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Flowers for Algernon | Themes

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Abuse of the Intellectually Disabled

Charlie faces two types of abuse in the novel. His mother is verbally and physically abusive when Charlie displays evidence of his intellectual disability, although Charlie is not guilty of any "wrongdoing." When Charlie cannot correctly repeat what his mother reads, she berates and physically threatens him; she calls him lazy and promises to "beat it into him." Because she initially denies Charlie's disability, she must come up with alternative explanations for his behaviors; thus, she decides he is lazy, distracted, or slow to learn. When his behavior suggests otherwise, she responds with abuse. When Rose finally acknowledges his disability after his sister, Norma, proves to be "normal," she becomes even more abusive. After Charlie picks up the baby, for example, she yells and slaps him so hard he falls on the bed; she is terrified Charlie will somehow hurt Norma. He awakens one night to hear her screaming "He's better off dead. He'll never be able to live a normal life." Because of his disability, she believes he doesn't deserve to live—certainly not with her, at any rate.

The novel also explores another kind of abuse directed at those with intellectually disabilities: abuse committed purely for amusement's sake. The victim often fails to understand the abuse and is powerless to prevent it. Charlie believes his coworkers at the bakery are his friends and doesn't take offense when they mock him or trip him up. He doesn't realize that their phrase "to pull a Charlie Gordon" means to make a silly mistake. The abusers think Charlie's disability gives them the right to treat him badly. The novel makes it clear this type of abuse can be just as damaging to the intellectually disabled as physical abuse.

Isolation

Charlie experiences isolation at both the lowest point and the peak of his intelligence, as well as at points between. Growing up with an intellectual disability, he is rejected by his family and feels utterly alone. His greatest yearning is for connection, and he hopes becoming smarter will help him have "lots of frends."

Yet when he becomes a genius, Charlie is just as isolated. Of his relationship with Alice he says, "I am just as far away from Alice with an IQ of 185 as I was when I had an IQ of 70." His increasing intelligence also isolates him from his coworkers at the bakery—quite the opposite of what he anticipated.

As a genius, he discovers the experiment's creators are far from the "intellectual giants" they once seemed to him; they know far less about their fields of expertise than he does. Therefore, it is up to Charlie alone to find the experiment's flaw. Even as his intelligence declines, Charlie feels isolated. Able to do little more than stare at the television screen for days, he wonders, "Why am I always looking at life through a window?" The window—in this case, a television screen—represents his sense of separation from others; a constant throughout his life.

Personhood

The novel poses this central question: What makes an individual a person? To Professor Nemur, a person is an individual capable of intelligent thought. Nemur speaks of and treats preoperative Charlie in a dehumanizing manner, and postoperative Charlie soon begins to perceive and react to this. Nemur says that someday people like Charlie "will become real human beings" thanks to his surgery. At the psychological conference, in front of Charlie he says, "It could be said that Charlie Gordon did not really exist before this experiment." In the same way, Charlie's sister, Norma, recognizes Charlie as her older brother only after he become highly intelligent. She joyfully cries, "All of a sudden I've got a big brother," as if Charlie simply didn't exist before.

Charlie, on the other hand, comes to understand personhood is something much more than mere intelligence; in fact, he decides, "Intelligence without human affection isn't worth a damn." To him, a real person is someone with "parents and memory and a history." Charlie insists, "I am a person. I was somebody before I went under the surgeon's knife," and fervently wishes he could convince Nemur of this. His intelligence, his memories, and meeting his family again serve to confirm that he "had a family and ... was a person just like everyone" long before he ever met Nemur. Love is an integral part of what makes an individual a person, according to Charlie, and his desire for love is apparent throughout his life. He says, "I'm a person ... and I have to love someone."

Love and Sex

Charlie must overcome ideas formed in his past in order to express his love for Alice sexually. His feelings for her bring up anxiety and negative associations around sex; his memories indicate that these associations stem from his mother's abuse. She punished him for showing any signs of sexuality, such as when he looked at his naked sister through the bathroom door or became aroused by his sister's friend. She told him he had no right "to look at a girl that way" and spanked him for it. Charlie also got a beating from Harriet's brothers for giving her what he thought was an innocent, sincere love note; instead, it was a sexually suggestive note written by his "friend" Hymie. So it's little wonder Charlie has trouble making sexual contact with Alice, with whom he is in love. This love confuses him, as it reminds him of his love for his mother and sister. He does manage to have a casual sexual relationship with Fay, but only with "a violent effort of the will" to disassociate from the preoperative Charlie who lurks outside a window.

After Charlie matures emotionally, he realizes his sexual anxiety stems from his upbringing. After he understands that Alice is neither his sister nor his mother, they are able to sleep together, and Charlie experiences a melding of love and sex so powerful it acts as a "counterweight" to death. In his relationship with Alice, Charlie finds—for a time—the love, acceptance, and close physical connection he has always longed for.

Fear

The novel shows that fear is a powerful motivation for Charlie and other characters. Fear is a constant in Charlie's life, both before and after his operation. As a child he feared his mother's abuse; she punished him for behavior he couldn't control, such as soiling his pants, and she also was prone to unpredictable outbursts, such as the time she slapped him for picking up his infant sister. His parents' arguments frightened him as well.

After his operation, when Charlie starts to get smarter and his life changes, he fears being separated from the familiar. He experiences a "panic ... a fear I don't understand" at the thought of leaving the bakery. He worries about being out on his own, "adrift" from all he has known. Because of abuse at the hands of his mother and negative conditioning about sex, Charlie also fears his own sexual responses, avoiding even brushing Alice's arm at the movies on their dates, overcome by nausea and a buzzing in his ears when they begin to kiss. As he gains in intelligence and learns of the flaw in the experiment, Charlie fears the loss of the skills and knowledge he has gained. He begs, "Don't let me forget to reed and rite." He also fears the loss of his relationship and time with Alice, and above all, he fears the future.

Other characters display fear as well. Nemur fears that Charlie's intelligence will surpass his own. Alice is afraid the experiment will hurt rather than help Charlie and she will be partly responsible for that hurt. Later she is afraid of entering into a relationship with him, at which point the reader may ask which of them is really the maladjusted one.

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