Relating the story of a mentally impaired man whose intelligence is increased through surgery and then lost, Flowers for Algernon touches on a number of literary themes. The most obvious of the novel’s themes is the use and abuse of science and technology. The critic Mark R. Hillegas has identified Flowers for Algernon as the type of science fiction that deals with “problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses”-in this case, a surgical procedure that can turn a person of subnormal intelligence into a genius. While the novel does not specifically take an anti-technology stance, it clearly identifies the limitations of technology as a “quick fix” to human problems-Charlie’s operation is, ultimately, a failure in that he does not remain a genius. In a reversal of the classic notion of tragedy, the “flaw” which causes Charlie’s downfall is not within him, but in the technology that sought to change him.
The idea that “there are some things humanity was not meant to know” may be traced in modern literature to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), and in some ways Flowers for Algernon contains echoes of Shelley’s tale. The critic Thomas D. Clareson has directly connected Keyes’s novel to Frankenstein in that Keyes combines the figures of the mad scientist and the “inhuman” creation into “the single figure of Charlie Gordon.” This theme is further emphasized by the comments of Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie’s coworkers, both of whom compare his operation to the acquisition of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise.
However, Flowers for Algernon does not argue that we should not try to attain knowledge, but rather that we should be conscious of the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to life. When Charlie buries himself in research to try to find the solution to the flaw in the operation, he declares, “I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed.” But later, during an argument with Professor Nemur, Charlie acknowledges that intelligence alone isn’t enough: “intelligence and education isn’t worth a damn … all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love.”
In an early “Progress Report,” Charlie writes that he wants to be smart “so I can have lots of friends who like me.” Unfortunately, once he becomes a genius, he discovers that there is a whole new set of problems that prevent him from establishing satisfactory relationships with other people. He has substituted one sort of alienation for another, as the condescension and cruelty he once faced from humanity has been replaced by misunderstanding, insensitivity, and fear. He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the teacher who recommended him for the operation, but he realizes, “I am just as far away from Alice with an I.Q. of 185 as I was when I had an I.Q. of 70.” Almost everything Charlie does in the novel is motivated by his desire to understand himself and establish functional relationships with others, perhaps most dramatically expressed when he wanders the streets of New York City by himself: “for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection.”
A major aspect of the novel is Charlie’s efforts to understand and come to terms with the various people who have hurt him throughout his life: his mother, who physically and emotionally abused him; his father, who failed to defend him; his coworkers at the bakery, who brutalized him; the scientists who raised his intelligence but treated him like a laboratory animal. It is significant that when Charlie realizes the effects of the operation will not last, his major goal is to locate his family and establish some sort of peace with them. When he finally locates his mother, he tells himself, “I must understand the way she saw it. Unless I forgive her, I will have nothing.” The tragedy of Charlie’s fall from genius is relieved somewhat by the knowledge that he has come to terms with the people who mistreated him. In his last Progress Report, he writes, “if they make fun of you don’t get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were.”
Although the novel is not primarily focused on sexual issues, a good deal of attention is paid to the fact that Charlie is sexually repressed as a result of an abused childhood. His mother, terrified that her “retarded” son would sexually assault his “normal” sister, violently repressed all normal displays of adolescent sexuality. The adult Charlie, once his intelligence has been raised to where he can understand the issues involved, initially has difficulty establishing a sexual relationship with Fay Lillman, a neighbor who seeks out his company, and is unable to have a physical relationship with Alice Kinnian, the woman he is in love with. Charlie’s ability to have sex with Fay and, eventually, with Alice, is seen as an important step in overcoming past traumas and becoming a fully functional adult.