Mental Illness Depiction In Flowers For Algernon

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The short story Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys follows the journey of mentally disabled, thirty seven year old factory janitor Charlie Gordon and his quest for intelligence through his diary entries. When Charlie’s adult night school teacher recommends him for a scientific study designed to triple human intelligence, Charlie is finally given the chance to become the person he’s always wanted to be. After completing several exams, many alongside Algernon, a lab rat whose intelligence has already been tripled, Charlie is finally chosen to undergo the operation. Even though the change in his intellect isn’t immediate, Charlie is soon able to master everything from punctuation to speaking different languages. Unfortunately, Charlie’s happiness is short lived as his drastic change from a simpleton to a genius begins to take a negative toll on every aspect of his life. This prospect is only heightened once Algernon’s condition begins to deteriorate, as this leaves Charlie fearful about his future. In this short yet insightful narrative, Keys uses Charlie’s rise and downfall to exemplify the theme that knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.

As Charlie’s mental capacity continues to grow as a result of his newfound intelligence, he slowly loses the ability to see the world and those around him in the positive light he once did before. Although, Charlie’s one true desire is to have intelligence, he isn’t miserable without it. In fact, Charlie is quite content with his life, “We had a lot of fun at the factery today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in… Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laff. Their really my friends and they like me” (4). Even though it’s quite obvious to the audience that Charlie is being mistreated by his “friends”, his limited mental ability is actually a blessing in disguise. Since Charlie is able to see everything through rose colored glasses, he doesn’t realize how bleak his life actually is. By having this positive yet blinded world view, he is ensuring his happiness without even knowing it. Sadly, just few diary entries later when Charlie becomes the butt of another joke, he finally sees things for what they truly are, “Everyone was looking at me and laughing and I felt naked. I wanted to hide myself... It's a funny thing I never knew that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around all the time to make fun of me” (9). The revelation that he was only ever seen as a joke to those closest to him serves as Charlie’s rude awakening to the reality of life as he no longer experiences the sweet bliss of ignorance. This is further highlighted in his conversation with his coworker Fanny who warns him about the pitfalls of knowledge, “It was evil when Eve listened to the snake and ate from the tree of knowledge. It was evil when she saw that she was naked. If not for that none of us would ever have to grow old and sick, and die” (13). Fanny’s insight encapsulates the theme of the story as a whole. Even if Charlie’s intelligence allows him to learn the truth, he is forgoing his happiness as a result.

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While Charlie continues to embrace his new life of intelligence, all of his relationships start to dissolve simultaneously. Through his diary entries, the readers can see that the most important aspect of Charlie’s life is his friendships. “Im glad Im going back to work because I miss my job and all my frends and all the fun we have there” (4). A major portion of his life is defined by his relationships because they allow him to see himself as more than a disabled person. Even after learning that he is an object of ridicule by his coworkers, Charlie strives to use his intelligence to make his workplace better in an effort to save these friendships. This plan, however, backfires and further estranges Charlie from everyone else, “People don't talk to me much any more or kid around the way they used to. It makes the job kind of lonely” (11). As Charlie’s intellect continues to expand, he becomes Other to many of those around him. Though his disability made him a target of manipulation, he still felt like he was accepted. Now that Charlie’s operation has made him different from the norm, he’s effectively alienated by his coworkers. Eventually, Charlie’s Other status grows more apparent when he can no longer have mundane conversations with his teacher Ms. Kinnian, and when sees himself as superior to Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur, the scientists who gave him intelligence in the first place. It’s around this time that Charlie befriends his former rival Algernon, “Hes not so bad. Hes soft like a ball of cotton… I think III be frends with Algernon” (6-7). In both of their respective populations, Algernon and Charlie are Other. In Algernon’s case, he is a lab experiment that is kept in isolation when he isn’t being tested on, and as for Charlie, he’s grown far too different from what society defines as the standard. Although Charlie does find solace in his blossoming friendship with Algernon, it grows more clear that the intelligence he spent his whole life seeking is actually him doing more harm than good.

Once Charlie’s intelligence begins to wane, he is forced to accept an uncertain future that can leave him even worse off than he was before. After Charlie’s progress reaches its peak, Algernon’s behavior becomes erratic. While Algernon’s condition worsens, Charlie focuses all of his attention on creating his own research based upon the intelligence study as he is desperate to determine his fate “I must not become emotional. The facts and the results of my experiments are clear…” (17). Charlie’s obsession with finding this answer causes him to become estranged from even the audience, as he loses the qualities that make him sympathetic in the first place. However, Algernon’s death becomes a catalyst for Charlie reconnecting with reality. Once he accepts the loss of his only friend and the fact that his time is running out, Charlie decides to get his life on track. He returns to his job at the factory as a janitor and the adult night school. Now that the truth of his condition is revealed, Charlie is pitied by everyone around him. At this point, he realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he can never go back to the life he had before and decides to leave for New York in order to begin again. The story ends with Charlie’s incoherent final diary entry, leaving the audience just as wary of the future as Charlie is. In his article, Brent Walter Cline states, “At first an object of pity, the mentally disabled Charlie Gordon eventually becomes the metaphorical horror of oblivion that no character has the power to overcome” (Cline). Charlie’s transformation from underdog to genius is one that is supported by the reader as we all can relate to Charlie’s dreams and struggles in some way. By the story’s end, Charlie’s desire for intelligence leads to him having an even worse mental state than he had before as well as a life of loneliness and obscurity.

The unraveling of Charlie’s life throughout the story, though disastrous, is inevitable. When he is chosen to undergo the operation that will give him the intelligence to make his life complete, Charlie can’t be happier. Eager to learn new things, Charlie’s knowledge soon eclipses that of everyone he knows. This turns out to be his undoing as he is no longer shielded by the ignorance his mental disability gave him, so he is forced to see things for what they truly are. Due to his tenacious nature, Charlie tries to make the best of this new situation, but he is shunned by his coworkers in the process. Alone and ostracized, every facet of his life crumbles before him. When things can’t seem to get any worse, his friend and fellow experimentee Algernon, a lab rat, begins to experience abnormal behavior. This places Charlie’s future in jeopardy. As his intelligence decreases and the end of life as he knows it looms near, Charlie has no choice but to embrace what lies ahead. Daniel Keys’ Flowers for Algernon establishes through its unique premise that while knowledge may equal power, it certainly doesn’t guarantee happiness and can even lead to catastrophe.

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Mental Illness Depiction In Flowers For Algernon. (2021, September 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“Mental Illness Depiction In Flowers For Algernon.” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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