Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Progress Report 13 | Summary

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Summary

Charlie Gordon reports on the psychological conference he attends in Chicago with Professor Nemur, Dr. Strauss, and Burt. Being strapped in on the plane triggers a memory from childhood. He sees himself as a boy of about five going to a doctor with his parents to make him "normal." The doctor tells his parents to leave the room, straps Charlie to a table, gags him with a cloth, and turns on a loud machine. Charlie panics, soiling himself. Afterward, he recalls, the doctor was friendly to Charlie, and his parents fought about the cost of the treatment. Charlie realizes that while his mother stopped trying to change him after she saw that Norma was normal, he has never stopped trying to earn her love by being "smart" or at least not subnormal.

When they arrive at the hotel before the conference, Nemur begins bragging about his work. Charlie asks him about a recent article by an Indian scientist only to discover Nemur is unaware of the article because he cannot read the language. Nemur becomes angry, and Strauss explains to Charlie, "you're making him feel inferior and he can't take it." Charlie is frightened to learn that both Nemur and Strauss are "ignorant of whole areas of their own fields." He sees them as frauds, "pretending to be able to bring light into the darkness." Burt, however, says Charlie is impatient and lacks tolerance.

During the conference presentation, Charlie feels like a sideshow act along with Algernon, who is next to him in a cage. When Burt presents his findings about Algernon, Charlie learns that sometimes Algernon refuses to run the maze and throws himself against its sides. Charlie is not aware he had been filmed doing the races with Algernon, tapes of which are played for the audience; they laugh at Charlie's expression when he receives each electric shock. When Nemur proclaims, "It might be said that Charlie Gordon did not really exist before this experiment," Charlie realizes that Nemur and Strauss have made a mistake. Their findings are premature; the results might not last. He notes, ominously, "I may not have all the time I thought I had."

It occurs to Charlie how funny it would be to see them all scurrying to find Algernon if he opened the cage. He believes Algernon knows he is thinking about this. As Nemur ends his talk, Charlie opens the door of Algernon's cage and he escapes. Charlie finds Algernon staring at himself in a bathroom mirror, puts him in his pocket, and gets on a plane back to New York with the realization that he should at least find his parents while he can.

Analysis

This report reveals the crisis that will turn Charlie Gordon's journey from triumphant to tragic. It is Charlie's very genius that reveals what the other scientists don't see. There is an error in the study; Algernon's erratic behavior is a warning sign. Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss should have taken more time to study the surgery's long-term effects.

Readers learn Charlie still wants his mother's approval and love; this desire has fueled his journey to be smarter. Even when he surpasses his goal and becomes a genius, what he most wants to do—while he still has time—is find his parents and find himself as he truly is.

Daniel Keyes reveals more about the character of Algernon. He is not just a compliant laboratory mouse. He has exhibited irregular behaviors, sometimes refusing to perform the task of the maze, even though his food is only given if he completes the maze. He seems to be in distress when he throws his body against the walls of the maze at times. His increased intelligence has given him an understanding beyond navigating a maze, and he seems to be trying to process this as he stares at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Charlie seems to believe Algernon even understands language when he instructs the mouse, as he puts him into his pocket, "stay in there quietly until I tell you." Algernon peeks out to look around only when Charlie pats his pocket after they are safely in Charlie's room, as if to confirm his ability to communicate.

Charlie continues to feel objectified, a feeling amplified by his placement at the conference next to Algernon, with whom he is equated in the talk. He wishes Nemur would look at him and see a human being.

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