The Philosophy of Flowers for Algernon
What Charlie’s journey can teach us about the nature of intelligence and our relationship to it.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966) is a science fiction novel told from the perspective of Charlie Gordon, a man desperate to become smart having spent his entire life with severe learning difficulties.
The book is presented in the format of Charlie’s progress reports as he follows the path set by a mouse named Algernon who has successfully had his intelligence increased in what appears to be a permanent change.
The reports monitor his ascent from the darkness of his childlike mind to one of, if not the most, intelligent people on the planet. The repercussions for Charlie are startling.
In what can be described as positives, he becomes able to retain vast quantities of knowledge in months where others would take years, and he is offered fresh perspectives on things he could never even imagine.
Alternatively, he also finds that this newly acquired knowledge creates a conflict between his conscious and unconscious mind. Charlie describes his old self as watching from the darkness and he acts as a constant reminder of a tormented past. Furthermore, Charlie is burdened with a level of responsibility that his rapid change has not prepared him for. There is a sense that intelligence is only able to pave over the cracks that experience could fix.
Charlie’s journey raises many interesting questions such as:
- Does intelligence imply emotional maturity?
- What moral responsibility should we expect from those who are unaware of the nuances and hidden motives of human life?
- To what extent should we alter the brains of the unintelligent if we had the means to do so?
- To what extent should people pursue knowledge as an end in itself?
- How much does intelligence impact an individual’s perception of reality?
In this article, I will be focusing on the theme of enlightenment that Keyes uses throughout the book. Often the terms darkness and light are used as metaphors for Charlie’s level of intellect, and the imagery of Plato’s Cave is invoked to show how the truth has fundamentally changed his reality. I will also be exploring how Charlie’s journey “out of the cave” comes with additional shadows that are harder to illuminate.
From Darkness Into The Light: Intelligence and Plato’s Allegory of The Cave
“Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck…Thus they stay in the same place so that there is only one thing for them to look that: whatever they encounter in front of their faces. But because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around.” Socrates
During his early progress reports, Charlie reveals a deep-seated desire to be intelligent. Interestingly, since Charlie has an IQ of 68, his comprehension of what the world would be like after the experiment is extremely lacking. Charlie’s perception of events in his pre-experimented mind is sorely deficient — his motivations for wanting to be intelligent are hidden from his conscious thought, mostly repressed from a damaging relationship with his mother. Yet he is convinced that when he becomes smart, he’ll be able to enjoy the pleasures of the “normal” people and his relationships with those he considers his friends will improve.
There is a comparison to be made here between the naivety of a child who wants nothing more than to be an adult, without the awareness of what that status entails. More prominently, Keyes appeals to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave throughout the book, and Charlie’s position at the start mirrors that of the cave dwellers shackled in the darkness. He, due to his condition, is kept in the dark about most of the truths of his existence. Charlie is only privy to the “shadows” and therefore stands as an example of how all unenlightened people are to Socrates.
“From the beginning people like this have never managed, whether on their own or with the help by others, to see anything besides the shadows that are [continually] projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire.” Socrates
Charlie’s progress throughout the first weeks after the experiment is the ascent from the cave. He slowly becomes aware of the previous deceptions his lack of intellect imposed on him. Charlie’s senses were not flawed (at least no more flawed than the rest); he “saw” what everybody else saw, yet it is the intellect that illuminates the truth.
For example, while working at the bakery, Charlie believed that the laughter of his colleagues was something that he had shared in, only to find out that many of them were making jokes at his expense. Of course, it doesn’t end there. When he begins to show signs of greater intellect, this threatens the pecking order they had established, and some of them now despise him for making them feel inferior. In this sense, Charlie has gone back to those in the cave seeking their approval and security, even to improve the business; only to be rejected.
“Would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up.” Socrates
Eventually, Charlie begins to appreciate that his new identity does not belong in the setting he once cherished. Most of what he thought about the people at the bakery was a lie and soon enough his interests would alienate them, for they would lack the mental capacity to find his discussions interesting.
“Wouldn’t he or she prefer to put up with absolutely anything else rather than associate with those opinions that hold in the cave and be that kind of human being?” Socrates
Charlie’s higher intelligence leads him on a deep journey of self-discovery and also has him surpass the very people who granted him the possibility of his extremely high IQ. And this is where Charlie begins to exhibit some of the more significant drawbacks of his newly acquired intellect.
The Fruit From The Tree of Knowledge
“It was evil when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. It was evil when they saw they was naked, and learned about lust and shame. And they was driven out of Paradise and the gates was closed to them. If not for that none of us would have to grow old and be sick and die.” Fanny Birden to Charlie Gordon
One of the driving conflicts of the book is the tension between the benefits that intelligence grants Charlie and the emotional torment it unveils. Fanny’s reference to Adam and Eve is aimed to warn Charlie of the dangers of knowing more than he should, and while we can criticise the naturalistic fallacy she commits, her warnings are not entirely misplaced since Charlie’s experiences echo the biblical narrative.
As previously stated, Charlie’s upbringing (particularly his relationship with his mother Rose) was extremely difficult for Charlie. Through a series of dreams and memories, he recollects how desperate Rose was for him to be a “normal” child and how he was chastised greatly for being incapable of reading and writing at an appropriate level. The relationship then worsens when Rose gives birth to Norma, Charlie’s younger sister.
As her name suggests, “ Norma(l)” is everything that Rose had wanted and so Charlie begins to be resented. The resentment grows and eventually crescendos when Rose accuses Charlie of acting out sexually towards her sister. She brandishes a knife and demands that her husband takes Charlie away. Charlie, from this point onward, grows up estranged from the rest of his family.
Unsurprising, the memories of his past cause Charlie distress and manifest themselves in ways that the researchers and himself could not have easily predicted. Potentially the most difficult hurdle Charlie has is with his previous teacher and now love interest, Alice Kinnian.
At first, Charlie lacks the emotional maturity to fully understand his growing affection for Alice. When he was cognitively impaired, most of their interactions had a very different power dynamic due to Alice’s responsibilities as a teacher and protector. But Charlie’s intelligence allows for them to connect on a higher level, and while he cannot fully comprehend his feelings of desire, he knows that he wants Alice.
However, Charlie’s intellect has not provided him the ability to maturely empathise with Alice and she needs to explain to him the vulnerability she feels.
She quite rightly expresses a worry that, in the coming weeks, she will be left behind. Charlie also doesn’t yet realise that his unconscious mind will not allow him to be intimate with Alice. The traumatic event with his sister and mother seem to cause shame and paralysing self-awareness when he first wants to pursue a sexual relationship.
The knowledge he has been granted, much like the knowledge bestowed to Adam and Eve from the fruit, has caused anxiety and pain. Knowing more facts cannot reconcile the conflict between what Charlie wants and what his super-ego will allow him to have.
Finally there is a feeling that, even though Charlie is out of the cave and into the “light”, he is still subjected to further illusions. The shadows cast this time, however, are due to his lack of EQ (Emotional Quotient).
In an understandable frustration, Charlie eventually begins to resent Dr Nemur’s approach to the experiment. He gets the impression that Nemur never considered Charlie truly human until after his transformation and he hates that he is being used like an animal.
His resentment grows further when he eventually learns that Nemur, as well as other Professors and academics, lack a lot of the knowledge he has obtained. He feels that he been betrayed. He believes all of the people he looked up to were actually frauds for they only knew their own narrow area of expertise.
But this is a case where Charlie’s lack of awareness is not the fault of others, or of his own lack of intelligence. Charlie is deceived by his own arrogance, pride and lack of emotional maturity.
While being confronted with Dr Nemur’s and Dr Strauss’ seeming “lack” of knowledge, Burt (the lab assistant) asks Charlie to reconsider his position.
“You’ve got a superb mind now, intelligence that can’t really be calculated, more knowledge absorbed by now than most people pick up in a long lifetime. But you’re lopsided. You know things. You see things. But you haven’t developed understanding, or — I have to use the word tolerance. You call them phonies, but when did either of them ever claim to be perfect, or superhuman? They’re ordinary people. You’re the genius.”
Burt then goes on to explain that Charlie would better understand Nemur’s personality and motivations if he knew about the pressures Mrs Nemur was putting on him. Burt reveals that she was the person who had the sway to get him his professorship as well as the grant money needed to fund the research project. Needless to say, this was something Charlie had never thought to take into account.
It appears that no amount of intelligence was able to give Charlie the vision to see beyond his own selfish preconceptions.
In Plato’s Republic, Chaerophon is told by the oracle that no one is wiser than Socrates, and for Socrates there is truth to the oracle’s words because most people could never be considered wise due to their narrow scope of expertise.
Charlie thinks he understands this and feels superior to his peers. However, Socrates only acknowledges his own wisdom because he knows that he knows nothing.
This did not stop Socrates from wanting to seek knowledge — as the allegory of the cave suggests, it is the truth that sets the prisoner in the cave free. What is important to remember is that truth can be a blessing and a burden.
Charlie’s intelligence provides him with an opportunity to perceive the world in a fundamentally different way and to make a great contribution to science. It also causes painful memories to resurface and for him resent many of the people around him.
When he learns that his intelligence will inevitably decline he makes an important trip back home. He sees how his mother is senile in her old age and how Norma looks after her. He and Norma have a good conversation and he is able to see that she has grown and matured; shattering the image of the selfish child he remembered.
But as the conversation continues, their mother has a flashback to the night she threatened Charlie with the knife.
Charlie does not believe telling Norma about their mother’s past actions will help. It is only likely to cause more emotional trauma. He concludes that a certain level of ignorance grants people a peaceful coexistence, particularly when between family. It’s moments like this that show signs of Charlie’s emotional growth.
In the end, as Charlie’s condition worsens and his intelligence rapidly declines, he is happy he went through with the experiment regardless. It seems Socrates was right when he said the “unexamined life is not worth living.”
However, Flower’s for Algernon serves of a reminder that this examination must also include our emotional intelligence, for a lack of this keeps us in the dark as much as a lack of IQ. The book also teaches us that intelligence requires the virtues of prudence and humility in order to avoid the vices of pride and intolerance.