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Flowers for Algernon | Study Guide

Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon | Symbols


Windows and Mirrors

Windows and mirrors represent the separation and dissociation Charlie experiences before and after his operation. Postoperative Charlie often sees his younger, preoperative self through a window, demonstrating his dissociation from his former self. He makes the conscious decision to separate himself from the sexual anxiety of his preoperative self, forcing himself to watch through a window as he makes love to Fay. He sees that same Charlie watching him leave his mother and Norma behind as his intelligence declines.

A window separates two distinct individuals who can see each other, but a mirror reflects the image of a single person. Charlie's dissociation from his younger self is complicated at Professor Nemur's party, when he talks to his preoperative self in the bathroom mirror. The mirror should reflect him as he is now, but instead it seems to show preoperative Charlie, who wants to regain control of postoperative Charlie's life. The mirror in this case represents the merging of the two Charlies, as postoperative Charlie begins to change back into his former self.

Light and Darkness

Light represents sight, knowledge, and intelligence in the novel, while darkness represents blindness and ignorance. The symbolism of light and darkness recurs throughout the novel, most notably in the Epilogue from Plato's Republic but also in Charlie's own description of his out-of-body experience in Dr. Strauss's office. Preoperative Charlie often watches postoperative Charlie from the darkness, as he did from the shadows in the park as Charlie embraces Alice or from the dark fire escape as he makes love to Fay. He says Nemur and Strauss are "pretending to be able to bring light into the darkness" and notes he was "in the dark for more than thirty years." Late in the novel, Charlie poignantly wonders whether death is better than that darkness.


Algernon, the white lab mouse who undergoes the experimental surgery before Charlie, parallels the narrator throughout the book, and his sad fate indicates what will happen to Charlie. Algernon's intelligence increases, but then his behavior becomes erratic and he lashes out at those around him. Finally, he succumbs to a stupor, followed by death. Charlie's trajectory mirrors that of the mouse. The experiment's scientists treat both Algernon and Charlie with detached scientific interest, and both pay the price for their participation, which they undertook with no real understanding of the risks involved.

Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge, referenced twice in the novel, symbolizes forbidden knowledge. In the Bible's Book of Genesis, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden to Adam and Eve. When they eat the fruit anyway, Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden and become mortals who suffer in work and childbearing. Both the nurse Hilda and Fanny Birden refer to the Tree of Knowledge while questioning the morality of Charlie's surgery. They bring into the open the questions readers must ask themselves: Are there religious and moral ramifications for circumventing the created order through science? Is it a sin to artificially increase human intelligence? Will humanity be punished for seeking to change their God-given abilities through scientific means? Is that what happened to Charlie, or was it simply a scientific mistake?

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