In Flowers for Algernon, the discussion of God sometimes comes up in the context of religion or faith, but more often when the extent of authority is questioned. Authority is strongly tied to the theme of “treatment of the mentally ill,” which questions who has authority to make decisions regarding those who are mentally ill (since they sometimes or always cannot make decisions for themselves). Is God the final authority? Are family members responsible for the mentally ill? For example, Rose often prays to God when Charlie is young to make Charlie normal or smart (15-6). This is Charlie’s first memory of God. After his operation, he hears the college students talking in the cafeteria about arts, politics, and religion. He had never before “heard anyone say that there might not be a God. That frightened me, because for the first time I began to think about what God means” (55). God means to have final authority, and the idea of not having an absolute authority frightens Charlie—and rightly. He grows to resent Professor Nemur, on the basis that Nemur does not treat him as a human being until after the procedure. Nemur is attempting to play God. He feels as though he has created Charlie, and Charlie recognizes this, saying, at the Psychological Convention: “How can I make him understand that he did not create me?” (112). Nemur continues to flaunt his authority at the conference, and when he is asked a question, Charlie says that “it was the chance he had been waiting for to show his authority, and for the first time since we’d known each other he put his hand on my shoulder” (113). However, Charlie grows to realize that he does not really care if a God exists or not, and adopts a somewhat neutral view, recognizing that men set up idols for themselves. In effect, Charlie sets up the balance between intelligence and human affection as his new god. At the cocktail party, he “sermonizes” (191) to the crowd, saying that at university, the idols are knowledge, intelligence, and education, but these things aren’t worth anything without love and emotion. Finally, when Charlie has an out-of-body experience at a therapy session with Dr. Strauss, he asks himself if he is afraid of seeing God, or of seeing nothing (217), but realizes that he is not afraid of life, death, or nothingness (218), only of wasting his human life.
Artificiality and Nature
Tied into discussions about God is the question of the righteousness of the actions of Nemur and Strauss. When Charlie has only just undergone his operation, his nurse Hilda says that perhaps the researchers have no right to do this to him, because if God wanted him to be smart, he would have made him smart (13). She says that perhaps Nemur and Strauss are tampering with things they shouldn’t be tampering with, and references Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge and falling as a result. This story arc does mirror Charlie’s eventual fall from great intelligence. Later, his coworker at the bakery, Fanny Birden, says, “who knows what you done to yourself to get so smart all of a sudden. Like everybody’s been saying – it ain’t right” (82). Charlie asks her, “What’s wrong with a person wanting to be more intelligent, to acquire knowledge, and understand himself and the world?” In reply, Fanny references the Bible. She says, “If you’d read your Bible, Charlie, you’d know that it’s not meant for man to know more than was given to him to know by the Lord in the first place. The fruit of that tree was forbidden to man” (82). All arguments concerning nature, or using nature, come back to God and the creation story, invoking him as the absolute authority. Charlie also tends to use natural images when describing the expansion of his mind, which is ironic because his mind is only expanded due to artificial enhancement. He describes it as being swept into the ocean or the sky.
Treatment of the Mentally Disabled
Flowers for Algernon raises serious questions about the way the mentally ill are treated. Charlie is good-natured, honest, and generally liked by all those around him, yet he is still the butt of jokes and the occasional mean prank or abuse. As a child, he was regularly abused by his mother and his classmates. Despite his mental handicap, his classmate Hymie still has Charlie framed so that older boys beat him up for a crime he did not commit. Despite the growing realization that Charlie is mentally ill and will not get better, Rose Gordon still pushes him to “get better” and beats him when he goes in his pants out of fear. The Gordons are also scammed by people like Dr. Guarino, who take advantage of these families’ desperate situations. The desperation in the Gordon family is, however, largely self-created by Rose, who cannot stand the idea of having a mentally ill son. She constantly pushes him to be smart, and instills in him the idea of wanting to become smart. This is largely the source of his extreme motivation. Charlie believes that if he becomes smart, then he will have the love and friendship that has eluded him all his life. He says, “Now I can see where I got the unusual motivation to get smart that so amazed everyone at first. It was something Rose Gordon lived with day and night… But I guess I never stopped wanting to be the smart boy she wanted me to be so that she would love me” (111). When Charlie is first going into the experiment, he also immediately connects its projected effects with how he “just wants to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me” (10). It is ironic that when Charlie is at the peak of his intelligence, he finds out that his abusive mother is the one who is mentally ill now with dementia.
Charlie was going to be institutionalized when he was kicked out of the home, but Uncle Herman spared him from going to the Warren Home. Because of the Warren Home being a sort of “last resort” in his mind, Charlie has always had negative thoughts about it. When he realizes that Nemur planned for him to go there after the experiment if it failed, Charlie decides to check out the institution for himself, and realizes that it is not so bad. He is disturbed by how there is a lack of hope there, however, and how everyone is simply waiting things out. Despite this, the staff at Warren do understand the hard work that goes into taking care of mental patients.
Loneliness and Friendship
The reason why Charlie wants to become smart is so that he can “have lots of frends who like [him]” (10). He has been instilled since his childhood by his mother that intelligence will earn her love, and the affection of others. Charlie is afraid of being lonely in the world, something he more fully realizes when he becomes smarter and thus more aware. However, as he increases his IQ, Charlie realizes that his intelligence is also an alienation. He has crossed over onto the other side of the intellectual barrier, and Dr. Strauss has to remind him to write so that other people can understand him. Charlie is fired from the bakery, and realizes that “This intelligence has driven a wedge between me and all the people I knew and loved, driven me out of the bakery. Now I’m more alone than ever before” (83). This continues into his love life with Alice, as he continues to rise on the IQ spectrum and leave her behind: “But with the freedom came a sadness. I wanted to be in love with her… Now that’s impossible. I am just as far away from Alice with an IQ of 185 as I was when I had an IQ of 70. And this time we both know it” (97). After the arguments at the cocktail party, Charlie goes back to his apartment, pained, realizing the superficiality of his relationships (even his sexual relationship with Fay as he hears another man in her apartment), and asks: “What has happened to me? Why am I so alone in the world?” (194). Rose’s deceptive desires for Charlie to become smart confused him, making him equate intelligence with friendship, and stupidity with loneliness. When he sees Rose’s picture in the newspaper, he “suddenly hated her. It would have been better if she had ignored the doctors and teachers and others who were so in a hurry to convince her I was a moron, turning her away from me so that she gave me less love when I needed more” (130). Instead, Charlie learns that both intelligence and stupidity at their extremes lead to loneliness. Charlie has the most friends when he is at a happy moderation, like the rest of the people in his life.
Intelligence and Love/Emotions
Tied in strongly with the theme of friendship and loneliness is the pure, abstract relationship between intelligence and the power of human affection. Just as Charlie realizes that he was incorrect in thinking that the former leads to the latter, he realizes that there is a balance that needs to be struck in valuing both of these things, just as moderation is necessary for finding friendship. He comes to deliver his thoughts on this at the cocktail party hosted by Mrs. Nemur for the Welberg Foundation, saying that intelligence not tempered by human affection means nothing (191). He says that such raw intelligence leads to psychosis, alienation, and pain. It even leads to violent behavior, which is something they are now observing in Algernon when the mouse cannot finish his maze races. Charlie also realizes that emotional intelligence — or emotional maturity — is something that is very important. Even though his intelligence has increased, he is still a child when it comes to women, for example. Dr. Strauss tells him that his “intellectual growth will outstrip his emotional growth” (36) and that “the more intelligent [he] becomes the more problems [he’ll] have” (36). Charlie is originally unable to consummate his love to Alice because of where he is emotionally; “I’m still a boy about women” (37). After he hallucinates his teenage self watching him and Alice together, he tells Dr. Strauss, who tells him that his “rapid intellectual development has deceived [him] into thinking [he] could live a normal emotional life. But… emotionally [he’s] still an adolescent – sexually retarded” (79). Intellectual growth does not necessarily lead to emotional maturity, and Charlie struggles with reconciling the two in the short time that he has as a genius.
Influence of the Past
One major part of Charlie’s newfound intelligence is his self-discovery. He delves into his past to discover himself and his family. When Nemur and Strauss give Charlie a machine to help him parse his memories, it immediately moves the context of the story into the future (when such machines are available.) Yet this machine goes into Charlie’s past and helps him remember his childhood. The way that Keyes delivers this information also supports his point about how the past and present seem to meld together. Charlie’s flashbacks occur in the middle of narratives, and are spurred on by associative memory (he will think of something or remember something, which in turn leads him to remember something else.) As a result of all these memories, he realizes that it would be incorrect to assume that an individual is only the sum of his past memories. A person is also what he is currently exploring, as well as all of the untapped mental faculties of the future and all of the events to happen in the future. Later on, Charlie knows that he will soon regress into his former state, but he feels okay with this because he has come to terms with his past. He says that he feels as though he only “borrowed” his current life away from the younger Charlie. He says that “Charlie Gordon exists in the past, and past is real. You can’t put up a new building on a site until you destroy the old one, and the old Charlie can’t be destroyed” (154). In fact, past selves can never really be destroyed, because they have already existed, and Charlie knows that he was that Charlie once upon a time, and always will be. He uses this similar reasoning to justify his visit to the Warren Home. He says that Nemur doesn’t “realize that find out who I really am – the meaning of my total existence – involves knowing the possibilities of my future as well as my past, where I’m going as well as where I’ve been. Although we know the end of the maze holds death (and it is something I have not always known – not long ago the adolescent in me thought death could only happen to other people), I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being – one of many ways – and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming” (169). He is coming to terms not only with his past selves but what his future selves will eventually come upon: death.
Happiness is central to Flowers for Algernon, although it is barely mentioned explicitly. Happiness functions as a sort of umbrella goal under which the other thematic elements coalesce. For Charlie, happiness is determined both by his intelligence level but also his level of human connection (which was, after all, the reason why he wanted to become smart.) In his brief stint as a “normal” person, Charlie discovers great pain, both in and of himself (his painful personal past, as well as the raw brokenness of the world, such as the incident in Central Park), but he also discovers great joy. When he is finally able to make love to Alice, he describes it as a tremendous experience. He sees “how important physical love was, how necessary it was for us to be in each other’s arms, giving and taking. The universe was exploding… As when men to keep from being swept overboard in the storm clutch at each other’s hands to resist being torn apart, so our bodies fused a link in the human chain that kept us from being swept into nothing” (226). Love is a counterweight to the hurtling of life towards death. Even after Charlie has regressed, he still remembers the happiness he experienced during his time with his friends and loved ones; he asks people not to feel bad for him, for he says: “Im glad I found out all about my family and me… now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone” (238).
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.
We aren't given a reason for Mrs. Flynn's fear, but we can infer that Charlie's increasing partying and avoidance of work might be the reason. She doesn't know what to expect from him.... he's been brought home by the police and avoids the bakery....