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.
Cruelty and Bullying ThemeTracker
Cruelty and Bullying Quotes in Flowers for Algernon
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!