Flowers for Algernon

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Love and Sexuality Theme Analysis

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.
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon

Arguably the biggest change that Charlie Gordon undergoes in Flowers for Algernon—even bigger than his rise from mental disability to genius—is the change in his romantic life. At the beginning of the novel, Charlie is completely ignorant of the opposite sex (he’s assumed to be straight). He’s never even kissed a girl, and from an early age his mother, Rose Gordon, has impressed upon him that he mustn’t touch women. As he ages mentally, Charlie contemplates sex, his relationship with the opposite sex, and his relationship with his mother, maturing to the point where he can feel sincere, emotional love for another woman. In describing Charlie’s sexual maturation, Keyes incorporates elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and allusions to the “free love” movement of the 1960s.

Perhaps Keyes’s most important point about love and sexuality is Freudian in nature: human sexuality begins with childhood experience. Even after Charlie Gordon becomes a genius, he’s dominated by hallucinations of his childhood self—an internalized version of his sexual insecurities. As a child, Charlie’s mother would spank and beat him for showing any interest in women. Keyes implies that Charlie’s childhood experiences give him a permanent Oedipus complex: an aversion to having sex with women, caused by a fixation on a strong, domineering mother figure. Because he’s still afraid of his mother’s punishments, Charlie can’t perform sexually with the women he meets after becoming a genius. In typical Freudian form, Charlie conquers his aversion to sex by first identifying the source of the problem—his mother’s cruelty—and then reconnecting with his aging mother, who’s suffering from dementia. It’s only after Charlie visits his mother, symbolically “burying” her and closing the door on his Oedipus complex, that he succeeds in having a stable, mature relationship with Alice Kinnian, the love of his life.

Although Freudian psychoanalysis has a clear influence on the novel’s view of human sexuality, Keyes is equally influenced by the free love movement of the 1960s, which was in full force at the time when Flowers for Algernon was published (in the film version, released in 1968, Charlie actually joins the counterculture movement, smoking marijuana and riding motorbikes). Charlie experiments with a number of sexual partners during his sexual maturation, including women he meets in Central Park, and one bohemian woman—Fay Lillman—whom he knows to have other sexual partners. There’s no expectation that Charlie remain loyal to any one of these sexual partners (indeed, at one point, Charlie argues for the value of polygamy)—on the contrary, Charlie moves from one encounter to the next, conquering his aversion to sex little by little. Keyes’s view of sexuality was considered radically open at the time: a reflection of the new Sixties ethos that sexuality should be de-stigmatized and celebrated as a critical part of love and maturity. Indeed, Charlie learns how to love and respect women—that is, to have mature emotional relationships—partly because he has sex with women. During his first sexual encounters, Charlie is confused and even violent, reflecting his fear and ignorance of love. Gradually, however, Charlie progresses from physical love to emotional love, using each sexual encounter to fight his lifelong aversion to women.

Flowers for Algernon provides a surprisingly frank look at love and sexuality. Although it’s dated in some ways (Freud’s influence on psychology has waned, and Keyes’s descriptions of Charlie’s earliest sexual encounters are guilty of the same problem as the sexual revolution itself: they trivialize and objectify women), Keyes’s work continues to teach relevant lessons: first, that human sexuality begins in childhood, not adulthood; and second, that sexuality is an ongoing process, one which takes a great deal of practice and experimentation. Moreover, Keyes suggests that sex, far from being an incidental part of mature romantic love, is a key part of building a stable relationship with another person.

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Love and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Flowers for Algernon related to the theme of Love and Sexuality.
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.)


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I told him one of the things that bothers me is about women. Like dancing with that girl Ellen got me all excited. So we talked about it and I got a funny feeling while I was talking, cold and sweaty, and a buzzing inside my head and I thought I was going to throw up. Maybe because I always thought it was dirty and bad to talk about that. But Dr Strauss said what happened to me after the party was a wet dream, and it's a natural thing that happens to boys. So even if I'm getting intelligent and learning a lot of new things, he thinks I'm still a boy about women. It's confusing, but I'm going to find out all about my life.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Doctor Strauss , Ellen
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie tries to come to terms with a new side of his personality--his sexuality. For the first chapters of the novel, Charlie has essentially been a child--a slow, clumsy boy trapped in a man's body. Now, thanks to his brain surgery, Charlie is becoming a genius, but he's also transforming from an immature young boy to a mature man in a matter of weeks. Charlie has danced with a beautiful woman, and then had a wet dream about her. Dr. Strauss's job is to counsel Charlie through his experiences with the brain surgery--here, for example, he explains a few things about sex to Charlie.

It's important to bear in mind that Charlie's story isn't just one of intellectual discovery; it's also one of emotional development. While Keyes will give us plenty of information about Charlie's scientific and musical pursuits, the heart of his story is Charlie's search for love--a stable, adult relationship with another woman. In this quotation, Charlie takes the first, cautious steps toward such a relationship.

Progress Report 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Related Symbols: Charlie’s Hallucinations (younger Charlie)
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie comes to realize that in spite of his new intelligence, in his subconscious he's still a mentally disabled, emotionally underdeveloped man--and he can access this side of his personality whenever he gets drunk. Moreover, Charlie discovers that he's been repressing memories of his childhood. As a mentally challenged man, he was incapable of remembering much about his parents, his experiences in school, etc. (There's even some suggestion that his mind unconsciously repressed these memories because they were so painful.) But now, Charlie remembers many details about his past; these details were "waiting" in his mind all along. As he says here, "Nothing in our minds is ever really gone."

Charlie's realization foreshadows the novel's pessimistic conclusion. Charlie, working with Professor Nemur, tries to escape his tragic past--he tries to become intelligent and forget that there was ever a time when he couldn't add, read, or write. But in the end, Charlie is unable to escape his past--no amount of surgery can change who he is.

Then, with a violent effort of the will, I was back on the couch with her, aware of her body and my own urgency and potency, and I saw the face against the window, hungrily watching. And I thought to myself, go ahead, you poor bastard—watch. I don't give a damn any more. And his eyes went wide as he watched.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Fay Lillman
Related Symbols: Charlie’s Hallucinations (younger Charlie)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie becomes more intelligent and self-aware, he begins to hallucinate a young boy--the childhood version of Charlie himself. This young version of Charlie "watches" Charlie almost constantly, but especially when Charlie is engaging in behavior that he couldn't have managed when he was mentally disabled. In this scene, Charlie is about to have sexual intercourse with Fay Lillman, his neighbor. Although Charlie feels "young Charlie" watching him, he decides that he doesn't care--he continues having sex, daring his young self to do anything about it.

The presence of "young Charlie" in Charlie's mind suggests that he's still haunted by his past--the years during which he was humiliated and teased for his disability. As Charlie becomes more mature and experienced, he comes to resent young Charlie--he hates that there was ever a time in his life when he had a low IQ and feared his own sexuality. Here, Charlie seems to make peace with his troubled past (he no longer cares), and yet he also clearly hates his former self.

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.

I saw her through my kitchen window last week. I dont know her name, or even what her top part looks like but every night about eleven oclock she goes into her bathroom to take a bath. She never pulls her shade down and thru my window when I put out my lights I can see her from the neck down when she comes out of the bath to dry herself. It makes me excited, but when the lady turns out the light I feel let down and lonely.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie loses his intelligence more and more rapidly, he again becomes childlike in his sexuality and emotional maturity. Here, for instance, he spies on a woman who lives in the building opposite his own. Charlie is still capable of sexual desire, but he shows no signs of being capable of romantic love for another woman--he acts like an immature 12-year-old, peeping on his unfortunate neighbors. In other words, Charlie isn't just losing his mental capabilities--he's also losing his emotional intelligence. It remains to be seen whether all the experiences and wisdom he gained as a genius will stick with him even as his IQ drops.

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.