Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Progress Report 11 | Summary



Charlie Gordon reports he went on a date with Alice Kinnian. They saw a movie he critiqued as unrealistic; Alice sees this critique as evidence of his progress, but Charlie expresses frustration at how much he still can't understand. Alice compares his increasing intelligence to climbing a ladder and says she hopes he won't get hurt. The two friends express their affection for one another, but Alice says they can't be together, "not yet."

Charlie reports on his trouble distinguishing memory, perception, and imagination. He describes a dream from the previous night: in it, a girl kissed and caressed him, which made him afraid—"I know I must never touch a girl." Then he felt a bubbling and throbbing in his body and saw the girl was holding a bloody knife. Later, as he recalls the nightmare, he has memories of his adolescent sister, Norma: peering through a keyhole and seeing her bathe; trying on her clothes and being spanked by his mother for doing so; finding her bloody underwear in the hamper. He realizes his mother's warnings to keep away from women, and his resulting fear and anxiety, affect his interactions with Alice.

Charlie learns that Gimpy has been stealing from Mr. Donner by undercharging customers in exchange for bribes. Professor Nemur says Charlie was an innocent bystander, unaware of what was going on; he compares Charlie to a knife used in a stabbing. Alice tells Charlie he must trust himself to decide what to do about the situation. When Charlie tells Alice he loves her, she says he has now surpassed her intelligence level and might feel differently about her as he continues to get smarter.

Charlie decides to present his ethical problem to Gimpy as a friend's hypothetical conflict. Gimpy understands Charlie's meaning and resentfully agrees to stop accepting bribes. However, Charlie is fired from the bakery because his intelligence makes everyone feel inadequate. Fanny Birden suggests God never intended Charlie to be smart, hints that he has made a deal with the devil, and says perhaps he should revert to the way he was before. She cites the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis, arguing the pursuit of forbidden knowledge was the cause of original sin: God told Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit, and by disobeying they brought death into the world.

After his firing, Charlie feels adrift. He continues to read and learn; he can comprehend an entire page in only a second, and the college students' conversations—once so fascinating to him—now seem childish. He is surprised to realize the college's professors know less than he did; now he recognizes they are only human in a way he knew nothing of before. He knows Alice is just a person, too, but he still loves her. At a concert in a park, he holds Alice but experienced buzzing in his ears. He jumps up when he saw a boy watching them; later, he realizes he had a hallucination brought on by sexual anxiety. When he tries to be close to Alice, he remembers a woman who exposed herself to him once and recalls his mother beating him for getting an erection when he looked at his sister's friend. When the nausea, buzzing, and chill overwhelm him, he has to turn away from Alice.


The theme of isolation is revisited in this report. As his intelligence begins to exceed that of the people around him, they feel inferior and pull away from him. Charlie Gordon realizes his intelligence "emphasized their inadequacies." As they withdraw, Charlie is left alone, isolated from those to whom he felt closest. Charlie's intelligence even threatens to isolate him from Alice Kinnian, who worries he'll mature to the point that communication between them will be difficult.

The report also revisits the notion that science disrupts God's intentions and is sinful. Franny Birden cites the tree of the knowledge from Genesis 3 when she argues that pursuit of forbidden knowledge was the cause of original sin. In the biblical story, God told Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit, and when they disobeyed, they brought death into the world. She suggests that Charlie may have made a deal with the devil and that it may not be too late for him to go back to the way he was. Charlie disagrees; he identifies science as the source of his intelligence and says science has the capacity to help people. Future events in the novel will prove that both characters are right: science has given Charlie his intelligence and will also take it away.

Charlie compares his increased intelligence to a blind man receiving sight. This metaphor recalls the novel's guiding epigraph, an excerpt from Plato's Republic about the dazzling experience of coming from darkness to light and the dimness of going from light back into darkness. Darkness symbolizes Charlie's intellectual disability, and light represents his increased intelligence.

Again, readers see how Professor Nemur objectifies Charlie, comparing him to a knife in a stabbing or a car in an accident, both objects without agency. However, Charlie now recognizes this objectification and protests it. He insists on his own personhood, both before and after surgery. When he tells Nemur, "I was a person before the operation, in case you forgot," Nemur replies, "of course. But it was different ..." revealing he still equates personhood with intelligence and sees the intellectually disabled as less than human.

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