Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Progress Report 17 | Summary

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Summary

Charlie Gordon notes his intellectual decline; he gradually loses coordination and the ability to read foreign languages, play the piano, and understand complex texts—even his own research article. He is irritable, and some days he doesn't seem to be aware of much at all. He feels preoperative Charlie waiting to take control again. When he goes to the lab for a session with Dr. Strauss, he has a strange out-of-body experience in which he feels close to uniting with the universe before being pulled down to the entrance of a dark cave. Seeing the opening of the cave and the bright light outside, he tries in vain to get through the opening. When he emerges from it, he opens his eyes and is "blinded by the intense light." He comes out of the hallucination thrashing and screaming, and he says he will not visit Strauss again. After having trouble with the maze and Rorschach tests, he decides not to return to the lab at all. He continues writing the report, however, although writing became increasingly difficult.

Painfully aware of how little time remains for them, Charlie and Alice Kinnian make love. It is a transcendent experience, and Charlie again feels at one with the universe. Alice moves in with Charlie and takes care of him on days when he can do nothing more than lie in bed or watch television. She encourages him to read, but he becomes annoyed with her encouragement, tells her she is acting like his mother, and asks her to leave. Fay Lillman is afraid of him and refused to see him.

Charlie tries to keep learning to ward off his decline, but soon he can no longer comprehend his old reports or books he once loved. He remembers his mother trying to teach him to read, saying he was lazy and warning she would "beat it into him." His spelling and punctuation deteriorate to the level of his first reports, and he reverts to hoping lucky objects might make him smart. He sees a man like himself holding a book he once loved, but he says, "I dont think hes me because its like I see him from the window."

He goes back to the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults, forgetting he is no longer a student, only to realize his mistake when Alice leaves the room crying. He says, "I reely pulled a Charlie Gordon that time." Dr. Strauss and Alice give Charlie's landlady money for his rent and food. After the landlady encourages Charlie to find work, he returns to his old job at the bakery, but a new worker abuses him, and Charlie soils himself. After this incident, Frank Reilly, Joe Carp, and Gimpy say they will protect him as his friends, but Charlie realizes it is time for him to go to the Warren State Home.

In his final report, he says he wishes he could still be smart but is glad he "was once a genus" because "now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone." He says farewell to Strauss and Alice and, in the report's final words, he asks them to put flowers on Algernon's grave.

Analysis

Charlie Gordon's symptoms reflect the behaviors he witnessed in Algernon's decline. Like Algernon, Charlie changes swiftly but sporadically, suffering what Charlie calls "fugues of amnesia" in which he is unaware of what is happening, only to come back to himself suddenly. Charlie even turns on Alice Kinnian, lashing out at her verbally, just as Algernon attacked his female mouse companion.

Charlie's mental decline is apparent throughout the report. He comes full circle, back to the old Charlie who wants to be smart and hopes his lucky objects and hard work will give him intelligence. Postoperative Charlie becomes the old Charlie Gordon of his youth, the boy who stares at the television all day and wonders why he is always looking at life through a window. He sees postoperative Charlie reading a book he remembers enjoying, but he doesn't recognize himself; he has swapped places with this smarter self. When he accidentally returns to the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults and "pulls a Charlie Gordon," he really is Charlie Gordon again.

As Charlie and Alice consummate their relationship, connected with his long search for sexual peace or salvation so long denied him, readers see him trying to fight the inevitable pull of mortality. The pathos of Charlie's situation is very strong here for readers as Daniel Keyes has deeply involved them in his struggles, leading him finally to a point very near to his end as a recognizable man.

Plato's cave appears one more time in Charlie's mystical vision. After almost "blending with the universe," he feels himself shrinking back downward, being pulled by the other Charlie into a dark cave of not-knowingness.

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