Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Progress Report 16 | Summary

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Summary

Charlie Gordon writes about a visit to the Warren State Home, where he sees a blank-eyed resident riding on a tractor; the resident reminds Charlie of himself before his operation. He tours the facility, sees residents, and meets a nurse, psychologist, school principal, and shop teacher. He learns of the institution's challenges, foremost of which is overcrowding: because there are no effective therapies, most residents live out their lives at the facility.

In an odd coupling, Alice Kinnian meets Fay Lillman and worries that Lillman is distracting Charlie from his research. Charlie tells Alice he has only ever loved her and that his love for her was what frightened preoperative Charlie so much, causing his sexual anxiety. Algernon continues to deteriorate and has to be force-fed. Charlie moves a cot to the laboratory so he can work as much as possible. His manic focus on research and heightened perceptions lead to a mental block. He decides to let his subconscious find the solution.

At a party, Professor Nemur accuses Charlie of being rude and ungrateful. Charlie tells Nemur he was grateful for his increased intelligence but says Nemur never acknowledged he was a person before the surgery—a person who had friends, so to speak. Now he feels alone. He tells Nemur, "Intelligence alone doesn't mean a damned thing" without human affection. In the bathroom, drunk, he sees preoperative Charlie in the mirror and senses this other Charlie wants to take control of him. He tells the Charlie in the mirror, "Stay inside my unconscious where you belong." He acknowledges that preoperative Charlie's darkness might not be worse than postoperative Charlie's light, but he tells the reflection he will not give up his intelligence without a fight: he will "do great things for the world and other people like you." In a reference to the book's epigraph, from Plato's Republic, Charlie tells preoperative Charlie he "can't go back down into that cave" and its darkness.

Then Charlie experiences a vital flash of insight in which the experiment's error becomes clear: his intelligence will decline in proportion to its increase. He finishes his report and sends it with a letter to Nemur, and the scientific team confirms his findings. He doesn't blame them, however.

Charlie begins to grow absent-minded and short-tempered. Algernon dies, and Charlie buries him in his backyard.

Charlie goes to visit his mother, Rose, who is senile in her old age. She recognizes him for a moment, and he tells her about his increased intelligence and shows her his research paper. She says it is an answer to her prayers, and he feels her love and approval. Norma Gordon comes in and is delighted to see him; "All of a sudden I've got a big brother," she says. She has cared for their mother alone for a long time and wants his help. She has very different memories of their shared childhood. Rose becomes upset and threatens Charlie with a knife. As he leaves, the song "Three Blind Mice" comes into his mind, and he sees preoperative Charlie looking at him through a window.

Analysis

Charlie Gordon's discovery of the experiment's flaw is, in fact, the unfolding of the novel's climax. At the peak of his intellectual ability, the error suddenly becomes clear to him. His brilliance, which he and the lab team worked so hard to achieve, allows him to reveal their error. Each of Charlie's reports has built to this moment, which reveals his future as tragic. His intellectual decline begins almost immediately; he misplaces things and snaps at people for no reason.

Charlie's ability to integrate his two selves has deteriorated. In the dramatic bathroom scene in which he confronts himself in the mirror, postoperative Charlie senses preoperative Charlie wants to inhabit his body, to take control of it again. The dissociation is complete when Charlie refers to "other people like you." The boy in the window watching him as he leaves Norma and Rose Gordon confirms that preoperative Charlie is once again a separate entity from postoperative Charlie.

Neither Professor Nemur nor Norma Gordon could think of preoperative Charlie as a real person. When she joyfully announces she "suddenly" has a big brother, the sentiment is jarring. She always had a big brother, but she can acknowledge him only after his intelligence increases.

Daniel Keyes revisits the symbolism of light and darkness in this penultimate report. Charlie questions the value of light, which represents intelligence, and darkness, which represents ignorance, when he talks to preoperative Charlie in the mirror. But when someone has been in the light, he has no wish to return to darkness, where he will have difficulty seeing; thus, postoperative Charlie has no wish to return to his former intellectual level. He compares it to Plato's famous allegory of prisoners living in a cave who see shadows projected on a wall. The prisoners believe the shadows are real because they don't know any other reality. Because Charlie has been in the light, he knows he will not be able to see in the darkness. This section gives meaning to the philosophical underpinnings of the novel.

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