Flowers for Algernon

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Themes and Colors
Ignorance, Intelligence, and Happiness Theme Icon
Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality Theme Icon
Pride, Hubris, and the Tragic Hero Theme Icon
Cruelty and Bullying Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Flowers for Algernon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cruelty and Bullying Theme Icon

Flowers for Algernon studies the relationship between intelligent and unintelligent people, or more generally, between the powerful and the weak. Because Charlie Gordon travels between these two worlds—moving from mental disability to brilliance, and then back to mental disability again—he comes to see the ways in which people mock and bully their intellectual inferiors, partly out of cruelty, and partly out of insecurity.

People of average intelligence bully the mentally disabled, Keyes suggests, because they want to remind themselves of their place in the “pecking order.” At the bakery where Charlie works, Charlie’s coworkers subject him to a series of cruel pranks and jokes that reinforce Charlie’s stupidity, clumsiness, and gullibility. It’s significant that Charlie’s coworkers never, ever get tired of playing pranks on him (you’d think that after more than a decade, the joke would have gotten old). By teasing Charlie for his stupidity, Charlie’s coworkers are effectively congratulating themselves for being smarter than Charlie—none of them are particularly intelligent, but at least they’re not at the bottom of the barrel. This becomes clearer after Charlie becomes a genius. His former coworkers admit that they’re ignoring him because they don’t want a reminder of their own mental inferiority: they don’t want to be around someone who makes them feel stupid.

Much the same is true of Charlie’s mentors, Professor Nemur and Doctor Strauss. Indeed, as Keyes portrays it, the entire academic community suffers from the same inferiority complex as Charlie’s coworkers. When Nemur shows footage of Charlie before his operation, Nemur’s colleagues laugh at Charlie’s clumsiness. Then, when they meet Charlie as a genius, they shun him, one by one, because he’s smarter than they are. Even Charlie himself starts to look down on his intellectual inferiors once he becomes intelligent—first his coworkers, and then his teacher and lover, Alice Kinnian. Disturbingly, Keyes suggests that human beings have a tendency to bully people who are weaker than they are, and fear those who are stronger.

Thankfully, Keyes doesn’t end his novel on such a pessimistic note. Even if humans have a natural tendency to be cruel to their inferiors, it’s possible to replace this tendency with kindness and understanding. When Charlie returns to his job at the bakery, mentally disabled once again, his coworkers prove that they’re less sadistic than they initially seemed. Not only do they accept Charlie once again, but they also refrain from teasing him anymore. It’s possible to read Keyes’s novel as a moral fable about the dangers of bullying. There’s simply no sense in being cruel to those below us in the pecking order, because nobody’s place in the pecking order is completely secure.

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Cruelty and Bullying ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cruelty and Bullying appears in each chapter of Flowers for Algernon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Cruelty and Bullying Quotes in Flowers for Algernon

Below you will find the important quotes in Flowers for Algernon related to the theme of Cruelty and Bullying.
Progress Report 8 Quotes

We had a lot of fun at the bakery today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in. I was going to tell him about me getting smart but I remembered Prof Nemur said no. Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie open a door the hard way. That made me laff. Their my frends and they really like me.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Professor Harold Nemur , Joe Carp , Frank Reilly
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation is a good example of dramatic irony--a situation in which a character is ignorant to some important information, but the reader is well aware of it. Here, Charlie--bearing a big scar from his brain surgery, but still with his low IQ for the time being--doesn't realize that the people at the bakery are making fun of him in the cruelest way; as far as he's concerned, they're his best friends.

One important question that the passage might lead us to ask is, does Charlie realize on any level that his coworkers don't really like him? His statement, "Their my friends," would suggest that Charlie is completely ignorant of his coworkers' meanness. And yet Charlie also seems to feel, on some level, that his friendships with his coworkers are threadbare because of his low IQ. Even if he doesn't know exactly why Joe Carp is laughing at him in this scene, perhaps Charlie senses that he's distanced from the people around him by his intelligence--and this is precisely why he wants brain surgery in the first place.


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Frank laffed and said dont go getting so eddicated that you wont talk to your old frends. I said dont worry I will always keep my old frends even if I can read and rite. He was laffing and Joe Carp was laffing but Gimpy came in and told them to get back to making rolls. They are all good frends to me.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Joe Carp , Frank Reilly , Gimpy
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Charlie (who's just had his brain surgery, but isn't a genius yet) interacts with his "friends" at the bakery. One coworker, Frank, is clearly mocking Charlie--he doesn't believe that Charlie will ever become a genius, since Charlie has always been a slow, clumsy employee.

On a narrative level, this quote is important because it sets us up for a later scene, in which Frank is punished and humiliated for ever doubting Charlie's potential for intelligence. But the passage is also interesting in that it marks some of the differences between Charlie's coworkers; in other words, the passage makes it clear that not all of Charlie's "friends" bully him. Gimpy, if no one else, seems to genuinely like Charlie and look after him, even if Gimpy would never be openly affectionate or sentimental with him.

Progress Report 9 Quotes

Now I know what they mean when they say "to pull a Charlie Gordon." I'm ashamed. And another thing. I dreamed about that girl Ellen dancing and rubbing up against me and when I woke up the sheets were wet and messy.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Ellen
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie--who's had brain surgery, and is slowly becoming more intelligent--realizes that his coworkers laugh at him for his stupidity. Charlie is immediately embarrassed. It's interesting to note that Charlie's first reaction to the news that he's a punching bag for his coworkers isn't anger--his shame outweighs his anger. As we've already seen, Charlie has been dealing with embarrassment his entire life. He's so used to apologizing for his low intelligence that it doesn't yet occur to him that his coworkers at the bakery are really at fault, not him.

The other notable part of this passage is the information that Charlie has had a "wet dream" after seeing an attractive woman. As Charlie gains intellectual maturity, he's also thrust into the world of emotional and sexual maturity. (It's also worth noting that the passage echoes the Biblical book of Genesis: just as Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nakedness at the same instant that they gain knowledge, so Charlie simultaneously becomes embarrassed and sexually aware with his new intelligence.)

Progress Report 11 Quotes

She stared down at the bride and groom on the wedding cake she was decorating and I could see her lips barely move as she whispered: "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."
There was nothing more to say, to her or to the rest of them. None of them would look into my eyes. I can still feel the hostility. Before, they had laughed at me, despising me for my ignorance and dullness; now, they hated me for my knowledge and understanding. Why? What in God's name did they want of me?

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Fanny Birden (speaker)
Related Symbols: Adam and Eve
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, a woman named Fanny Birden, tells Charlie about the "danger" of his brain surgery. By gaining intelligence, Fanny suggests, Charlie is sacrificing his innocence and childlike goodness. Fanny makes this claim by citing the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which the first human beings lost their innocence and innate goodness by eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

We've already had ample evidence for the point Fanny is making. Charlie, newly intelligent, is indeed becoming a little arrogant, a little pompous, and a little dismissive of those who are intellectually inferior to him (i.e., almost everybody). Previously, Charlie was a cheerful, carefree man, blissfully unaware that his coworkers were making fun of him. By becoming intelligent, Charlie has 1) become a ruder, less "moral" person and 2) become more miserable, as he realizes that he has even fewer friends than he'd thought. There really does seem to be a tradeoff between intelligence and morality--and, even more to the point, between intelligence and happiness.

Ultimately, though, it's not clear if Keyes really agrees with Fanny. It's true that the newly intelligent Charlie is rude, arrogant, and even cruel. And yet Charlie also has the opportunity to be good and moral, in a way that was utterly beyond him before his surgery. A mentally disabled Charlie Gordon can't solve complex moral problems in a way that benefits everyone, or publish scientific articles that will save thousands of lives. One could say that Charlie's new intelligence (and, for that matter, Adam and Eve's newfound sinfulness) is a challenge: he can either be more sinful than he ever was before, or he can use his brain to climb to new heights of glory and goodness.

Progress Report 13 Quotes

A funny thing about Guarino. I should resent him for what he did to me, and for taking advantage of Rose and Matt, but somehow I can't. After that first day, he was always pleasant to me. There was always the pat on the shoulder, the smile, the encouraging word that came my way so rarely.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Rose Gordon (Charlie’s mother) , Matt Gordon , Dr. Guarino
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie remembers an episode from his childhood that he’d previously repressed. His parents, desperate to make him intelligent by any means necessary, hired a quack doctor, Guarino, to “put some brains” in Charlie. Guarino was, of course, a con artist, who stole Charlie’s parents’ money and did nothing at all to make Charlie more intelligent. Strangely, though, Charlie doesn’t resent Guarino. On the contrary, he remembers Guarido fondly for treating him as an equal, or at least a human being. As the passage suggests, Charlie is still desperate for the validation and approval of his peers. He’s been treated as a outcast or a freak for so long that any semblance of politeness or normality thrown his way is a blessing. Now a genius, Charlie overcompensates for the decades during which he was mocked and bullied by seeking the validation of millions.

After the chairman announced the presentation from Beekman University, we took our seats on the platform behind the long table—Algernon in his cage between Burt and me. We were the main attraction of the evening, and when we were settled, the chairman began his introduction. I half expected to bear him boom out: Laideezzz and gentulmennnnnn. Step right this way and see the side show! An act never before seen in the scientific world! A mouse and a moron turned into geniuses before your very eyes!

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Algernon , Professor Harold Nemur , Burt Seldon
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

At a major medical conference, Charlie and Professor Nemur appear to answer questions about Charlie’s brain surgery. As Charlie prepares for the presentation, he has the distinct sense that he’s been exhibited at a circus. In other words, Charlie still thinks of himself as a sideshow freak, not even a human being. It’s hard to deny that Charlie has a point: the doctors who’ve attended the medical conference think of Charlie as a pawn, a convenient “example” of Nemur’s ideas. Charlie first volunteered for brain surgery because he thought intelligence would help him gain new friends who respected him as a human being. But here, it becomes clear that the opposite is true: Charlie is more of a “freak” than he ever was before—the doctors who admire his intelligence have no intention of engaging with him on a personal level.