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Flowers for Algernon: Doing So Much With So Little

Updated on August 10, 2018
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Daniel Keyes was an American author, who rose to prominence in the 1960s, with the award-winning story Flowers for Algernon.

Charlie

Flowers for Algernon, the famous short story by Daniel Keyes, is centered on the protagonist's attempt to become intelligent. It can be said to primarily be a reflection on how it often seems to be considered standard behavior to look down on the less mentally able. Charlie Gordon – the aforementioned protagonist– is a person with an IQ a little below 80, who is routinely taken advantage of due to his inability to recognize the difference between those who genuinely like him and the ones who make cruel jokes and have fun at his expense.

Charlie does want to become intelligent, and “works very hard, with very little” – as his teacher, Mrs Kinnian, eloquently puts it. Yet he only wants to become intelligent because he supposes that his problems would stop existing if that was to happen. Its why he strives to be the one chosen for the experiment that will triple a person’s IQ.

Daniel Keyes
Daniel Keyes

Charlie does want to become intelligent, and “works very hard, with very little” – as his teacher, Mrs Kinnian, eloquently puts it. Yet he only wants to become intelligent because he supposes that his problems would stop existing if that was to happen.

Algernon

Prior to Charlie, the only beings which underwent the experiment – one that begins with surgery and is followed by a sequence of mental exercises and trials – had been laboratory mice. The most successful of those is a white mouse, called Algernon; who regularly solves maze-related puzzles, in order to be rewarded with food. Algernon is, at first, disliked by Charlie; because the creature makes him feel sad for being “dumber even than a mouse”. But Charlie will very soon come to like his fellow-traveler in this experiment, and will feel saddened upon reflecting that Algernon is continuously asked to solve puzzles and take tests so that he may be given the food he needs to stay alive.

On a more symbolic level, Algernon can be said to represent the purely somatic aspect of Charlie’s own existence: When Charlie will become a genius, with an IQ far surpassing that of the two doctors who oversaw his transformation, he will be virtually all about intellect, with Algernon staying behind to allude to the more physical aspects of this troubled hero...

On a more symbolic level, Algernon can be said to represent the purely somatic aspect of Charlie’s own existence.

Not All Goes Well

As a result of his increased intelligence, Charlie will be able to detect that his supposed friends at work had been mocking him all this time. This depresses him, and he even wonders if anything was gained by learning the truth; when his previous state of existence had been shielding him from such cruel revelations.

But the worst of his troubles lie ahead: at some point, he notices that Algernon starts showing signs of reverting to a former, less intelligent state, as well as losing his physical health... Algernon is dying, and the process of deterioration is quite rapid. Charlie is correct to fear that the same fate might await himself, so he sets to find a way – he is the only one intelligent enough to achieve this – to alter the method his doctors had developed, hoping to salvage at least some part of the intelligence he had gained through the experimental procedure they oversaw.

But the result of his struggles is heart-breaking: he will come to the conclusion that the experiment was inherently flawed, and would always produce this terrible result: after a while, the person – or other type of being – which had gained intelligence as a result of undergoing the experiment, will not only return to their previous state, but will consequently become far worse than before.

Algernon is a white, laboratory mouse
Algernon is a white, laboratory mouse

Algernon is dying, and the process of deterioration is quite rapid. Charlie is correct to fear that the same fate might await himself, so he sets to find a way – he is the only one intelligent enough to achieve this – to alter the method his doctors had developed.

An Inevitable Future

Charlie cannot accept his fate stoically. He now refuses to meet with his doctors. He even denies a visit by his old teacher, Mrs. Kinnian; he was, in reality, in love with Mrs. Kinnian, but never managed to find the courage to tell her.

He now wants to isolate himself from everyone. He wishes to fade away. He has taken a glimpse into the world as understood by a genius, only to be forced to return to being a man with very low IQ. He manages to publish his proof regarding the experiment’s qualities, according to which it will always lead to the same end, and his peer-reviewed paper is titled as “The Algernon-Gordon effect”; in memory of Algernon, who, in the meantime, had passed away…

The End

In many ways, the ending of this story is the most saddening part. Charlie by now is once again a person with special needs, and his intellect has become even lower than the one he had prior to the experiment. He is indeed further incapacitated, and – quite tragically – can no longer even recall that he quit being a student of Mrs. Kinnian's class for people with low IQ. So, at some point, he returns to that classroom – and Mrs Kinnian has to leave so as to hide her tears, upon realizing that Charlie – Charlie, the hard-worker, Charlie, the person who earnestly wanted something good but ended up being worse-off mentally and moreover now also physically ill – by and large cannot even recall what happened to him... He is, by this point, unaware even of his own remarkable and devastating personal story!

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos

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