Written during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Flowers for Algernon shows a profound concern with the rights of individuals to be treated as individuals, no matter what their condition in life. The early pages of the novel paint a grim portrait of how the mentally handicapped are treated, as Charlie is continually abused, verbally and physically, by his coworkers at the bakery. And when he becomes a genius, he is subject to a different sort of dehumanization, as the scientists in charge of the experiment regard him “as if I were some kind of newly created thing…. No one … considered me an individual-a human being.” This is perhaps most dramatically expressed when, witnessing a slow-witted boy being ridiculed for breaking dishes in a restaurant, Charlie lashes out at the customers: “Leave him alone! He can’t understand. He can’t help what he is … but for God’s sake, have some respect! He’s a human being!”
1959 to 1966, the period from the first publication of Flowers for Algernon as a short story to its publication as a novel, saw the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. Although most immediately and dramatically focused on the task of securing equal rights for African Americans, the civil rights movement was accompanied by increasing attention to the issue of fair and equal treatment for all. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill prohibited racial discrimination; 1966, the year Flowers for Algernon was published, saw the founding of the National Organization for Women. The rights of the mentally handicapped were also addressed during this time: in 1962 the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation was organized, leading in 1968 to the Declaration of the General and Specific Rights of the Mentally Retarded. By the 1970s, the term “retardation” was replaced with “developmental disability,” and specific provisions for the protection of the mentally handicapped from violence and discrimination became law. Flowers for Algernon’s message of tolerance and understanding for the mentally handicapped reflects the social and political struggles of its day, and the years following the novel’s publication saw many of these issues regarding developmental disability finally addressed in the legislature and the courts.
In addition to the Civil Rights movement, the 1950s and 1960s also saw the rise of psychoanalysis as a generally accepted method of dealing with emotional disorders. The theories of Sigmund Freud, which saw human motivation as stemming largely from unconscious desires which are often traceable to childhood experiences and which frequently center on sex, were particularly influential during this time. Freud’s theories were so widely discussed that most people, even if they were not trained in psychoanalysis, probably had some familiarity with concepts such as repression, neurosis, and the unconscious. Accordingly, the novel’s focus on psychological themes, especially Charlie’s emotional problems stemming from the abuse he suffered from his mother, was immediately familiar to the readers of the 1960s.
Also on the rise in the 1950s and 1960s was funding for scientific research. Locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and still remembering Nazi Germany’s V-2 rockets and the terrifying success of the atomic bomb, the United States during this era spent an unprecedented amount of money on scientific research. Government organizations such as the National Science Foundation, as well as private foundations and corporations, poured millions of dollars into scientific research, including “basic” research that would not necessarily yield immediate practical applications. With so much money available, competition for funding intensified and universities became increasingly focused on obtaining and keeping research funding. In Flowers for Algernon, Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss’s funding from the “Welburg Foundation,” as well as the pressure Nemur feels to publish his results and secure his professional reputation, directly reflect this trend.