Charlie frequently says that he is now able to see with his newfound intelligence, that he is like a blind man who is now able to see. His intelligence is “eye-opening.” However, his intelligence is also blinding in many ways because it is overwhelming. It also causes Charlie to see many negative things about people, such as how his coworkers used to make fun of him.
Darkness versus Light (Motif)
Charlie explicitly references Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" when he speaks about descending back into darkness. Charlie views his intelligent state as being in the light, while his mental illness was a state of darkness, since he did not know much about the world then.
Charlie is upset that Algernon has to live in a cage, but soon realizes that he lives in cages as well. His newfound self-awareness causes him to realize that his experiment and his poor relations with Professor Nemur are cages in their own way. When he finds out that he has limited time, he realizes that temporality — of his intelligence, and of human lives — is also its own cage. His mother also once threatened to have him put into a cage, like an animal, if he continued to “look at women that way” (86).
Charlie’s introduction to Algernon includes watching the mouse run through the mazes, and wanting, in wonder, to be able to beat the mouse in finishing the mazes. After he does, Charlie soon realizes that life is a maze as well. The end goal is death, but the path that one takes through life is what makes the maze. He understands that navigating human relationships, as well as working with people, can be mazes as well.
Norma's Name (Symbol)
Norma’s name is an explicit reference to her parents’ desire (mostly Rose’s desire) to have a normal child.
One of Charlie’s memories involves him and Norma playing on the bed with lampshades on their heads, before Norma gets hurt and frames Charlie (and Charlie is beaten.) When Charlie visits the Warren Home, he feigns praise for a mentally disabled boy’s wooden lamp. The lamp/lampshade is a particular interesting symbol, because it also has to do with sight/blindness, as well as light/darkness. In a sense, Charlie has “taken off” the lampshade from his head, and is able to see, and yet the light that he has now entered into is blinding.
Charlie always envisions his younger self watching the world from a window. He feels as though he has always been watching life, rather than participating in it. When he is given this new chance to be intelligent, Charlie finds that he is still only given a small “window” of time. The window represents the various barriers in Charlie’s life. Originally, it was the barrier of intelligence; this then becomes the barrier of time as Charlie rushes to get in as much of life as he can before he again descends into watching life absentmindedly.
As a color, gray is neither black nor white. That is, it is neither dark nor light. Gray is the color Charlie associates with Warren, a place of “waiting,” as well as the color of the veil that covers many of his memories. Especially in light of Charlie’s concern with darkness versus light, gray represents the haziness and obscurity into which Charlie will eventually descend (and also the obscurity he came from.) It is especially important after the fact of Charlie’s intelligence, since Charlie will have experienced both the “dark” and the “light” now, but he will still descend into grayness all the same.
Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" (Allegory)
Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" features prominently in Flowers for Algernon, and the entire story could be read as a realized version of Plato’s "Allegory" and how it might or might not work. A passage from this "Allegory" is placed at the beginning of the book, providing a paradigm for reading the entire story. The “Allegory of the Cave” runs from lines 514a-520a of Plato's philosophical work Republic, and tells the following story. A group of people live in a cave and are chained to the cave wall. For their whole lives they face a blank wall and watch shadows projected on the wall made from puppets passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows are the reality of these people. If a man is freed, and Plato believes it is the role for a philosopher to be freed from this cave, then he will see the puppets first, and then he will see reality outside of the cave as he goes upward in the light. Although the light of the sun will at first pain the eyes of the prisoner who is so accustomed to the dark of the cave, if he is dragged out and given time to adjust to sunlit reality, he will come to realize reality’s superiority to the shadows flickering on the dark walls. Eventually, it is the job of the enlightened philosopher to return to the cave to bring more people out of the world of shadows, and into the world of real things and higher forms. This sounds a lot like the narrative arc that Keyes has Charlie currently pursuing. Charlie descends back into the cave, with the hope that his work will now drag more people out into the light, even if he himself will not live to return to the light.
Flowers for Algernon Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Flowers for Algernon is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.