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.
Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality Theme Icon

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.

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Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Flowers for Algernon related to the theme of Intelligence vs. Wisdom and Morality.
Progress Report 7 Quotes

If your smart you can have lots of fiends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Charlie explains why he wants to become smart: he wants to have more friends. Charlie is confident that intelligence is a path to a better social life: brain power will help him talk to the people around him and make them more likely to talk to him and like him.

There are two ways to interpret Charlie's quotation, one positive, one rather tragic. On one hand, Charlie's desire for human contact seems innocent and highly poignant. Charlie is bullied and ignored at his job (although he doesn't yet know it), and he doesn't have a family that loves him (his family abandoned him years ago). In all, he craves friends to fill the void in his social life. But on the other hand, this quote expresses the tragically naive view that with greater intelligence comes greater happiness and love. This isn't always the case, as Charlie finds out--indeed, he's arguably at his most "blissful" when he's most "ignorant."


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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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Alice Kinnian , Rose Gordon (Charlie’s mother) , Matt Gordon
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie has just been told that his brain surgery will make him smart, but not overnight. On the contrary, he'll have to work exceptionally hard after his surgery to ensure that his mind absorbs new information and grows to its full potential. Charlie is disappointed by the news, because he wants to become more intelligent, more popular, and more loved as soon as possible.

The passage is important because it spells out, in the plainest terms, the link between Charlie's tragic childhood and his desire for success and popularity. Charlie was an unloved child--because of his mother's behavior, he was made to feel ashamed of his low IQ and clumsy behavior. As a result, Charlie has been conditioned to feel a constant desire to please other people--a desire that's led him to learn to read and write at night class. Like many a tragic literary hero, Charlie seeks approval and prestige because he never enjoyed the love of his parents and siblings. 

Progress Report 11 Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Alice Kinnian (speaker), Charlie Gordon
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie becomes increasingly intelligent, he also becomes aware of the astonishing gaps in his knowledge. Charlie has witnessed his only friend and protector at the bakery, Gimpy, stealing money from the store. Charlie's unsure how to go about "solving" this problem, and he's concerned that there's no branch of human knowledge that can tell him how to proceed. Here, Charlie's mentor, Alice Kinnian (the same woman who once taught Charlie to read and write, and who recommended Charlie for brain surgery), tells Charlie the truth: he doesn't know anything about morality, in spite of his "book learning." Furthermore, Charlie will have to trust his own moral instincts when dealing with Gimpy.

The passage is important because it suggests some of the strengths and limitations of Charlie's brain surgery. A higher IQ means that Charlie can discover new knowledge and savor the pleasure of finding things out. And yet Charlie's new intelligence also causes him some new problems: he feels the sting of guilt, regret, and here, moral uncertainty. He's now forced to make the moral decisions that all adults must make--in other words, he's becoming not only more intelligent but more mature. The "tradeoff" of intelligence, one could say, is that Charlie sacrifices his blissful ignorance, and yet gets the opportunity to become sensitive, mature, and wise.

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

"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."

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Burt Seldon (speaker), Professor Harold Nemur
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Charlie and Professor Nemur have traveled to Chicago for a major medical conference. Nemur, the doctor who masterminded Charlie’s brain surgery, is looking forward to presenting on his new procedure. Charlie has come to resent Nemur for treating him as a pawn, rather than a human being—Charlie believes (and with good reason) that Nemur is just using him to gain acclaim in the scientific community. Charlie’s friend and mentor, Burt, defends Nemur by praising his drive and determination.

It’s interesting to note that Burt highlights the same qualities that first brought Charlie to Nemur’s attention. Just as Charlie has striven to be smarter and more successful, so too has Nemur—who's well aware of the fact that he’s not a genius—tried to become the best he can be. Furthermore, Burt’s comment that Nemur is doing good work while great men build bombs reminds us of an important distinction between intelligence and morality. Being smart is no guarantee of a happy, productive life—one could spend one’s life building machines of war. It’s only when one combines intelligence with a strong sense of right and wrong that it’s possible to be a “good” human being. Charlie, already a genius, will have to educate himself in ethics and morality to become good.

Progress Report 16 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie becomes suspicious that his brain surgery will wear off over time--although he's become a genius, eventually he'll regress to mental disability once again. In the time he has left as a genius, Charlie decides to research his own surgical procedure. As he makes clear in the quotation, he wants to leave a lasting scientific legacy, which will go on to benefit thousands of patients around the world.

The fact that Charlie, blessed with intelligence, can conduct research that could help other human beings reminds us that--contrary to what Fanny Birden claimed--intelligence and morality aren't mutually exclusive. It's possible to be smart and good; indeed, a smart person is capable of some acts of goodness far beyond what a mentally disabled person could imagine. Of course, it's also true that the quote shows Charlie at his greediest and most ambitious: he wants to be remembered forever, and thinks that he can gain a kind of immorality by leaving a legacy behind.

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Professor Harold Nemur
Page Number: 252-253
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie spends more time as an intelligent person, he becomes increasingly self-aware. Here, he stares in the mirror and realizes that he's become a pompous, arrogant man. Charlie also decides that as a mentally disabled man, he was happier, more moral, and friendlier than he is now.

Although Charlie himself seems to believe that his intelligence has been a horrible burden--making him a meaner, less friendly person--Keyes wouldn't necessarily agree. Charlie has become more arrogant on account of his genius, but he's also completed acts of goodness on a scale that he couldn't have imagined before his surgery: he's conducted important medical research that will help other people live longer, healthier lives. And while he may have become less friendly, he's gained the gift of self-awareness: the ability to realize his own shortcomings and try to improve them. Previously, Charlie had tried to transform himself to gain the approval of his peers. But here, he seems to be acting out of a desire to please himself. Thanks to his brain surgery, Charlie has become more mature and emotionally intelligent: he's acting to make himself, not other people, happy.

Progress Report 17 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Alice Kinnian
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Charlie--having realized that he's going to lose his intelligence and become mentally disabled once again--expresses a desire to "freeze time" and spend the rest of his life with Alice, the woman he's come to love.

Charlie's desires contrast markedly with his earlier ambitions to learn, make important scientific discoveries, and generally become a great man. Put another way, Charlie sacrifices some of his arrogance and hubris because of the emotional connection he feels for Alice. Although books have taught Charlie to seek fame and glory, Alice has taught Charlie emotional maturity: instead of the elusive pleasures of prestige or sex, Charlie has discovered the more profound pleasure of love.

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.

Related Characters: Alice Kinnian (speaker), Charlie Gordon
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie begins to lose his intelligence, he becomes angry and frustrated. In particular, he fights with Alice Kinnian, the woman he loves. Alice tells Charlie that he shouldn't guard his intelligence so jealously--when he was mentally disabled, she insists, he was a kinder, more likable person. Now that he's a genius, Charlie is a frustrated, self-pitying man--not particularly likable at all.

Alice's claims support the idea that Charlie's brain surgery may have come at the cost of happiness and goodness. By gaining a high IQ, Charlie has become more self-absorbed, and in losing it he has become more bitter and irritable--to the point where he doesn't care about hurting other people's feelings, even Alice's.

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Alice Kinnian
Page Number: 310
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Charlie sums up his experiences as a genius. Although one could say that Charlie's time with a high IQ has been futile (since he's losing his IQ in the end), Charlie himself disagrees. As he points out here, Charlie has gotten the chance to experience the pleasure of finding things out--a pleasure he'd always wanted to experience, even as a mentally disabled man. Moreover, Charlie has satisfied an even deeper desire--the desire to know that he has a family. During his time as a genius, Charlie tracked down his parents, and fell in love with a woman (Miss Kinnian herself). More simply and poignantly, Charlie now feels that he is "a person just like evryone"—he has gained an emotional maturity and self-confidence that cannot be taken from him.