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.
Pride, Hubris, and the Tragic Hero Theme Icon

From the very beginning, the readers of Flowers for Algernon are meant to identify with Charlie Gordon in one important respect: his pride and ambition. Charlie’s pride—his desire for respect, intelligence, and prestige—is at the center of his character: without pride Professor Nemur would never have chosen him to undergo the operation that makes him a genius. And yet Charlie’s pride is his greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength. Through pride, Charlie takes on the qualities of a tragic hero: a strong, ambitious man who tries to be great, and is punished by the universe for doing so.

As with any tragic hero, Charlie rises to greatness through a combination of ambition, hard work, and incredible luck. He’s chosen to have a miraculous operation because of his desire to “be smart,” and after he has the operation, he throws himself into learning as much about the world as possible. Quickly, Charlie begins to “rise” in the world: he gets a better job, masters dozens of languages, writes concertos, and starts working on his own scholarly research. Even if this is a work of science fiction, Charlie’s ambitions to better himself are instantly recognizable to the reader: Charlie wants to gain the admiration of the people around him (his coworkers and, later, his academic colleagues) and learn as much about life as possible.

While Charlie is rising to greatness, his pride in himself is inspiring and heroic; when he achieves greatness, however, his pride becomes insufferable. Confident that his intelligence outstrips that of even the greatest scientists and professors on the planet, Charlie sneers at his colleagues and ungratefully ridicules Professor Nemur, the same man who made him a genius in the first place. Charlie’s great flaw, we see, is his “hubris”—his extreme, selfish pride; i.e., the very thing that motivated him to become a genius in the first place.

Because this is a tragedy, Charlie can’t be allowed to stay on top. In the end, the laws of science punish him for his ascent to genius—not only pulling him back to his original state, but making him even less intelligent that he was initially. And yet surprisingly, Flowers for Algernon isn’t just a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too arrogant. Even though we recognize Charlie’s hubris as a personal flaw, we can’t reject his pride and ambition altogether. Charlie’s burden is that he achieves so much, and inspires us to do the same with our own lives, even though he’s ultimately punished. Hubris may be a flaw, but it’s also a quintessential human emotion—the desire for greater knowledge and respect—and for this reason, we respect Charlie as the tragic hero he is.

Pride, Hubris, and the Tragic Hero ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Flowers for Algernon related to the theme of Pride, Hubris, and the Tragic Hero.
3d progris riport Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Alice Kinnian
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In the early chapters of the novel, Charlie Gordon's IQ is very low--he can barely read or write. But as this quotation makes clear, he's also incredibly ambitious and determined to improve his mind. Charlie attends night classes taught by Miss Kinnian--the woman who ultimately recommends Charlie for the controversial brain surgery that makes him into a genius.

Charlie's ambition, one could say, is his greatest strength and (as we will see shortly) his greatest weakness. It's also the quality that first makes him the novel's "hero." Even if we can't really understand Charlie's way of looking at the world, we can identify with his ambition to improve himself and become more successful and talented. Charlie is a tragic hero, who rises and falls over the course of the novel due to his appetite for glory.


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Progris riport 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Algernon , Doctor Strauss
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie talks to Dr. Strauss, one of the scientists who will mastermind Charlie's brain surgery--a procedure that will soon make him a genius. Dr. Strauss explains that the procedure will increase Charlie's IQ rapidly. He also adds that he's chosen Charlie for the procedure because of Charlie's drive and motivation to succeed.

Charlie's motivation to succeed is--as we've already seen--his defining quality. But it's also important to note that Charlie feels "good" when Strauss praises his motivation. Charlie already feels pride in his abilities. Indeed, it's Charlie's pride, as much as his motivation, that pushes him to attend night classes, learn to read, and (eventually), get brain surgery. He doesn't just want to learn how to read: he wants other people to recognize that he's learned how to read and praise him for it. Charlie's desire for recognition is rooted in a conflicted relationship with his own parents--a relationship we won't fully understand until the novel is over.

Progress Report 7 Quotes

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 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie becomes more intelligent, he develops a deep love for world literature, and devours several book a day. He spends a lot of time in libraries, reading as much as he can (and attracting a lot of attention for doing so).

It's interesting to note that Charlie describes his desire for intellectual stimulation as a hunger that cannot be satisfied. In general, Charlie's description of the intellectual life suggests the tragic proportions of his story. An ambitious, driven man, Charlie strives for greatness and prestige, only to realize that his drive will never, ever disappear. His endless need to learn is at once disturbing and deeply relatable for readers: we've all felt that gnawing sense of curiosity, and then been disappointed when it doesn't go away. One could say that Charlie represents humanity's ambition to be great, and simultaneously its utter failure to be so.

Progress Report 11 Quotes

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.

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!

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Algernon , Professor Harold Nemur , Burt Seldon
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

At a major medical conference, Charlie and Professor Nemur appear to answer questions about Charlie’s brain surgery. As Charlie prepares for the presentation, he has the distinct sense that he’s been exhibited at a circus. In other words, Charlie still thinks of himself as a sideshow freak, not even a human being. It’s hard to deny that Charlie has a point: the doctors who’ve attended the medical conference think of Charlie as a pawn, a convenient “example” of Nemur’s ideas. Charlie first volunteered for brain surgery because he thought intelligence would help him gain new friends who respected him as a human being. But here, it becomes clear that the opposite is true: Charlie is more of a “freak” than he ever was before—the doctors who admire his intelligence have no intention of engaging with him on a personal level.

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.

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?

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie, now a talented medical doctor himself, fantasizes about what Professor Nemur's procedure could do to help the people of the world. He imagines using his newfound medical expertise to treat other mentally challenged people, giving them the same gift of intelligence that he was given.

This passage walks a fine line between arrogance and humility. On one hand, it shows Charlie striving to use his intelligence for the good of other people, rather than using it to show off and belittle his companions. Charlie isn't yet at the point where he's forgotten his years of mental disability--he continues to sympathize with those who've been born with a low IQ. And yet the passage also shows Charlie as his most arrogant and ambitious. In the same sense that Professor Nemur has arrogantly treated Charlie as his "creation," Charlie wants to operate on millions of other mentally disabled patients, attaining fame and prestige for himself in the process.

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

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.

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.

Related Characters: Charlie Gordon (speaker), Algernon , Professor Harold Nemur
Page Number: 311
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie regresses to mental disability once again, he embodies a childlike goodness. He tells Nemur to be nicer, and even asks someone to put flowers on the grave of Algernon, the mouse whose mental growth and decline paralleled his own.

As a genius, Charlie's relationship with right and wrong was uncertain--there were times when he did good, and there were times when he proved himself to be capable of acts of arrogance and cruelty. As a mentally disabled man, however, Charlie proves that he instinctively knows right from wrong: he feels compassion for things that more intelligent people would ignore, such as Algernon the mouse. He also shows himself to be insightful, "sizing up" Professor Nemur quickly (and surprisingly accurately!). In general, then, Charlie's final diary entry suggests the tradeoff between intelligence and wisdom. As a genius, Charlie has a hard time knowing the right thing to do, and has big moral lapses. As a mentally disabled man, Charlie doesn't have much knowledge, but he seems to be a good, honest person who always knows the right thing to do. So as depressing as the novel's end might be, there's a silver lining: Charlie loses his IQ, but gains some wisdom, and retains all his human dignity.