excessive emotional reactions. The surgery left patients with a dulled and generally more compliant personality, which was preferable to their caregivers in institutions similar to Flowers for Algernon's Warren State Home.

Freeman, who came to be known as "the father of the lobotomy," performed or oversaw thousands of lobotomies during his medical career. For a time, he paired the surgery with alcohol injections into the brain, a procedure reminiscent of the enzyme injections in Charlie's experimental surgery.

Drugs such as chlorpromazine and haloperidol, as well as the rise of psychotherapy, gradually replaced lobotomies as treatment for mental illness. In the 1950s doctors began implementing carefully targeted neurosurgery, using electrical stimulation on specific parts of the brain and the limbic system to treat mental conditions, including aggression and seizures. In more recent years psychosurgery has becomes less invasive and is used more in conjunction with sophisticated imaging, drugs, and behavioral therapy.

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