Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” – Discussion Questions & Ponderables

Daniel Keyes’
Flowers for Algernon:
Discussion Questions & Ponderables

Ponderables

According to Dr. Joel Frohlich, a postdoctoral researcher studying at UCLA, Charlie Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of an inherited metabolic disorder called Phenylketonuria. This disorder occurs when cells are unable to produce an enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase. Why is this enzyme critical? Without it, the human body cannot break down the amino acid phenylalanine (which is present in all food proteins). Unable to dispense with whatever amounts of phenylalanine are unrequired, the body accrues and stockpiles it: the overabundance becomes toxic to the body’s nervous system, and that part of it which suffers the most is the brain. How is this autosomal recessive disorder passed on from parent to child? The mother or father with the disorder carries two copies of that phenylalanine producing enzyme: a normal one and one that has been mutated. It is the mutated one that is passed onto the child as part of his or her genetic inheritance.

Question
Do you believe that in his last few progress reports, Charlie has equated his mental disability with death? If so, do you believe that such an equation is just?

In Volume 32, No 4 (2012) of Disability Studies Quarterly (published by Ohio State University) there is an article by Dr. Brent Walter Cline entitled “You’re Not the Same Kind of Human Being”: The Evolution of Pity to Horror in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon.” Cline criticized how Charlie equated having a mental disability with being dead. After the experiment, Charlie considered the return of his former I.Q. as a descent into oblivion, nothingness, the tomb. To substantiate his point of view, Dr. Cline makes reference to the following incidents in the novel:
• As he reclines beside the sleeping Alice, Charlie meditates on how each person must travel “toward the goal-box of solitary death”
• It occurs to Charlie during his final therapy session with Dr. Strauss that “…I know I will pierce the crust into that holy light.” The holy light to which he is envisioning is that which is seen at the moment of death.
• Reading the last thoughts that he chose to preserve in the journal, the tone is equivalent to that of a man about to go before a firing squad. An image is created of a valiant Charlie Gordon who struggled in vain against his descent into disability only to become its victim. Requiem aeternam dona ei. Requiescat in pace.
• Keyes does not conclude the novel with an epilogue in which Charlie addresses his “new” existence at the Warren State Home. There is no reason for readers not to expect that Charlie, being possessive of a friendly, nurturing persona, would not make many friends and become popular among the residents. As noticed by Charlie during his tour, the staff demonstrated tenderness towards the patients and the patients demonstrated tenderness towards each other.

Question
With his career experience as both fiction writer and academic English teacher, Daniel Keyes would have undoubtedly been familiar with such classic epistolary novels as: Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1784), Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817), The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859), Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), and the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942). In Flowers for Algernon, how well do you believe Keyes exploited the advantages of the epistolic style and minimized its drawbacks?

Advantages of the Epistolary Style:
• Whether monologic (first person), dialogic (between two people) or polylogic (among many), the epistolary technique (expressed as diary entries, newspaper columns, reports, transcripts, emails, or chats) establishes a one-on-one connection between protagonists and their readers
• As an alternative to their being directly stated by the protagonist—alleviating the repetitive usage of “I feel,” “I believe,” or “I think”—writers can communicate a character’s emotions and opinions by adjusting the representation of his or her words through changes in font style, size, color, and punctuation, the underlining and italicization of words, and their deliberate misspelling or abbreviation.

Disadvantages of the Epistolary Style:
• Readers are unable to experience events in real-time; readers are always at least one-step removed from them. The information which readers obtain is filtered by how the narrator has perceived, understood what has occurred and how much of what had transpired her or she directly witnessed.
• Readers assume that what a character has put on paper is always an accurate reflection of what is truly in his or her head. What has been written might in actuality be a subterfuge, an attempt to deceive or camouflage a character’s true feelings or intentions.
• There might also be a discontinuity between what a character has written and what he or she has said.
• Narrators might have biases or prejudices that unjustly misrepresent other characters.

Question

What bearing, if any, do you believe that Keyes’ background as an English teacher of high school and university students had on his selection of an epistolary approach and how effectively he utilized it?

Question

Having decided to make Charlie—an adult with a low I.Q.—as his protagonist, how risky and revolutionary do you believe was Keyes’ approach to have Charlie chronicle that fateful March 3rd through November 21st in his own words, i.e. his own understanding and spelling of English? Were Flowers to have its first printing today, within the current social and political climate, what are the odds that Keyes would be decried for insensitivity and be castigated rather than lauded?

Question
Professor Nemur and Doctor Strauss had a highly volatile and combative association; they frequently disagreed with regard to approach and application, particularly on matters of the utmost importance. Do you believe that their fractious partnership had placed Charlie in undue danger?

• Chronicled by Charlie in his “Fifth Progress Report” (dated March 6th), Professor Nemur (psychologist) and Doctor Strauss (psychiatrist and neurosurgeon) quarreled as to Charlie’s suitability for the experiment. Considering how low he had calculated Charlie’s I.Q., Nemur feared that in Charlie’s case such a sudden leap in quotient would result in cognitive side effects: Charlie could potentially lose his ability to think and act for himself, thus necessitating his full-time residence in the Warren Home. Dr. Strauss, however, believing that Charlie’s good nature, interest, acceptance of risk, and tractability made him the perfect candidate, trivialized the likelihood of harmful side effects.
• Between themselves, Nemur and Strauss debated what I.Q. actually was and if it truly had any relevancy. Nemur regarded I.Q. as a means of measuring and weighing intelligence whereas Strauss argued that it an indicator signifying “how much intelligence” a person could acquire.
• Nemur resented having to explain and detail the whys and wherefores about procedures to Charlie, but Strauss believed Charlie was entitled to know them.
• Nemur considered Charlie a guinea pig. He regarded himself, the creator, to be of greater significance than Charlie, the being whom he had created: when Charlie became a household name within the psychological profession, Nemur was given short shrift by the press—a neglect which did little to achieve the ambitious goals which his wife, Bertha, had set for him. It was Bertha who had utilized her influence to obtain his professorship, and it was her father who had awarded him the Welberg Foundation’s grant.
• Under pressure to justify and validate nepotism, Nemur declared in the experiment’s sixth week that he and Strauss were ready to present and publish their findings, but Strauss considered it foolhardy and premature as Charlie was still experiencing change.

Question
Despite Alice Kinnian’s glowing recommendation of Charlie, do you believe that, considering his low I.Q., over eagerness and impatience, that Nemur and Strauss should have continued the search for a more ideal candidate? Were they reckless (or desperate) when they settled on Charlie?

Question
How would you characterize and describe Alice Kinnian’s feelings towards Charlie?

• Throughout their entire acquaintance, Alice had judged Charlie to be a worthy human being and never wavered or doubted otherwise.
• Her desire to help Charlie achieve his goal of becoming smarter was always sincere; her motivation was always to act in his best interests, regardless of whatever pain such decisions might bring to her.
• At all times, she was honest with him and with herself about the realities of their relationship.
• When she discovered that his childhood trauma had made Charlie incapable of sexual intimacy his manhood was not diminished in her eyes.
• She paid Charlie’s land lady, Mrs. Mooney, for his rent and food.

Question
Was Alice’s love a vital contribution to whatever successes Charlie experienced during the experiment?

• Charlie’s zealousness to learn was partly due to his association of self-betterment with Alice’s loving, nurturing character—her zealousness to help people reach their potential matched his to be a man she could respect and love. He sought to better himself for them both.
• Cast aside and betrayed by Nemur and Strauss (both of whom he came to denigrate as phony and shallow), Donner and the guys at the bakery, Charlie knew that Alice would never abandon him. This was a constant that he clung to throughout his ordeal.
• Her belief that the acquisition of knowledge could still embrace love and intimacy set her apart from the other people in Charlie’s life.
• She tried to meet the challenges imposed by the changing dynamics of their relationship: at the beginning, she was his teacher and he her pupil; then, he became her peer; soon, he surpassed her in knowledge; ultimately, he regressed to being less of the man she encountered when they first met

Question
What were Charlie’s feelings towards Alice?

• He believed that what they had together, for the short time it lasted, was much, much “more than most people [found] in a lifetime.”

Question
Should Nemur and Strauss have been better prepared than they were for when Charley’s intellect exceeded their own so that he didn’t feel as isolated as he later came to be?

In his August 11th entry, Charlie recorded Nemur as telling him that “We had no control over what happened to your personality, and you’ve developed from a likeable, retarded young man into an arrogant, anti-social” bum.”

Question
At the novel’s end, what feelings did you have regarding Charlie’s sister?

• Norma “was no longer the spoiled brat of” Charlie’s past, but “warm and sympathetic and affectionate.” As a child, it had seemed to her that her parents “fussed over” Charlie “all the time,” never disciplining him for not going to school, or for doing poorly academically while she was expected to maintain a high GPA, be kind towards him, and ignore the taunts and jibes of her peers for having Charlie as her brother.
• Fate has punished her: “The apartment, this street, my job. It’s all been a nightmare … wondering … if she’s harmed herself …” When Charlie was a boy, people thought so little of him that they spoke about him even though he was in the room; now, Norma does the same with regard to their mother.

Question
Is there any underlying significance to the chronological timeline which Charlie’s ordeal follows, i.e. commences in March and concludes in November?

• Charlie’s surgery takes place in the spring, a time of birth and fecundity, and ends in autumn, when growth ceases and nature naps.

Question
• In his own judgment, what did becoming intelligent really do for Charlie?

In his August 11th report, Charlie contrasted the difference between Charlie (the man he was pre-experiment) and Charles (the man he became post- experiment): Charles was arrogant, self-centered, and incapable of establishing and maintaining friendships. He was devoid of empathy and compassion. He was ashamed of himself.
Charlie chronicled his heated confrontation with Mr. and Mrs. Nemur during which he had said:

… all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for
love…Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and even possibly psychosis…
when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one. Oh, I know lots of people. Lots and lots of people. But I don’t have any real friends. Not like I used to have in the bakery. Not a friend in the world who means anything to me, and no one I mean anything to …

Question
What examples of Charlie’s forgiveness of others can be found in the book?
• Having returned to the bakery, Charlie was bullied by a new employee named Meyer Klaus: Meyer grabbed Charlie by an arm and, threatening to break it, he began twisting it. When Charlie lost control of his bladder from fright, Klaus made a sick face and became frightened as to the consequences of what he had done. After the others intervened to protect Charlie, they assured him that they would see to it that Mr. Donner fired him: Charlie told them he thought Klaus should be given a second chance on account of his having a wife and child to support and that he was unlikely to molest him any further.
• Charlie’s forgiveness of the guys at the bakery was manifested in their concern for his well being and their assurance that they were his friends, and that no one would be allowed to take advantage of him.
• As to his having obtained everything he could possibly want from life only to be so cruelly deprived of it he wrote “…because I learned a lot of things that I never knew were in this world and I’m grateful I saw it all even for a little bit.”

Question
A nurse and even Charlie own mother, Norma, believed that Charlie had made an unholy bargain to become smart and that what Nemur and Strauss did to him was evil. Should such experiments be countenanced, attempted or forbidden?

Bibliography

Cassedy, Patrice. Understanding Flowers for Algernon. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books Inc., 2001

“Flowers for Algernon.” In Novels for Students, edited by Diane Telgen, 44-63. Vol. 2. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997. For Students Online (accessed July 29, 2019).http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2591500013/GVRL.forstudents?u=clevnet_cpl&sid=GVRL.forstudents&xid=55106080.

Frohlich, Joel. “The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers For
Algernon,” Knowing Neurons. A Creative Neuroscience Website by Young
Neuroscientists (blog), May 31, 2017,
//knowingneurons.com/2017/05/31/ultimate-thought-experiment-part-iii/

Keyes, Daniel. Algernon, Charlie, and I: A writer’s journey: plus the complete original short novelette version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Boca Raton, FL: Challcrest Press Books, 1999.

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1987.

Rose, Steven. “No Flowers for Algernon.” Educational Leadership 55, no 8
(1998). 84-86.

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