Flowers for Algernon is narrated from the point of view of developmentally disabled 32-year-old Charlie Gordon in a series of diary-style ‘progress reports’, written as part of the clinical trial he is participating in to make him more intelligent.
The reader is immediately drawn to the warmth of Charlie’s character. His low intellect is demonstrated from the off by his spelling and grammar, with words spelt phonetically so that you have to strain to figure out what he is trying to say. In spite of his clear problems with spelling, he demonstrates a strong desire to learn to read and write under the guidance of Alice Kinnian, who is a teacher at a school for adults with learning disabilities.
Charlie’s motivations for wanting to be able to read and write revolve around his universally recognisable desire to be liked, and so it’s heartbreaking to read as the clinical trial progresses and as Charlie’s comprehension improves, he also begins to comprehend the world around him. His ‘friends’ at the bakery where he has been working his entire life are suddenly revealed to be bullies, who laugh at him more than they laugh with him.
Charlie is participating in a scientific experiment where he does not fully understand the potential consequences; as is made clear by the repeated biblical references to the Tree of Knowledge, Flowers for Algernon is the story of Faustian overreachers, Nemur and Strauss, two scientists who desire to give man more than he was born with. And as we know from these tales, this sort of unchecked ambition can have dire consequences for those involved.
As Charlie’s IQ reaches newfound heights, following a successful clinical trial with a mouse called Algernon, his emotional intelligence struggles to play catch up. The trauma he endured as a child rears its head in moments when he is alone with women, unable to consummate his relationship with the matronly love interest, his teacher, Alice. The repeated images of Charlie soiling himself, and the acute embarrassment he feels regarding an inability to control his bodily functions are presented to the reader in fragments, brief glimpses into a miserable childhood, which are shared during free association therapy sessions prescribed as part of the clinical trial.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Charlie comes to resent the architects of his newfound misery, finding himself shunned and eventually forced out of his job which he loves so dearly. Alone, intellectually and emotionally, he finds himself drawn to his next-door neighbour, whose free-spirited nature drives him down the rabbit hole of alcohol abuse. When he is blind drunk he reverts back to the Charlie Gordon he was before the experiment, suggesting that this side of him was never really gone to begin with, merely stifled and pushed to the back of his subconscious.
His problems are compounded after Algernon’s condition takes a turn for the worse, and the mouse can no longer complete the maze that it once was so adept at. Charlie realises he has a limited period of time left on this intellectual plain. Thereafter, the narrative takes on a certain urgency, as he resolves to visit those who he could never have an equal-footed conversation with when he was younger. After a visit to his father’s barbershop, it becomes clear that he can’t quite bring himself to embrace the parent who always tried to defend him as a child, but in the end, was the one who abandoned him in the middle of the night in the quest for domestic felicity.
Next, Charlie resolves to visit his Mum and sister, who all but left him for dead as a child. In the most bittersweet moment of the novel, Charlie finally comes close to having a relationship with his sister, only for his senile Mum to shatter the moment with her accusations of perversion.
Alone, and facing the reality that he doesn’t have long before he will need to turn himself in to the Warren Home to be looked after for the rest of his life, Charlie takes solace in the fact that he can finally consummate his relationship with Alice. Their time together is short and characterised by the frustration Charlie feels about his intellectual regression. He pushes her away; let down by the ‘expert’ scientists who have been shown to be nothing more than men, questing for their own place in the history books without a second thought about the effect their experiments could have on Charlie’s life. In their eyes, Charlie didn’t have a life before they found him and made him the centre of their studies.
Themes of ableism pervade throughout the novel, with words like ‘retarded’ reflecting the lack of appropriate PC language that accompanied the novel’s publication in 1958. There’s evidently limited knowledge about disability, reflected by the distinct inability the majority of the characters in the novel have in recognising that Charlie is a person in his own right before the surgery. Only Alice Kinnian sees Charlie’s true potential before the surgery, but even she struggles when Charlie becomes smarter than she is.
Throughout the novel, there are even hints about the kind of abuse that has been shown to take place systemically across the care system, from Charlie being left alone in the room with the scheming doctor as a child, to the under-resourced Warren Home — which Charlie visits as an adult in preparation for his own move there. The institution is clearly unable to cope with the volume of dependent adults it must look after, despite its well-intentioned staff. As a social commentary, the book is a chilling account of how poorly the world looks after those who need the most support.
Despite the book’s publication over sixty years ago, it remains clear there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that no child or adult gets lost in the system.