In Flowers for Algernon, Keyes establishes a tradeoff between intelligence and happiness, and at the same time makes a different point about the relationship between intelligence and wisdom. By the novel’s midpoint Charlie Gordon is a genius: his brain holds a staggering amount of information about the world. And yet in spite of Charlie’s vast knowledge and voracious reading, he finds himself incapable of handling the most basic “real-world” situations. The distinction between intelligence and wisdom is most apparent when Charlie confronts moral challenges. His knowledge of history and philosophy makes him successful and famous, but it doesn’t teach him right from wrong—and it also doesn’t help him take action to actually do the right thing. In general, then, Keyes uses Charlie’s experiences to make a distinction between intelligence and wisdom, i.e., the ability to deal with real-world problems, especially moral problems.
Keyes suggests that there need not be a direct relationship between intelligence and wisdom or morality. The characters with average or below-average intelligence often exemplify wisdom—an intuition about how things work, or about how to treat other people with respect. When he’s mentally handicapped, Charlie instinctively sympathizes with other people, such as his coworkers, his sister Norma, and his friend Burt. Charlie even feels compassion for Algernon the mouse, who everyone else ignores—only Charlie can see the injustice of imprisoning Algernon and forcing him to solve endless mazes. Charlie—while he’s mentally disabled—can also see very plainly that his mentor, Professor Nemur, is unhappy because he takes himself too seriously. Because he’s never been able to gasp very much knowledge, Charlie listens to his instincts when dealing with other people. Ironically, his childlike wisdom allows him to grasp moral truths that more intelligent people cannot see.
On the other hand, the novel’s most intelligent characters are often clueless or indifferent when it comes to dealing with other people. When Charlie becomes a genius, he begins to look down on the mentally disabled, and smugly criticizes his colleagues for their narrow-mindedness. He also finds himself unable to handle the simplest moral dilemmas. When he discovers that his coworker, Gimpy, is stealing money from the bakery where they both work, Charlie realizes that—intellectually speaking—there’s no “correct” answer to the problem: if Charlie reports Gimpy, he’ll be putting a father out of work, and if he remains silent, he’ll be enabling a thief. Even Charlie’s mentor, Professor Nemur, doesn’t have a good answer for Charlie—he dismisses the problem altogether. Intelligent people, Keyes suggests, are so used to relying on knowledge and science for the answers that they often forget about respect, humility, and morality—in short, wisdom and goodness.
Does this mean that it’s impossible to be both intelligent and wise/morally good? Keyes believes that it is possible to “marry” intelligence to wisdom and morality—it just requires a lot of trial and error. Although Charlie’s intelligence initially makes him arrogant and oblivious to other people’s feelings, he gradually acquires wisdom of his own. In the novel’s climactic scene, he reunites with his mother, Rose Gordon, and his sister, Norma Gordon—the sources of most of his anger and insecurity. Charlie learns to do the right thing: love and forgive his family members in spite of the harm they’ve done him. In doing so, he gains wisdom through experience and grows in a way that he never could through knowledge or study alone.
Although Flowers for Algernon seems to be about a mentally challenged man’s struggle to gain and then keep his intelligence, it’s really about his struggle to find wisdom. Keyes makes it clear that intelligent people are by no means always wise or good—on the contrary, they’re often less so than their intellectual inferiors. After he becomes a genius, Charlie gains wisdom, but not because of his intelligence so much as his dedication, hard work, and willingness to try again.
Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality ThemeTracker
Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality Quotes in Flowers for Algernon
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.
"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."
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.