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Flowers for Algernon | Plot Summary

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Summary

The intellectually disabled narrator, Charlie Gordon, is the author of the progress reports that make up the novel. He begins writing the reports at the instruction of Dr. Strauss, a neurosurgeon and psychiatrist at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults. Strauss and his colleague, Professor Harold Nemur, have created an experimental treatment to increase intelligence. Charlie hopes to be a part of the experiment; he wants to be smart so he will be more like everyone else he encounters in his limited world, which he thinks will help him make friends and break out of loneliness.

Charlie's progress reports reflect his intelligence and education levels throughout the book. At first the reports are full of misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and evidence of his limited understanding of the world. He doesn't comprehend the nature of the experiment or understand why the people around him act as they do.

While he undergoes psychological and cognitive tests to see if he is a good candidate for the experiment, he meets a lab mouse named Algernon who has already undergone the experimental surgery. The mouse beats Charlie repeatedly at a maze race, indicating the surgery is a success. In addition to being screened for the experiment, Charlie works at a bakery and attends classes at the Beekman College Center, where his teacher, Alice Kinnian, is impressed with his motivation to learn. Largely because of this trait, he is selected to undergo the experimental surgery.

After Dr. Strauss performs the surgery, Charlie is disappointed he doesn't immediately become smarter. Miss Kinnian tells Charlie he will have to work hard to increase his intelligence. Soon he does get smarter—noticeably so. His coworkers at the bakery, who have long abused and mocked Charlie, become increasingly frightened of and hostile toward him as he changes from a bumbling but pleasant worker to a competent equal. He is now cognizant of their abusive behavior, but he desires their friendship. As his intelligence increases, Charlie also begins to remember unhappy incidents from his childhood. Charlie's mother, Rose Gordon, lived in denial of Charlie's disability; she insisted he was like other children, fueling his desire to be smart to earn her love and acceptance. After his younger sister was born, Rose gave up trying to change Charlie and paid little attention to him, except to punish him when he showed any signs of budding sexuality. She eventually kicked him out of the house, seeing him as a threat to his sister's typical childhood and the family's questionable status with Charlie the target of scorn.

A couple of months after the surgery, Charlie has become more intelligent than his teacher, Alice, for whom he has developed romantic feelings. He resents the way Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur have objectified him as an object of study, and is dismayed to realize they can't read the most current research in their own fields in other languages. During a conference in which the team presents their findings in the experiment, using Charlie and Algernon as the prime examples, Charlie realizes they have missed a flaw in the experiment. He surreptitiously releases Algernon from his cage, and the two cause a stir by leaving the conference together. Suffering from dissociation with his preoperative self, the man of lower intelligence that he used to be before the surgery, Charlie often "sees" the other Charlie watching him, precluding him from consummating his love for Alice. He gets his own apartment in New York and meets his neighbor Fay, with whom he develops a sexual relationship, finally overcoming his sexual anxiety, at least with her. Algernon lives with Charlie, and Fay gives him a female mouse as a companion. Eventually, Charlie decides to do his own research into the experiment's flaw to help other people. He figures out that the experiment's results are only temporary; he and Algernon will eventually lose the intelligence they have gained.

Sure enough, Charlie watches as Algernon, who preceded him in the experimental surgery, becomes increasingly erratic. Algernon savages his female mouse companion and throws himself repeatedly against the maze walls; then he becomes lethargic and stops eating. Knowing his own time is waning, Charlie visits his family. His father doesn't recognize him, and his mother, now senile, knows him only briefly. His sister, however, now accepts him as a sibling, something she refused to do before his surgery. Charlie also visits the Warren State Home, an institution for the intellectually disabled and, he assumes, his future and final residence. He notes that the facility is badly overcrowded and offers no rehabilitation services to its residents.

When Algernon dies, Charlie buries him in his backyard. Charlie finally sleeps with Alice, the only woman he ever loved; even as his intelligence diminishes, he is aware she is neither his mother nor his sister. With Alice he finally, for a time, experiences the love and acceptance for which he has longed all his life. Charlie gradually loses all the abilities he gained through the surgery, reverting to his preoperative intelligence level. In his final report he bids goodbye to Dr. Strauss and Alice and makes one last request: he would like them to put flowers on Algernon's grave.

Flowers for Algernon Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Charlie is tested to see if he can be in the experiment.

Rising Action

2 Dr. Strauss performs surgery on Charlie.

3 Charlie's intelligence increases rapidly.

4 Charlie realizes the experiment is flawed.

Climax

5 Charlie learns his intelligence will decline.

Falling Action

6 Charlie makes love to Alice.

Resolution

7 Charlie prepares to go to the Warren State Home.

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