Of American novels that engage with the topic of mental disability, few are more popular than Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. Such popularity seems based on a simplistic reading of the novel where the mentally disabled are objects of good-natured compassion. A more thorough reading of how Charlie Gordon is presented, however, leads to the conclusion that mental disability is the embodiment of death in the novel. Readers are first taught to pity the pre-operative Charlie, but once they come to respond to the ethical voice of the post-operative Charlie, his regression to his original state becomes the rhetorical villain in the novel. 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.
In my short career of teaching undergraduates, I have found that their interest in my own scholarly work is often, at best, tepid. When I informed a few classes, however, that I was working on Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon and the role mental disability had in the novel, the emotional attachment students had to the book was clear. They nearly unanimously praised it; a few spoke of how it was the only book that interested them in high school. It was clear that even in the 21st century the Hugo-winning science fiction novel was one of the most widely read that concerns the mentally disabled. 1 Perhaps it is the surface idea of the story that explains its presence in schools: Charlie Gordon is a mentally disabled man who records his thoughts in "progress reports" as he undergoes an operation to improve his intelligence. He reaches the cognitive ability of the greatest of geniuses, ironically surpassing the doctors who operated on him. Initially, this increase in intelligence grants Charlie hope: he revels in his new cognitive abilities and his romantic relationship with Alice, his former adult education teacher. Ultimately, however, his intelligence isolates him from Alice and all those closest to him. Aware how doctors took advantage of him while disabled, and how family and friends abandoned him, Charlie rebels against the idea that he is somehow a product of others' medical creation. His only companion through this isolation is Algernon, the mouse who preceded him in the breakthrough operation. Algernon, however, loses his gained intelligence and dies, and Charlie's operation proves just as temporary; despite his best attempts to remain an intelligent man, Charlie eventually returns to his previous disabled state. The final "progress report" Charlie writes is from the same intellectual level as those he writes at the beginning of the novel.
Based on this plot, the text seemingly brims with advocacy for the mentally disabled. The 1966 review by The New York Times states "The obvious part is the message: We must respect life, respect one another, be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves" (Fremont-Smith 25). In the pages of academic journals of pedagogy, the novel's message is understood to be one of advocacy: one teacher writes "The reading logs of my students reflected the sensitivity and moral indignation I had hoped they would experience while reading the story" (Peterson et al. 38). Even in his memoir Algernon, Charlie and I, Keyes himself states, "I didn't want my readers to laugh at Charlie. Maybe laugh with him, but not at him" (80). Keyes is right: it is impossible to imagine an implied reader meant to laugh at Charlie Gordon. Yet the concept and performance of mental disability in the novel is not the science-fiction-spun golden rule it may seem. Reading the book as a performance of the inherent dignity of the mentally disabled, such as the quotes above attest, only speaks to the initial presentation of Charlie: as a disabled man who deserves others' pity. Such a partial reading places it with such novels as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell state, help create "the pervasiveness of disability lessons that infuse U.S. educational curricula and the contemporary literary canon" (6). These readings that suggest the inherent dignity of the mentally disabled, however, ignore the idea that when mental disability "returns" to the novel, it operates as an inevitable force that threatens the distinct personality of the novel's hero. Keyes himself, despite the statement by him quoted above, recognizes what mental disability must eventually become when he writes in his memoir of the novel's plot, "Recalling Aristotle's dictum in his Poetics that a tragedy can happen only to the highborn, because there can be a tragic fall only from a great height, I thought, let's test that" (75). Keyes may have wanted mental disability to evoke pity if not compassion in his readers, but he eventually converts it to the novel's primary villain by threatening the "highborn" with a "tragic fall" of cognitive regression. 2
The initial, disabled Charlie Gordon, as presented through his own thoughts, is a foreign character to an implied reader due to his inability to reason, to intuit meaning from what occurs around him, and most pathetically, to see the mockery and abuse he endures. As a result, he is pitied for his powerlessness and innocent strangeness. The intelligent Charlie, however, acts, thinks, and loves in a way recognized and understood by the other characters in the novel, if not the reader as well. Furthermore, the voice of the post-operative Charlie becomes the dominant, ethical voice of the novel, making this version of Charlie the novel's hero. Therefore, the primary enemy of this novel—that which would rob the reader of the existence of its hero—is the inevitable return of mental disability, which does not allow for all those characteristics that make the post-operative Charlie distinct. As Keyes states in his memoir, the drama of the text is based on "the pathos of a man who knows what it is to be brilliant and to know that he can never have the things that he tasted for the first time, including a brilliant, beautiful woman he fell in love with" (68). The impossibility of preventing the return of mental disability therefore creates the novel's tragedy, and Charlie's return to his original disabled state operates as the inevitable loss of what enabled him to become a better person. It is fair to say then, that mental disability eventually eliminates the heroic, intelligent character. Rather than being the proof that all persons have an inherent dignity, an idea that explains the pervasiveness of Flowers for Algernon in American schools, mental disability operates as death, creating the great, permanent nothingness that both Charlie and the reader learn to fear.
The Pitiful Charlie Gordon
The pity-inducing trope of infantilizing the mentally disabled is most obvious to the audience as the narrative opens. Charlie has not yet had the operation, but since the novel is told through Charlie's "progress reports," we must fill in the gaps with what we infer from what he can only vaguely suggest. The first pages of the novel, for instance, are inundated with spelling errors and obvious misconceptions. Without an intelligent narrator to give the audience an initial understanding of character or action, irony is created, and this irony produces pity for the reader. On the first page of the novel Charlie writes about meeting with Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss, the heads of the experiment: "What happind is I went to Prof Nemurs office on my lunch time like they said and his secertery took me to a place that said psych dept on the door with a long hall and alot of little rooms with onley a desk and chares" (Keyes 1). Charlie's simple description and obvious lack of intuition immediately makes him an inadequate hero to confront whatever obstacles he may soon encounter; more intelligent than Charlie, we realize he is being swallowed by the sophisticates behind the university walls and "little rooms." On the first page, then, Charlie is unaware of the complexity of his experience at the university, thus making him something like a character of Kafka, facing machinations that are impossible for him to fully comprehend. We as readers, however, do comprehend what is happening, and we pity him because we know the sides are dramatically mismatched.
Charlie's reporting of his psychological tests is a clever way for the audience to "see" his inability not through the results of the test, but through his inadequate descriptions of the test, as well as his inability to even perform within the tests. When Burt, the psychology graduate student, attempts to give him a "raw shok" test, Charlie states,
I tolld him I imaggen a inkblot. He shaked his head so that wasn't rite eather…I closd my eyes for a long time to pretend and then I said I pretend a bottel of ink spilld all over a wite card. And that's when the point on his pencel broke and then we got up and went out.(3)
Charlie is unable to grasp what the reader can, and while frustration in sympathy with Burt may occur, the more likely emotional response by the reader is pity toward a man who cannot understand a psychological experiment at its most basic, especially when compared to the ensuing operation that prompts the Rorschach test.
If Charlie is unaware of his powerlessness in the midst of science, he is also unaware of his isolation in the midst of society. His family has previously abandoned him, something Charlie is only vaguely aware of. Twice he mentions that his motivation for the experiment is that "I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me" (13). Clearly his family did not and does not "like" him, and his oblique references to his friends at the bakery where he works, men who use "Charlie Gordon" as a synonym for mistake, make us believe that Charlie's only working definition of friendship is outright abuse. The only true friendship Charlie seems to have at the beginning of the novel is with Algernon, the lab mouse. Even Charlie's friendship with Algernon is itself based on pity: Charlie fears the mouse's mistreatment at the hands of the scientists when he learns that Algernon only receives food when he successfully completes the maze: "I don't think its right to make you pass a test to eat. How woud Burt like to have to pass a test every time he wants to eat. I think Ill be friends with Algernon" (32). If Charlie is aware that his friendship with Algernon is based on his own fears and isolation, he does not recognize it. He is thus aware enough to see Algernon has been wronged and deserves an ally, but unable to transfer that recognition to his own situation.
Establishing this feeling of complete pity for Charlie is necessary as it provides the backdrop for the post-operative Charlie, who becomes hyper-intelligent and hyper-aware of both his current state as a budding genius as well as his former state of pathetic, disabled man. The continual cultural ubiquity of the novel arguably rests in the fact that when Charlie becomes intelligent he seemingly becomes an arrogant, selfish burden to those around him. This creates a quaint appreciation for the mentally disabled, as even though they are naïve, such ignorance is preferable to the pompous narcissists in academia. This homely appreciation is short-lived, however, as we soon shift our allegiance to the hyper-intelligent Charlie who rages against those who "created" him, while at the same time mourning the temporariness of his creation that forces him back to being disabled. Daniel Keyes suggests as much when he recounts the story of the book's publication in his memoir. Describing the problems with editors who demanded a happy ending to the story, Keyes writes,
Finally, [the editor] came out of his office, deep in thought, and sat across from me.
"Dan, this is a good story. But I'm going to suggest a few changes that will turn it into a great story…Charlie doesn't regress. He doesn't lose his intelligence. Instead, he remains a supergenius, marries Alice Kinnian, and they live happily ever after. That would make it a great story."
I stared at him. How does a beginning writer respond to the editor…What about my Wedge of Loneliness? My tragic vision of Book Mountain? My challenge to Aristotle's theory of The Classic Fall? (110-1)
Keyes recognizes that Charlie's regression, despite the fact that he merely returns to his original state, is a source of tragedy. This tragedy is read as pity at the beginning of the novel because Charlie's disability causes him to be powerless and unaware. By the end of the novel, however, disability causes the book's clear protagonist, the intelligent Charlie, to no longer exist. All that which makes the post-operative Charlie a distinct character—purpose, love, imagination, sexuality—fades away. Therefore, it is as though the intelligent Charlie is dying. How readers are to respond to this death and its cause, mental disability, can only be evaluated, however, when the intelligent Charlie is compared to his pre-operative state.
The Better Charlie Gordon
Part of the "moral" of Flowers for Algernon is that Charlie, despite his increased intelligence, supposedly never becomes a better person. Therefore, although his intelligence improves, Charlie as a person does not; rather than simply becoming hyper-intelligent, he also becomes cruel and selfish. This is pointed out to Charlie by nearly all those around him: the doctors involved in the experiment, Burt the graduate student, Charlie's love Alice, and Charlie's casual partner Faye. Despite the claims of all these characters, however, Charlie actually becomes extremely compassionate and aware, both of himself and others, when he is intelligent. The text therefore moves us from pitying the mentally disabled Charlie to sympathizing and morally aligning ourselves with the intelligent Charlie.
As Charlie becomes closer with his former teacher Alice, he decides to visit her in his former classroom at the "Center for Retarded Adults." Since Charlie's speech and carriage are now vastly different from when he attended the class, when he steps inside the other students notice the difference. Once they are alone, Charlie asks Alice what is wrong:
"Nothing—nothing's bothering me."
"Come on. Your anger is all out of proportion to what's happened. Something's on your mind."
She slammed down a book she was holding. "All right. You want to know? You're different. You've changed. And I'm not talking about your I.Q. It's your attitude toward people—you're not the same kind of human being…I mean it. There was something in you before. I don't know…a warmth, an openness, a kindness that made everyone like you and like to have you around." (122)
This is problematic for two reasons. First, we have not seen Charlie act cruelly toward his old classmates. He admits returning to the class was a mistake and states he is not sure why he did it. But when the students interact with him he is in no way cruel. He waves at those who wave to him, and when asked if he is coming back he explains, "This is just a visit." The motivation for the lie is his rhetorical question, "What could I tell them that would not hurt them?" (121). Charlie may have done a foolish thing by going back to the classroom, but he admits his wrong, and in no way validates Alice's opinion of him. The second reason why Alice's anger is unfounded is that we have seen that Charlie's friendships with others before the operation cannot be wholly categorized as a result of "a kindness that made everyone like you and like to have you around." The men at the bakery where he worked before the operation only pretend to befriend him in order to mock him, and Charlie himself points this out to Alice: "Did you think I'd remain a docile pup, wagging my tail and licking the foot that kicks me?…I no longer have to take the kind of crap that people have been handing me all my life" (123). Alice's credibility is even more compromised when she states, "People have not been bad to you." As earlier established, his mistreatment by friends and family characterized Charlie before his operation. The entire scene then, rather than make Charlie into an arrogant, selfish man, shows him to be sympathetic and self-aware. His judgment, rather than that of Alice, becomes more trustworthy.
Other characters besides Alice call Charlie both arrogant and selfish, including the head of the experiment Professor Nemur, who becomes a rival as Charlie becomes more intelligent. At the science conference where both Charlie and Algernon are to perform their changes, Charlie proves himself a more capable scholar than Nemur and embarrasses his "master" by running away with Algernon before their demonstration. When Nemur and Charlie finally have an explosive argument, Nemur states, "We had no control over what happened to your personality, and you've developed from a likeable, retarded young man into an arrogant, self-centered, antisocial bastard" (247). Like Alice, Nemur's criticism of Charlie is that he is now less likeable than he was as a docile mentally disabled man.
Even when Charlie becomes belligerent it is only indirectly for his own benefit. When Algernon is on display at the science conference Charlie steals him, not only to avenge himself against the scientists, but also because he sees Algernon as misrepresented and misunderstood. When he dines alone in a restaurant and sees other patrons mocking a mentally disabled busboy who breaks some dishes, he lashes out:
Suddenly I was furious at myself and all those who were smirking at him. I wanted to pick up the dishes and throw them. I wanted to smash their laughing faces. I jumped up and shouted: "Shut up! 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!" (198-9)
Even if Charlie's reaction is melodramatic, it is still rooted in empathy with a person he recognizes as powerless and abused. At the same time, it also reveals a self-awareness others seem incapable of: "Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts most of all" (123). Again, rather than selfish and arrogant, the hyper-intelligent Charlie stands out as the most sympathetic and self-aware character in the novel.
Rather than Charlie being selfish with his increased intelligence, he seems to be no more selfish than the others, and arguably more sympathetic and aware of others' pain than they are of his. For instance, after Charlie is well aware of his descent back to mental disability, Alice is willing to take care of him. Much like when Algernon became erratic and violent in his deterioration, Charlie becomes self-pitying and suffers from feelings of loss. Alice tells him, "You're right. I never said I could understand the things that were happening to you…But I'll tell you one thing. Before you had the operation, you weren't like this. You didn't wallow in your own filth and self-pity…you didn't snarl and snap at people" (299). Alice unfairly simplifies the situation here. Echoing her earlier argument that Charlie's pre-operative life was blessed, Alice states that even when people laughed at Charlie, "you wanted them to like you. You acted like a child and you even laughed at yourself along with them." Alice here praises infantilizing behavior by Charlie and states he was kinder when he endured others mocking him so he might be liked. Charlie, unable to comprehend this reasoning, throws her out. Whether his throwing her out or not is justified is less important than the recognition that only Charlie has any accuracy about his previous self. Despite others' claims, Charlie is not "an arrogant, self-centered, antisocial bastard."
This establishment of Charlie's voice as the most ethical and aware among the characters is crucial in determining how mental disability is used in the novel. Charlie questions others' concern for him when he was still mentally disabled, recreating the reader's earlier pity when the overwhelmed, pre-operative Charlie was trying to comprehend what the experiment would mean to him. Ironically, however, Charlie's perception of the humanity of his former self is really no different than others' versions. Just as Nemur believes that the post-operative Charlie is a new person, so does Charlie himself. There is no integration of the mentally disabled Charlie and the hyper-intelligent Charlie. The former haunts the latter, existing as a nightmare or Freudian hallucination; the original, disabled Charlie is the inescapable destiny awaiting the post-operative Charlie Gordon.
The Other Charlie Gordon
Just before Charlie and Professor Nemur's relationship finally erupts at the science conference, Charlie writes, "Nemur's constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings…He doesn't realize that I was a person before I came here" (145). When Nemur uses this "new man" rhetoric at the conference, Charlie expresses his animosity: "I wanted to get up and show everyone what a fool [Nemur] was, to shout at him: I'm a human being, a person—with parents and memories and a history—and I was before you ever wheeled me into that operating room" (161). Presumably it is moments like these that cause Flowers for Algernon to be read in schools. Yet, though Charlie obviously is uncomfortable with the idea that he has been made by Nemur and Strauss, he nevertheless performs this idea in how he relates to his own past.
When Charlie first becomes more intelligent, he experiences intense memories. In one of his first moments of memory, he states, "I think its far back…a long time ago when I first started working at Donner's bakery. I see the street where the bakery is" (43). As this memory progresses, however, the first person gives way to the third. Whenever he sees himself in the past, Charlie calls himself Charlie rather than I: "Coming back to the bakery he sees some boys advancing…Charlie backs away from the boys laughing…Charlie pushes through the swinging doors" (45). This third person reference to his own past continues throughout the book, and it is a division that Charlie himself is well aware of: "It's me, and yet it's like someone else lying there—another Charlie" (60). When Charlie narrates the memories, it is as though he were never a participant, and is only now an external audience for the first time. In remembering a moment with his family, he states, "I can almost feel it now, the stretching and knotting in his intestines as the two of them stand over him waiting to see what he will do" (75). Charlie is distanced from his own memory as we are from his telling of the memory. The division that Nemur assumes in the post-operative Charlie is therefore performed, as he is unable to connect his existence with that mentally disabled man and boy in his memories.
The pre-operative Charlie is a specter interfering in the life of the intelligent Charlie, suggesting that the intelligent Charlie himself recognizes, much like Nemur, that he is born again due to the experiment. When Charlie looks at himself, he sees a splintered identity. While thinking about his past he says, "I see little Charlie Gordon—fourteen or fifteen—looking out at me through the window of his house, and it's doubly strange to realize how different he was" (115). It is precisely this inability for the post-operative Charlie to create harmony with his former self that makes the previous establishment of his sympathy and awareness of himself and others so important. Charlie is not blinded by rage, jealousy, or self-absorption. Instead, he proves to be one of the most sympathetic and selfless characters in the novel. This creates the impression that even the laudable, intelligent Charlie cannot accept the full humanity of the pre-operative Charlie. He states fairly early in his cognitive improvement, "I'm a person. I was somebody before I went under the surgeon's knife" (85). Yet Charlie never believes this, as he cannot even grammatically make the assumption that the memories he experiences are truly his. They belong to another, to the ghostly spectacle of a teenage boy who watches shamefully yet excitedly at possible sexual endeavors. Late in the novel Charlie states to Alice, "the old Charlie can't be destroyed. He exists….All I wanted to do was prove that Charlie existed as a person in the past, so that I could justify my own existence…I've discovered not only did Charlie exist in the past, he exists now" (201). There is still no admission that this pitiful Charlie we met at the beginning of the novel is the same as the more intelligent, and as-proven humane Charlie who utters these words.
This returns us to the initial pitiful Charlie who was mentally disabled. While we initially felt pity for the disabled Charlie because of his powerlessness and lack of awareness, that same disabled Charlie represents a threat to the existence of the cognitively improved and ethically sound Charlie Gordon. Because this new Charlie, however, cannot see (much like the other characters) himself as the same person as the initial Charlie, that initial Charlie becomes more than just his original pitiful figure; now he is an outsider even to the hero(es) of the novel. In his narratological study of science fiction, Carl Malmgren states, "The alien actant and its human counterpart occupy the center stage of the fictional universe, and an exploration of their respective unique qualities is the sine qua non of the fiction" (56-7). Such is the case in Flowers for Algernon, but just as the created cyborg is determined to be more human than the original disabled human, here the alien actant is Charlie Gordon as a disabled boy. The hyper-intelligent version shares the stage with him, but here the outsider is the original, and this outsider is a threat to Charlie's "normal," intelligent existence. Our pity is no longer for the mentally disabled Charlie, but for the intelligent Charlie who must take on an existence that is wholly distinct and foreign to his own.
Rhetorically, the return of mental disability operates as a kind of death, as it will cause the erasure of all that the intelligent Charlie is and has created. He states in his letter to the foundation that funded his operation, "As long as I am able to write, I will continue to put down my thoughts and ideas in these progress reports. It is one of my few solitary pleasures…However, by all indications, my own mental deterioration will be quite rapid" (255). This type of rhetoric about what will become of Charlie is consistent throughout his final days as an intelligent man. He is not simply in a race against time but complete oblivion, since the pre-operative version of himself is in no way a part of his own consciousness. To become disabled, then, is to become an irreconcilable other that erases his current existence.
Charlie's final days as intelligent are marked by a voracious need to do something of lasting import for humanity. Charlie states, with the tone of a martyr,
What eludes me is the reason for [Algernon's] regression…If I can find that out, and if it adds even one jot of information to whatever else has been discovered about mental retardation and the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied. Whatever happens to me, I will have lived a thousand normal lives by what I might add to others not yet born. That's enough. (240)
Of course, if Charlie is a martyr, the question is what is he martyred by. The only answer is mental disability itself, now far removed from the earlier pity it produced on the reader, acting as a synonym for eradication. 3 Writing about the archetype of the transformed person in science fiction, Gary Wolfe states,
The anthropological and psychological literature on such tales of transformation is immense, and the common factor in interpretations of such tales is that they are somehow involved with the passage from one state of being to another, from ignorance to knowledge. Transformation is almost universally a passage into the unknown, the crossing of a barrier that broadens and deepens the scope of experience. (210)
Charlie's great transformation has been from the unknown to the known, and since the unknown position is a position of lack, the known position is the desirable one. Just as he is the inversion of the cyborg and alien, here Charlie is the inversion of the transformed human. His travel from disability to intelligence is the movement away from a consciousness no one, not even post-operative Charlie, can seemingly know, and toward one that is communally accepted. Because he must return to that unknowability of consciousness, however, mental disability becomes like a death. Even though it is his original state, it is also the undoing of his great transformation.
The rhetoric of death is pervasive throughout the final days of the intelligent Charlie Gordon. Lying next to Alice while she sleeps, Charlie meditates on how each person must travel "toward the goal-box of solitary death" (294). Considering how humans need other humans, something he apparently learned while intelligent, Charlie states, "our bodies fused a link in the human chain that kept us from being swept into nothing" (294). The approach of mental disability then is consistently appropriated by death language, and the communal values he learns while intelligent are in danger of being "swept into nothing" within the disabled mind. During his final therapy session with Dr. Strauss, Charlie seems to understand the unity of life as he fades into a psychedelic moment where borders become fuzzy: "as I start through the opening, I feel the pressure around me, propelling me in violent wavelike motions toward the mouth of the cave…and suddenly I am hurled against the walls…Again, I know I will pierce the crust into that holy light" (284). To be sure, there is no evidence that bursting into "holy light" is mental disability itself. The rhetoric speaks otherwise. Instead, the holy light comes at the moment of death, and this final therapy session for Charlie operates like the transplantation from life to death. A deteriorating Charlie experiences a unity between existence and whatever seems to be beyond. Writing that Charlie Gordon's experience mirrors Joseph Campbell's monomyth, Donald Palumbo explains this final therapy session not as death but as echo of the apotheosis that all heroes must undergo: "Charlie's entire post-operative experience is a sphere of re-birth is indicated by the extended rebirth metaphor he imbeds in his description of his last therapy session with Dr. Strauss, during which he jokes about wanting to be 'reborn' immediately prior to having his out-of-body experience" (433). While Keyes may be invoking birth imagery here, as well as the novel's epigraph of the metaphor of the cave from Plato's Republic, it is inconsistent to find a new, better life or understanding from this experience. If Charlie is experiencing apotheosis, then it is only as a painful image of what can never be. A mystical understanding is not possible with the consistent language that Charlie is a doomed man quickly running out of time.
The rhetoric of mental disability-as-death, however, is perhaps most clearly expressed through the image of Warren, the state asylum. It is first mentioned early in the novel when a pre-operative Charlie establishes it as a place of fear: "Maby I wont get smart and Ill have to go live at the Warren home" (20). When Charlie learns that Warren is the contingency plan should he deteriorate, he connects the home with laboratory animals whose destiny is the incinerator: "They had thought of everything. Warren was the logical place—the deep freeze where I could be put away for the rest of my days. 'At least it's not the incinerator,' I said" (220). Only paragraphs later Charlie connects Warren with death, saying, "I could see [Nemur] was upset about the idea of my visiting Warren. As if I were ordering my coffin, to sit in before I died."
Ironically, when Charlie does visit his future home, he misinterprets what he sees. The head psychologist informs him that patients are not there by force and those who leave by their own will soon come back because "The world doesn't want them and they soon know it" (223). Pitiful or not, Warren is more of a welcoming place than New York at large. When he visits different parts of Warren, Charlie witnesses care not only from employees, but also among patients themselves. Winslow, the head psychologist, states, "sometimes they know enough to seek human contact and affection from each other" (226). A nurse describes the patients as children, and the woodworking class is attended by a kindhearted overseer. 4 When Charlie questions how one patient cares for another, Winslow states, "Well, how many people do you know who are prepared to take a grown man into his arms and let him nurse with the bottle? And take the chance of having the patient urinate or defecate all over him?" (230). Charlie nevertheless looks past this benevolence and sees Warren as a coffin: "The feeling was of living death" (231). Charlie's comment here echoes how Alice and Nemur naively viewed him as arrogant and self-centered; Charlie has ignored what we as readers have witnessed. Clearly distraught at his deterioration, Charlie connects mental disability with sub-human souls and death. 5
Because Flowers for Algernon is comprised of Charlie's journals, there is no reason to assume that his journals will stop because he returns to mental disability. After all, he opened the novel from his original state. 6 Yet the last page reads like the last scribbled words of a dying man. The spelling is again incorrect, and Charlie's mind is once more overly-literal and simplistic. He writes, "If you ever reed this Miss [Alice] Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said…Goodby Miss Kinnian and dr Strauss and evrybody…" (310, 11). The novel then concludes with two postscripts. The first is a pathetic promise that Charlie will have friends again because he will let people mock him. The second is a request to "put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard." Although both of these invoke the pity seen at the beginning of the book, it is a pity mixed with the horror of the death of the heroic Charlie who struggled against his descent into disability. We witness Charlie breaking Alice's heart by returning to her classroom as a mentally disabled man; Alice's last appearance in the novel is when she runs out of the room crying. Mental disability then acts as the great terminal disease that causes horror. The pity we have is for the intelligent Charlie who has descended into oblivion, not for the Charlie who, if we are to truly believe Alice, Nemur, and others, had a good life before, and could therefore return to that life.
We must initially pity Charlie Gordon in order to want him to overcome his mental disability. When he does become intelligent, we celebrate that new intelligence by being rewarded with a man who is not the arrogant, self-centered others claim him to be, but a sympathetic, moral man who is frightfully existing on a precipice. Eventually, mental disability shifts to a horrifying inevitability as Charlie must face the deterioration of his intelligence. Never having had to see the pre-operative Charlie as the same Charlie who becomes hyper-intelligent, we as readers are able to convert a man we initially pitied into the man we ultimately fear; like death, his disability erases what good has been created in the novel. There are no epilogues for Charlie's "new" existence. His postscripts are letters from a buried man. As readers we are left with the memory of Charlie who loved Alice and longed to create something lasting and good for humanity. Mental disability, like death, has eliminated the possibility for any new, positive experiences to occur.
- Fremont-Smith, Eliot. "The Message and the Maze." Rev. of Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. New York Times 7 Mar 1966: 25.
- Ickes-Dunbar, Andrea. "Charlie Gordon Passes the Test of Time." Phi Kappa Phi Forum 84.2 (2004): 3,7.
- Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Mariner Books, 2005.
- -—. Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey. Boca Raton, FL: Challenge Press, 1999.
- Malmgren, Carl. Worlds Apart: A Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
- Palumbo, Donald. "The Monomyth in Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon." The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 14.4 (2004): 427-446.
- Peterson, Nancy Ruth, et al. "Being Special." English Journal 81.6 (1992): 34-43.
- Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. "Disability Haunting in American Poetics." Journal of Literary Disability 1.1 (2007): 1-12.
- Wolfe, Gary K. The Known and the Unknown. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979.
Students have often voiced their appreciation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but the role of mental disability is clearly less overt in their minds than it is in the case of Flowers for Algernon.
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Even those who lavishly praise the novel for making the mentally disabled into people worthy of attention ironically accept that mental disability eventually destroys the intelligent man they come to love. One teacher, speaking of the inspiration the novel is to her students, writes,
For twenty years my eighth-grade students and I have agonized with Charlie, have hoped for him, and have felt outrage on his behalf. Sixty times I, along with my students, have endured the emotional rise of Charlie Gordon's meteoric ascent from mental disability to the pinnacle of cognitive capacity and his tragic fall into intellectual oblivion. With each reading, my heart constricts and my eyes brim with tears. (Ickes-Dunbar 3)The fact that that she and her students feel outrage over his treatment while disabled, yet also consider mental disability as "oblivion" is never commented upon.
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This is even more the case as Charlie seems to come to a peace about Nemur and Strauss, as well as the operation. Rather than shaking his fists at the heavens for the experiment, the lingering villain in the corner is not the initial cause of death (the operation), but death itself (disability).
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This is a moment where cultural representations of mental disability can be a difficult enterprise. Clearly the current political climate is against these types of asylums like Warren. Yet in Flowers for Algernon, Warren is nevertheless a more welcome place than the city. Though some may balk at the patronizing language of a nurse calling the disabled her children, this is nevertheless the most consistent, positive interaction we see with the mentally disabled.
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Charlie does bristle at the idea of being patronized as a mentally disabled man when he watches a man who has made a crude item with wood be congratulated. Charlie's rhetoric, however, is less about the mentally disabled being infantilized as it is his concern with one day being so insensible to his own inadequacies. It is less a worry about the treatment of the mentally disabled than it is that he will be treated the same way.
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There is a suggestion in one part of the novel that Charlie could deteriorate to an even lower I.Q. than he began. Yet, this is given no more attention than the prospect that Charlie could die. There is no reason, however, to think anyone in his life thinks Charlie will die. The only death is a metaphorical one in the form of disability.
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