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Literature / Flowers for Algernon

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"Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye."
epigraph to the novel, taken from Plato's The Republic, Book VII

Written by Daniel Keyes and originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (April 1959 issue), "Flowers for Algernon" is a Science Fiction Short Story that tells of a young man named Charlie Gordon who has an IQ of 68, but tries hard to learn and become "normal". In 1966 Keyes expanded the story into a Novel, which won the Nebula Award (tying with Babel-17) that year.

Charlie works at a bakery with people he considers his friends. His instructor, Alice Kinnian, teaches him at the Beakman College Institute for Retarded Adults, and she is the one who nominates him for a possible cure: an experimental surgery designed to improve his mental capacity. The researchers putting this surgery into action are looking for a human subject, having already had a successful result with the eponymous Algernon, a lab mouse.

Charlie gets the surgery and his intelligence quickly blooms. While this is happening, he falls in love with Alice, but soon finds that he can no longer relate to her because his intelligence has surpassed hers. Furthermore, he discovers that his "friends" have not been as trustworthy as he thought they were, and he begins to recall memories from his childhood, finding even more incidences of trickery, ridicule, and exploitation. As a result, he becomes quite jaded and cynical, even as he continues to frantically soak up all the knowledge he can.

Charlie's intelligence tops out at 185, and he is deemed a certified genius. However, upon noticing a sharp and unexpected decrease in Algernon's intelligence, Charlie begins to research the effect and eventually publishes his findings, having realized that he will suffer the same decline and return to his original mental state.

Told entirely in first-person journal entries ("progress reports") written by Charlie himself, the story does a wonderful job of depicting how his intelligence changes. It is frequently used in School Study Media.

It's one of the more famous books that has been banned from schools, thanks to its sexual content and profanity (except for certain copies that have it severely reduced, so as to avoid it.)

The original short story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966 and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.

Adapted into the teleplay "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon", which aired as a 1961 episode of the anthology series The United States Steel Hour and starred Cliff Robertson in the title role; Robertson later reprised the character in the 1968 feature film Charly, for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award. There was also a 2000 Made-for-TV Movie adaptation starring Matthew Modine.

Also adapted into a 1978 musical known variously as Charlie and Algernon in London and by the original title on Broadway. In America, at least, it lasted only 17 performances.

And adapted into two different Japanese live-action drama series both titled Algernon ni Hanataba o; one in 2002 and the other in 2015. The protagonist of the first series is named Haru Fujishima while the protagonist on the second is Sakito Shiratori.

For a similar story with a more sci-fi edge, see also the In Name Only film version of The Lawnmower Man.

Tropes for Algernon:

  • Abusive Parents: Charlie's mother. She first refuses to acknowledge that Charlie is mentally disabled, and punishes him for it; he even briefly mentions at one point that his mother hides him away in the cellar when company comes. When she later gives birth to a daughter, who is of normal intelligence, she blatantly favors her over Charlie, and eventually sends him away to an institution. When Charlie tries to pick up his baby sister, his mother slaps him and tells him that he has no business touching her even though he just wanted to hold her, and later threatens to put him in a cage if he ever touches a girl while having an erection.
    • His father, thankfully, was much more accepting of him and kind, but sadly, when Charlie's mother insisted for him to take him away, he submissively and unfortunately did as asked.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original short story had a relatively bare-bones plot, and several aspects that the story is known for are from the novel expansion:
    • In the original version Charlie develops feelings for Miss Kinnian, but they never start a romance.
    • Charlie's parents, and especially his mother's obsession — which in the novel is key to Chalie's motivations as an adult — are practically absent from the short story. All we know is that his father is strongly implied to have eloped with another woman (which itself is quite at odds with the behavior of Charlie's dad from the novel).
    • Charlie never runs away and meets Faye in the 1959 short story.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian:
    • Dr. Strauss' sessions are pretty classic Freudian psychotherapy.
    • Charlie's sexual issues are due to traumatic experiences with his mother; he almost has a reverse Oedipus complex, fearing his mother and relying on his father for protection.
  • Artists Are Attractive: Fay Lillman, a vivacious, free-spirited, and sexually uninhibited artist, who becomes the protagonist's secondary Love Interest.
  • Betty and Veronica: Charlie is the Archie, Alice is the Betty, Fay is the Veronica.
  • Break the Cutie: Charlie goes through this after gaining his intelligence. He goes through it again, but even worse, once he starts to lose it.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: One of the few times it's Played for Drama. Charlie has a tendency, especially as a kid, to shit himself whenever he gets frightened, which doesn't take much considering he's mentally disabled. This just leads to more pain and suffering, since then Rose decides she has to spank him, somehow thinking that disciplining him will stop him from being mentally disabled.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Never actually occurs in the story, but Charlie's mom is worried that it will. This might be part of the reason she sent Charlie away in the first place.
  • Brutal Honesty: The 2000 film has Gorden call out Professor Nemur at the conference in Chicago, saying that he and the audience were mocking his old self rather than trying to respect progress (specifically by mentioning the "mistake of nature" phrase). Additionally, he mentions that he read about the Russian experiment also having mental degradation before releasing the contained mice as a symbol to stop the experiment.
  • Central Theme: Charlie's increase in intelligence gradually reveals to him just how horribly he had been mistreated, and through meeting him before his growth in intelligence and Charlie's furious questions afterward, the book asks the question of why he wasn't considered enough, wasn't considered human prior to the increase in intelligence.
  • Coming of Age Story: An interesting version, since Charlie is already an adult, but has the mind of a child and must grow up quickly. In the end while he returns to his former intelligence level, he is still not as ignorant as he used to be.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: In the end, Charlie decides to move away because he hates seeing Alice and everybody else feeling sorry for him after he loses his intelligence.
  • Downer Ending: The last fifty-or-so pages are so depressing it's amazing the book doesn't spontaneously combust. Charlie becomes disgusted by the pity everyone feels for him and pushes them away as his mind continues to degrade, spending the last parts of the story alone and in despair. Furthermore, it is implied the worst is yet to come: Algernon and Charlie had the same surgery performed on them, and Algernon ended up dying. In some editions this is made less subtle with the "d" in "bak yard," the final sentence of the book, trailing off into a long, messy line which implied Charlie died as he was writing. In other paperback versions, the ending is instead several pages left intentionally blank, suggesting Charlie either died, or mentally regressed so far that he'd become completely illiterate, essentially leaving him more severely disabled than at the beginning of the book. Either way, the implications are incredibly depressing. The only real bright spots are Charlie proving the operation unviable and making amends with his mother and sister before it was too late, and Charlie’s bakery coworkers becoming better people.
  • Dramatic Irony: Since Charlie records some things he doesn't understand before he gains intelligence, the audience is able to pick up on aspects of his life he does not yet understand, like the way his "friends" at the bakery are cruelly laughing at him rather than with him.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: After operating the mixer in the 2000 film and heading to the bar, the trip prank wasn't funny— only the prankster was laughing, the rest were giving less appreciative looks.
  • Dr. Jerk: Professor Nemur cares only about the success of his project and ignores Charlie's feelings. Charlie calls himself out multiple times that he is a real person, not a lab rat, and that he was a real person even before the operation.
  • Dumb Is Good: Discussed. Alice tells Charlie that he was a better man when he was intellectually disabled— he was more compassionate, warm, and friendly. Charlie, on the other hand, refuses to accept this; he says people only liked him more because being around him made them feel smarter. While it's true that Charlie starts becoming a Jerkass when he gains his intelligence, he discusses this trope by saying that there's nothing wrong with a good person trying to be smarter.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The only truly sane characters seem to be Alice and Burt.
  • Encyclopaedic Knowledge: At least with the 2000 film, Charlie seems to be depicted as knowing trivia quite easily, including sport stats and older research papers.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Discussed in the novel version, when Charlie and Alice watch a movie employing the trope, and Charlie laments how unrealistic it is. Alice points out that Charlie is learning to see beyond the surface of things. Note that Charlie himself is full of psychological issues due to childhood abuse (aside from the intellectual disability that gets cured, that is) and he goes to therapy for a realistically long time.
  • Epistolary Novel: The novel is narrated from Charlie's various diary entries, showing an intimate progression of his mental faculties over the course of the story.
  • "Flowers for Algernon" Syndrome: The Trope Namer. In the story, the main character, cognitively disabled Charlie, undergoes a surgery that boosts his intelligence. To an astounding degree, as it turns out: his intellectual breadth and knowledge allow him to learn languages of all kinds, science of all branches, surpassing even those that performed the operation. Charlie, though, finds that his intelligence isolates him just as much as his dimness did before it. A side effect of the procedure that granted the intelligence was to eventually lose it. The book avoids the "ignorance is bliss" aesop; Charlie is horrified when he finds out that he'll lose his high intelligence, and the depiction of his mental degeneration is played for drama. It implies that as Algernon died after his intelligence degraded, Charlie doesn't have long to live either. "The Algernon-Gordon Effect" is an in-universe thesis describing this trope, when Charlie's own research while he's super intelligent predicts what is going to happen— Charlie determines that the process was fundamentally doomed because the sheer speed of brain development was too biologically taxing, directly causing the brain to deteriorate before very long. Once Charlie fully reverts, he finds he can't live with the pity he now knows everyone has for him, and leaves to go somewhere where no one knows him.
  • Foregone Conclusion: After seeing the first hints of Algernon's deteriorating abilities, it's pretty obvious the same thing is going to happen to Charlie.
  • Freudian Trio:
    • Charlie: Self-doubting, rational, and scientifically-minded, emotionally unfulfilled (Superego).
    • Fay Lillman: Overtly sexual, artistic, and whimsical (Id).
    • Alice Kinnian: Compassionate, emotionally mature, educated, balances intellect and emotions (Ego).
    • Of the three scientists who work on the project, Dr. Nemur is Id (possessed by a drive to further his career without paying much heed to ethics), Dr. Strauss is Superego (calm, cool-headed and reasonably skeptical) and Bert is Ego (realistic, pragmatic, cares about both the project's success and Charlie's feelings).
  • Fridge Logic: Invoked when genius Charlie remembers his childhood. Remembering his former thinking: Fridge Horror.
  • Game of Nerds: The 2000 film has Charlie recite sports stats rather easily in the middle of the coworker's debate on football.
  • Genius Serum: The protagonist, Charlie, as well as the eponymous lab rat undergo a surgical procedure that turns them from simpletons into geniuses. However, the effects are unfortunately temporary, and Charlie becomes even dumber than before.
  • Henpecked Husband: Charlie's father. He was much more accepting towards Charlie's disorder, but he couldn't protect him from Rose. He eventually cuts all ties with Rose some time after she throws Charlie out.
  • Hourglass Plot: Charlie towards a few groups: Dr. Nemur, the other employees at the bakery, even Alice, all treat him differently because of his condition. When he becomes a super-genius, he treats them much like they treated him as a moron (though he'd get called out on it by the two empathetic characters, Bert and Alice).
  • Hysterical Woman: Charlie's mother constantly reacts with horror to his condition.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Charlie suffers from this both while intellectually disabled and a genius, as he despised being abused when he was disabled yet also resents how being a genius alienated him from everyone else.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Once Charlie realizes that he can't emotionally connect with anyone, either while dumb or smart, he has a breakdown.
  • Ignorance Is Bliss: Defied in the book by Charlie, but the trope is embraced in the film version during the ending, depicting a child-like Charlie enjoying himself on a swing.
  • Improbably High I.Q.: Charllie's IQ grows to about 200 in the original short story. The novel is slightly more realistic; Charlie's final IQ score is given as 185 bus as Burt points out it "can't really be measured" at that level.
  • In Vino Veritas: Super-genius Charlie Gordon reverts back to a barely-functional moron (in the clinical sense) when he gets drunk. This, along with psychological blocks he finds himself struggling with, contributes to him feeling like he's merely borrowing his body from the older Charlie, and this is is why he decides not to kill himself during his decline since he feels Charlie deserves to take his body back.
  • Inherited Illiteracy Title: Not the book itself, but The Film of the Book is called Charly (complete with a backwards R).
  • Inkblot Test: When Charlie is given one at the beginning, he's unable to understand the concept, thinking that he's supposed to find some sort of hidden picture. A few weeks later, he's given the test again, and gets angry because he thinks they changed the test on him.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: In the beginning, Charlie doesn't understand that his co-workers mock him and treat him like dirt. He describes their taunts and insults as funny jokes.
  • Innocently Insensitive: A Warren caregiver lectures genius Charlie about the dedication needed to look after the intellectually disabled patients, not realizing that Charlie will soon become one of them.
  • Insufferable Genius: Charlie after he becomes super-intelligent, as even Strauss and Nemur can no longer keep up with him.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Charlie becomes so intelligent that everyone around him seems like a moron.
  • I Thought Everyone Could Do That: Charlie is honestly shocked when his colleagues don't share his genius-level talents, such as reading multiple languages. It makes sense to some extent given that his only point of comparison is a point in his life when he knew he was less intelligent than everyone around him, so it takes him a while to realize he's now surpassing them.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Charlie after the operation. Dr. Nemur is this even before it.
  • Jerkass: After Charlie exceeds the intelligence of even the scientists who work on him, he repeatedly looks down on those around him for not being at his level of super-intelligence— even criticizing Strauss for not being fluent in as many languages (20!) as he is. However, Charlie makes it clear that he's bitter about the way others had treated him when he was intellectually disabled, as well as the fact that he finds the intelligence flip ironic. He's also called out on it later in the novel, and admits to being one, which makes him somewhat even more sympathetic in hindsight.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Are they ever. Charlie is beaten, bullied and possibly molested more than once throughout the novel.
  • Knight Templar Parent: Charlie's mother thinks that she can cure his mental illness by beating it out of him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Rose, Charlie's abusive mother, ends up senile in her later years, her mentality regressing similar to him. Though it takes a while to even recognise him, she is noticeably much kinder to Charlie upon reunion, whether it be the illness changing her personality or just teaching her humility.
  • Mad Artist: Apparently the only thing that interests Fay is painting and sex.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Fay, a quirky, promiscous Hard-Drinking Party Girl who forms a sexual relationship with Charlie. It doesn't end well, however, as they eventually grow tired of each other, with Charlie having grown too cynical and wrapped up in his work to keep up with her lifestyle. They break up and Fay simply finds another guy.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Norma, Charlie's sister. Her name no doubt reflects their mother's wish for her to grow up to be normal, unlike Charlie.
    • The aforementioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Fay, is free-spirited and fairy-like.
  • Mills and Boon Prose: Used in the sex scene between Charlie and Alice. It works, because it's used to show how different it is when he's with a woman he loves, than when he's just with a woman who enjoys sex.
  • Moving-Away Ending: The book ends with Charlie stating his intention to move away from New York.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Charlie doesn't mind that Fay has many, many other partners than him; they're more of Friends with Benefits than an actual couple.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The original short story, published in 1959, was set in 1965.
  • Nocturnal Emission: Early in the story, when Charlie's coworkers take him out to get him drunk and mess with him by introducing him to a stripper. He notes in his progress report that he dreams about the stripper that night and wakes up sticky.
  • No Pregger Sex: Charlie halts a near-sexual encounter after finding out that the woman was pregnant.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: The first progress report is one small paragraph, where he didn't have much to say, with following reports generally being larger than just a simple paragraph. On March 25, he learned that he didn't have to write progress report on the top each time, thus saving time when he handed it in to Dr. Nemur. At that point, individual days may be one paragraph but were no longer a chapter as such.
  • Omniglot: One of the skills Charlie gains is mastery of about twenty languages, which is useful for his research.
  • Pastimes Prove Personality: When he's at the peak of his intelligence, Charlie enjoys classical music, opera and fine literature. When he's at his baseline intelligence, he likes comic books and television.
  • Person as Verb: Pulling a "Charlie Gordon" is messing up.
  • Photographic Memory: The 2000 film shows Charlie remembering a passage from a book read 10 minutes back.
  • Platonic Cave: Charlie's keyhole analogy, seen on the Tear Jerker page, is this in spirit.
  • Punctuation Shaker: Justified when Charlie is learning his punctuation marks. After inflicting Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma and being told he needs to use the rest of the marks too, he starts throwing them around wildly.
    Punctuation, is? fun!”
  • Rape as Drama: A horrifying example thrown out as background dressing: when Charlie visits his class for developmentally disabled adults, this time with enhanced intelligence, he takes note of a pretty blonde woman who giggles. She's had three abortions (given her mental state, Questionable Consent is in play) until her family arranged a hysterectomy for her. Note, that doesn't stop her from being taken advantage of, it just stops the pregnancies.
  • Really Gets Around: Fay, though as an Ethical Slut.
  • Scrapbook Story: The story is told in "progress reports" written by Charlie.
  • Secondary Character Title: Flowers for Algernon refers to the protagonist's fellow test subject, a white mouse. Averted in the film adaptation Charly.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: Charlie regrets losing his naive, dreamless perception of the world when he was intellectually disabled and later, his vastly increased intelligence.
  • Shout-Out: To Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Also, one of the books Charlie reads while his intelligence is decreasing is Don Quixote, although he doesn't mention it by name.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: All of Charlie's sexual experiences are passionless, confusing, or painful until he has sex with Alice Kinnian, the only woman he's ever truly loved.
  • Situational Sexuality: When Charlie takes a tour through the sanitarium that he would have ended up in (and eventually does), he sees two (male) inmates holding each other as lovers. The doctor simply says that, since this is all they have, this is who they turn to for love. (This probably outraged the Moral Guardians even more than any scene with Fay.)
  • Sleep Learning: Charlie is given a TV that plays hypnopaedic instruction tapes while he's sleeping to learn rapidly.
  • Spoiled Brat: Charlie's younger sister Norma is this growing up due to her mother's Parental Favoritism. She grew out of it in adulthood but still retained a mild degree of neediness.
  • Spoiler Title: Anyone using Fridge Logic as to why Algernon would be brought flowers can easily figure this out.
  • Stylistic Suck: Charlie's early entries before he has the operation are riddled with errors in spelling, punctuation, and word capitalization. Near the end of the book, it sets in again as his intelligence regresses.
  • Super-Speed Reading: At the apex of his intelligence, Charlie reads a page per second. He even has to be given a private room in the library lest people gather around him in curiosity.
  • Technobabble: Some (mercifully short) explanations of the neuroscience behind Charlie's transformation. Essentially, the process is Applied Phlebotinum.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Charlie pays for a meal without eating it in protest, after seeing how the restaurant treats a slow busboy.
  • Third-Person Person: The final bar scene in the 2000 film has Charlie starting to feel his old self breaking through. He initially says he can't dance... He shows off Algernon, and talks about Algernon's friend Charlie, who can dance, and then goes to start dancing with the woman that met him.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: The process takes time, with him gradually becoming a genius, but still considered relatively sudden over a period of weeks.
  • Title Drop: Charlie regularly brings flowers to Algernon's grave. In the last sentence of the book, he asks whoever is reading his diary to do the same.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Charlie's "friends" at the bakery. At the beginning, they treat him badly and laugh at him because of his disability, but he is too simple to understand. When he becomes intelligent and gets promoted over them, they resent him and get him fired. When he regresses and is given his old job back, they take pity on him and protect him when another employee mistreats him.
  • The Un-Favorite: Charlie's mother Rose preferred her daughter Norma to her son Charlie due to Norma having an average IQ compared to Charlie's very low 68. This made Norma a Spoiled Brat and left Charlie mostly confused and afraid of his mother who would beat him for perfectly natural things like having an erection as would any pubescent teen boy. Terrified he would do something to Norma, Rose eventually forced Charlie's father to have him taken away by threatening to kill Charlie if he didn't.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Though we can understand what he doesn't, through his Innocent Inaccurate descriptions.
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma: Justified. The narrator's use of punctuation improves and then declines in tandem with his augmented intellect. Charlie's two entries after Alice teaches him punctuation are overflowing with it. The next one contains a breakthrough as he's finally using punctuation properly.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Charlie's mother, to Charlie.
  • Wham Line: The exact moment this pops up after it's revealed that Charlie is going to lose his intelligence is a small, but definite example: a minor spelling error.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Charlie's mother Rose lived under the delusion that one day her son would be just like — or better than — everyone else. When his little sister Norma came along, Rose abandoned this hope and just heaped attention on Norma instead (see The Unfavorite).
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Charlie can no longer work at the bakery, his parents don't recognize him anymore (senile mother, long-estranged father), and when he regresses, he still remembers a thing or two about humanity.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Hinted at. Both Charlie and Algernon are put through the same surgery that increased their intelligence to genius levels. However, Algernon's intelligence begins to deteriorate and the mouse dies soon afterwards. Charlie's intelligence also deteriorates, but the story ends before we see whether he, too, will die as a result of the operation. The possibility remains on the table, however.