After Charlie Gordon has his surgery and begins to progress from mental disability to brilliance, he has an argument with one of his coworkers, Fanny Birden. Fanny tells Charlie that it was a sin for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, because in doing so, they traded eternal happiness for knowledge. The apparent tradeoff between happiness and intelligence is one of the most important themes in Flowers for Algernon. As he becomes more and more intelligent, Charlie discovers problems he didn’t even know he had, while also finding some new outlets for pleasure.
At first, it seems that there really is a strict tradeoff between happiness and intelligence. As a mentally disabled employee of Mr. Donner’s bakery, Charlie Gordon is extremely happy, and confident that he has many good friends. From the reader’s perspective, however, it’s apparent that Charlie’s coworkers treat him horribly: they make fun of his stupidity, trip him, and force him to dance for their own cruel amusement. Blissfully unaware of the truth, Charlie (at least in the beginning) is by far the happiest character in the book, but paradoxically, no reader would trade places with him. Ignorance is bliss. And yet Charlie’s bliss seems less “real” and less desirable than that of an intelligent person, since it’s based on the delusion that Charlie’s coworkers respect him. Keyes reinforces his point after Charlie becomes intelligent, and realizes, with a shock, that his coworkers, far from liking him, have always looked down on him. Charlie’s newfound intelligence brings truth, but it doesn’t bring him any joy—on the contrary, it reminds him how small and lonely his life really, whether he’s a genius or not.
Keyes complicates the idea that ignorance is bliss in two important ways. First, he shows that intelligence can also be bliss, if only from time to time. When Charlie becomes a genius, he throws himself into his research—there’s enormous pleasure to be had in discovering things for himself. At the same time, Charlie’s research doesn’t bring him total happiness; as he admits, his desire to learn is like a torturous, unquenchable thirst. Despite the fact that Charlie’s intellectual endeavors never bring him total happiness, he continues with them. This leads Keyes to his second important point: even if intelligence isn’t always blissful, it’s the “smart man’s burden” to continue with one’s studies, for the benefit of other people. Charlie senses that his research will never make him happy, but he also knows that he can help millions by pursuing his research—and this is a far stronger mandate than mere personal bliss can ever be.
In the end, Keyes doesn’t really refute the idea that ignorance is bliss: indeed, he shows that Charlie is at his happiest when he’s mentally disabled, and at his most miserable when he’s a genius. However, he questions whether bliss should be the only goal of the human race. As Charlie gets more and more intelligent, he becomes less happy—but this certainly doesn’t mean that his life is a failure. Charlie makes the choice to use his intelligence to help other people. This choice is grounded in his sense of responsibility to his fellow humans. Moreover, Charlie’s sense of responsibility would be utterly foreign to his blissfully ignorant self. This reminds us why Charlie is the hero of the novel, and also reiterates that there are good reasons to “leave the Garden of Eden.”
Ignorance, Intelligence, and Happiness ThemeTracker
Ignorance, Intelligence, and Happiness Quotes in Flowers for Algernon
He said Miss Kinnian tolld him I was her bestist pupil in the Beekman School for retarted adults and I tryed the hardist becaus I reely wantd to lern I wantid it more even then pepul who are smarter even then me.
Dr Strauss said I had something that was very good. He said I had a good motor-vation. I never even knowed I had that. I felt good when he said not everbody with an eye-Q of 68 had that thing like I had it. I dont know what it is or where I got it but he said Algernon had it too.
If your smart you can have lots of fiends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.
Well I tolld her that made me kind of feel bad because I thot I was going to be smart rite away and I coud go back to show the guys at the bakery how smart I am and talk with them about things and mabye even get to be an assistint baker. Then I was gone to try and find my mom and dad. They woud be serprised to see how smart I got because my mom always wanted me too be smart to. Mabey they woudnt send me away no more if they see how smart I am.
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.
"You mean there are no pictures hidden in those inkblots?"
Burt frowned and took off his glasses. "What?"
"Pictures! Hidden in the inkblots! Last time you told me that everyone could see them and you wanted me to find them too."
I spend most of my free time at the library now, reading and soaking up what I can from books. I'm not concentrating on anything in particular, just reading a lot of fiction now—Dostoevski, Flaubert, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner—everything I can get my hands on feeding a hunger that can't be satisfied.
"Charlie, you amaze me. In some ways you're so advanced, and yet when it comes to making a decision, you're still a child. I can't decide for you, Charlie. The answer can't be found in books—or be solved by bringing it to other people. Not unless you want to remain a child all your life. You've got to find the answer inside you—feel the right thing to do. Charlie, you've got to learn to trust yourself."
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?
"Take it easy, Charlie. The old man is on edge. This convention means a lot to him. His reputation is at stake."
"I didn't know you were so close to him," I taunted, recalling all the times Burt had complained about the professor's narrowness and pushing.
"I'm not close to him." He looked at me defiantly. "But he's put his whole life into this. He's no Freud or Jung or Pavlov or Watson, but he's doing something important and I respect his dedication—maybe even more cause he's just an ordinary man trying to do a great man's work, while the great men are all busy making bombs."
Somehow, getting drunk had momentarily broken down the conscious barriers that kept the old Charlie Gordon hidden deep in my mind. As I suspected all along, he was not really gone. Nothing in our minds is ever really gone. The operation had covered him over with a veneer of education and culture, but emotionally he was there—watching and waiting.
There is so much that can be done with this technique, if it is perfected. If I could be made into a genius, what about the more than five million mentally retarded in the United States? What about the countless millions all over the world, and those yet unborn destined to be retarded? What fantastic levels might be achieved by using this technique on normal people. On geniuses?
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.
I was seeing myself as I really had become: Nemur had said it. I was an arrogant, self-centered bastard. Unlike Charlie, I was incapable of making friends or thinking about other people and their problems. I was interested in myself, and myself only. For one long moment in that mirror I had seen myself through Charlie's eyes—looked down at myself and saw what I had really become. And I was ashamed.
The only bad thing about having Alice here with me is that now I feel I should fight this thing. I want to stop time, freeze myself at this level and never let go of her.
You're right. I never said I could understand the things that were happening to you. Not when you became too intelligent for me, and not now. 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 pollute your own mind by sitting in front of the TV set all day and night, you didn't snarl and snap at people. There was something about you that made us respect you—yes, even as you were. You had something I had never seen in a retarded person before.
If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out all about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembird about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone.
P.S. please tel prof Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at him and he woud have more frends. Its easy to have fiends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of fiends where I go.
P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.