The novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is devoted to serious social and ethical topics – disabled people and the ethics of medical experiments. The author presents the story of a mentally disabled man who wants to become similar to others and agrees to undergo an innovative procedure. He obtains superior intellect but does not become happy. The book covers the problems of friendship, human relationships, and the ethics of experiments. This paper will provide a summary of the novel and an analysis of its main characters and themes. In the end, the author’s opinion on this book will be provided.
The novel is in the name of Charlie Gordon. He is 32 years old, and he is mentally disabled. Charlie works as a floor sweeper and performs other easy tasks. He obtains an opportunity to be rid of his mental problems through surgery. Charlie agrees to participate in the experiment because he sees remarkable results for a laboratory mouse, Algernon, who had a similar procedure (Keyes 286). He writes progress reports regularly to describe the fundamental changes and everything that is done to him by scientists (Gale 1). Charlie hopes to become a genius and to improve his life. However, the reality is different, and he is not happy. Charlie is selected just for the experience, similarly to that mouse, but not to make him a happier person.
Charlie understands the past issues with his family members and friends, which he was not able to study before because of mental disability. Charlie wants to improve his mind to read, write, and to communicate with others. However, in reality, he is similar to a laboratory mouse, and the scientists use him to test a new invention. The operation turns to be unsuccessful, and gradually, Charlie loses his intellect, and his state becomes even worse than it was before the operation. He decides to spend the remaining years of his life in a house for mentally disabled people and asks to put flowers on Algernon’s grave.
The main character is Charlie, and the whole story is connected with his transformations, feelings, and thoughts. At the beginning of the story, he is portrayed as a disabled man who is not happy with his life and wants to become smarter. He looks like a child, but actually, he is ambitious and optimistic. Charlie is much focused on his dreams of a better future, which motivates this character to agree to participate in a risky experiment. By passing this surgical procedure, he hopes to become smarter and happier in his life. However, the reality seems different to him. The author also shows Charlie as a person who wants to love and to be loved, as he lacks those feelings in his current life. His love for Alice makes him happier, but not for an extended period. Charlie’s life story is a tragedy that makes sense of the whole novel, and all other characters are related to Charlie.
Alice Kinnian is a teacher in the school for Retarded Adults where Charlie studies. She wants her students to participate in the experiment because she notices his desire and high level of motivation to become smart and to read and write correctly. She is responsible for Charlie and wants everything to be well during the experiment. For this reason, she remains with Charlie after the operation and assists him at different moments. Alice is sympathetic to her student, and she feels the need to be close to him. Their friendship transforms into love. When Charlie returns to his old mental state, Alice decides to terminate their relationship because it is excruciating for her to see disappointed Charlie.
Matt is Charlie’s father, and he seems to be one of the most loyal members of his family. He tries to protect his son from the abuse of his mother. However, his treatment for Charlie is rather neutral, and he does not want to improve Charlie’s life. After transformation, Matt is not interested in changing relationships with his son. Rose is Charlie’s mother, and her treatment is mostly abusive. She refuses to accept her son and calls him normal. Norma is a younger sister of Charlie, and her treatment of him is similar to her mother’s. Generally, family members of Charlie are indifferent to him and do not provide any assistance. All other main characters, such as Dr. Jayson Strauss, Dr. Guarino, and Mr. Winslow, are specialists working with Charlie during and after the experiment. Initially, they seem to be interested in his improvement and making his life better. Charlie trusts them and does everything they want, but then he understands that they are interested in him only as in a laboratory animal, not a person. Scientists are pragmatic and not humanistic.
The novel covers the theme of ethics in human relationships and science, including the ethics of experimentation on humans. The author shows that scientists use Charlie not to help him or make him happier, but to conduct an experiment. According to Ghoshal and Wilkinson, the changes in Charlie’s mental and emotional state were not considered by scientists, and “were a source of significant distress for him throughout the book” (194). The scientists treat Charlie as an animal or a robot, as Ryder states, “Charlie Gordon also oscillates between the human and the machine, or rather, the robot” (55). In general, the novel focuses on a serious social topic and is timely as well, because scientists may perform similar experiments with disabled people.
The novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes should be studied to understand the problems of scientific ethics, human relationships, and treatment of disabled people. The story of Charlie is an example of how the ambitions of scientists and their desire to invent something new can make others unhappy. For them, Charlie was not an individual, but a ‘laboratory mouse’ for their experiment. This story shows that all people should be treated with humanism, and their interests should be more important than a desire to become famous or to make an invention.
To sum up, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes covers essential themes. It discusses the attitudes towards the disabled, the issue of ethics in science, as well as various relationships between people. By presenting Charlie’s story, the author shows that the happiness of a person should be more important than the goals of science. The interests of those who participate in experiments should be considered as more valuable than the desire to become famous or to make an invention.
Ghoshal, Nishan, and Paul O. Wilkinson. “Flowers for Algernon: The Ethics of Human Experimentation on the Intellectually Disabled.” Psychiatria Danubina, vol. 29, no. 3, 2017, pp. 194-195.
Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.
Ryder, Mike. “Microfascism and the Double Exclusion in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, vol. 132, 2019, pp. 54-65.