Literary Qualities

Keyes’s remarkable use of first-person (“I”) point of view is perhaps the most important source of Flowers for Algernon’s narrative power. Charlie’s journey from an IQ of 68 to one almost three times as high, and his fall back into subnormal intelligence, is told in the form of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the experiment that raised his IQ. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in nonstandard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult: Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I don’t no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows, his reports become more and more literate and sophisticated: I’ve got to realize that when they continually admonish me to speak and write simply so that people who read these reports will be able to understand me, they are talking about themselves as well.

The striking contrasts between the earlier and later entries, both in style and content, dramatize both the changes Charlie undergoes and the obstacles he must overcome. Even more dramatic is the contrast between the high-IQ entries and the final entries, when Charlie loses his intelligence and falls back into the semi-literacy of the earlier entries. Keyes’s use of Charlie as the narrator makes the reader’s experience of Charlie’s inevitable fate more immediate and more moving, and shows that, as a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement put it, Keyes “has the technical equipment to keep us from shrugging off the pain.”

Another source of the novel’s power is the inevitability of Charlie’s fate, once we learn that the results of the experiment will not be permanent. But even before we learn that the experiment has failed, Keyes offers several moments of foreshadowing, events that hint at what is to come. The most obvious of these events center around Algernon the mouse, who has had the same operation as Charlie and whose progress and deterioration both mirrors and forecasts Charlie’s own. When Algernon begins to grow restive, has trouble running the maze, and starts biting people, it does not bode well for Charlie. In addition, two minor characters-Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie’s coworkers at the bakery-both invoke the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which foreshadows Charlie’s own “fall” from genius. Charlie’s trip to the Warren State Home while he still possesses heightened intelligence foreshadows what is in store when he finally loses that intelligence. And, in a more subtle moment early in the novel, as Charlie is on the operating table before the surgery, he tells Dr. Strauss that he’s scared. When Dr. Strauss reassures him that he will “just go to sleep,” Charlie replies, “thats what I’m skared about”-a foreshadowing, perhaps, of Charlie’s later descent into darkness.

Irony-the difference between the way things appear to be and the way they really are-also plays an important part in Flowers for Algernon. Early in the novel, we see that Charlie’s coworkers at the bakery, especially Joe Carp and Frank Reilly, are condescending and abusive towards him, insulting him to his face and playing cruel tricks on him. Charlie, however, writes that “Lots of people laff at me and their my friends and we have fun…. I cant wait to be smart like my best friends Joe Carp and Frank Reilly.” Once Charlie becomes smart, he realizes that these people are not his friends, but he is then faced with another irony. Before the operation, he wanted “to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.” But his increased IQ causes the bakery workers to be afraid of him, the scientists who had been kindly and wise figures turn out to be limited human beings who see Charlie more as a laboratory experiment than a human being, and heightened intelligence is no help when he falls in love with Alice Kinnian. As Charlie the genius notes, “Ironic that all my intelligence doesn’t help me solve a problem like this.” And in a final irony, when Charlie returns to his IQ of 68 and seeks his old job back, Joe and Frank, the men who had persecuted him before, defend him against an attack from a new worker.

In literature, tragedies often center on characters who, although people of great achievement, are destroyed through a character flaw that they possess. In classic tragedy, this “fall” is often from a great height (Oedipus and Hamlet were both royalty, for example) and is inevitable, given the character’s flaw. Flowers for Algernon is certainly about a fall from a height, and Charlie’s descent from genius to subnormal intelligence is inevitable. Charlie does have character flaws-an arrogance and impatience which appear when he becomes a genius-but these do not lead to his fall. Instead, the flaw is outside of Charlie, in the technology which raises him to a great height and then allows him to fall back down. In this way, Keyes is able to use the devices of tragedy to make a very modern point: that our technology is as imperfect as we are.