June 10. Charlie flies in a private jet to Chicago for Nemur’s conference. He’s going to meet hundreds of people, all of whom will be fascinated to talk to him and measure his intellectual progress. As he flies, Charlie thinks about the possibility of crashing (he’s never been on a plane before).
Anxiety and worry often circumvent logical thinking altogether, so Charlie’s intelligence doesn’t help him at all when he’s frightened of flying.
During the flight, Charlie remembers being five years old and going with Rose and Matt to Dr. Guarino—a man who claims to be able to make Charlie smart. Guarino claims that he’s stumbled upon an invention that can cure mental problems of any kind. He straps Charlie into a large machine with flashing lights, and tells Charlie that the machine has made him “a bit smarter.” Charlie is so terrified of the machine that he pees his pants.
Part of Charlie’s bewilderment with his new intelligence stems from the fact that quack doctors have been trying to make him smart for years now—he can scarcely believe that a doctor has finally succeeded.
After the “procedure,” Dr. Guarino tells Rose and Matt to continue bringing Charlie in and paying him more money. As time goes on, Matt and Rose realize that they’re losing all their money to quack doctors promising to make Charlie smart.
As Charlie thinks back to his childhood, he realizes that his mental disability has impoverished his parents—they wasted all their money on bogus treatments. This exacerbates Charlie’s guilt.
Charlie realizes a strange thing: even though Dr. Guarino was a con-artist who stole money from Charlie’s parents, Charlie doesn’t resent him at all. On the contrary, Dr. Guarino treated Charlie like a normal person—just another patient to be rushed through Guarino’s procedure.
June 11. Charlie and Nemur stay in the Independence Hotel in Chicago, along with most of the young psychologists in town for Nemur’s conference. At the hotel, the night before the conference, a young clinician from Falmouth College asks Nemur to explain his new procedure. Nemur launches into a long lecture on his process. In the middle of the lecture, Charlie interrupts Nemur and cites a report by an Indian scientist, which hasn’t been translated into English yet. Nemur is embarrassed by Charlie’s interruption, especially when Charlie insists that Nemur is neglecting important medical information.
The key thing to note about this scene is that it’s pleasurable for Charlie: he genuinely enjoys correcting Nemur’s medical knowledge. Charlie has been feeling inferior to Professor Nemur for some time now, and even if he recognizes that Nemur is no genius, he hasn’t had a chance to put Nemur in his place until now. For his part, Nemur has been so confident in his own ability—and so sure that Charlie will play the part of a docile patient—that he can barely speak after Charlie corrects him.
Later on that night, Charlie talks with Strauss, who noticed the way Charlie interrupted Nemur. Strauss explains that Nemur is embarrassed, and doesn’t like to have to admit that he hasn’t heard of a medical article. Charlie criticizes Nemur—and then Strauss—for not understanding Hindi, Japanese, and many other languages. As he talks to Strauss, Charlie realizes that his own knowledge of science, history, languages, and other subjects now vastly exceeds Strauss’s—it isn’t even close.
Charlie’s greatest source of pleasure is no longer the process of finding things out for its own sake. Instead, Charlie gets pleasure from reminding other people of his knowledge and intellectual superiority. In a way, this is what Charlie always wanted, even when he was mentally disabled: he wanted to “surprise” his peers with his intelligence.
Later on, Burt Selden, who’s also attending the conference, tells Charlie that Charlie is damaging Nemur’s reputation in front of Nemur’s colleagues. Burt admits that Nemur is arrogant and not particularly brilliant, and yet he respects Nemur for his lofty ambitions. Burt adds that Nemur’s under a lot of pressure from his wife, Bertha Nemur—it was she who pressured him into presenting his findings early.
In a novel that’s largely about intelligence, it’s important to point out the characters who embody wisdom. Burt Seldon, much like Alice Kinnian, is a mildly intelligent (certainly not brilliant) man who nonetheless exemplifies a decency and respectfulness from which Charlie (and Nemur) could benefit.
Charlie realizes that Burt is right: he shouldn’t be so impatient with Nemur. Nemur is a sad, middle-aged man, too old to start over again, and he’s invested everything in his intelligence research. Nevertheless, Charlie is angry with Nemur and Strauss—he thinks they’re frauds, passing themselves off as geniuses to Charlie, when in reality they’re nothing special in the world of academia.
Charlie, to his credit, recognizes that there are limits to his intelligence—in other words, he realizes that there’s more to life than being correct. At the same time, Charlie isn’t ready to relinquish his sense of superiority: it’s such a novelty for him to be intelligent that he can’t help but celebrate.
Charlie begins to describe the academic conference itself. He’s impressed by some of the researchers’ findings, but finds some of the other projects rather trivial. This gives Charlie new respect for Strauss and Nemur: they’ve devoted their careers to something important and uncertain, rather than something “insignificant and safe.”
It’s important to note that Charlie admires Nemur and Strauss for “aiming high.” From the very beginning, Charlie has been someone who aims high: he wants to be smart, even if it alienates him from his peers and ruins his life. It’s this reckless ambition that makes Charlie such a fascinating (and surprisingly relatable) hero.
Nemur begins to present his findings to his colleagues, and Charlie feels a strong sense of resentment: he imagines Nemur as a carnival announcer, leading his friends to see Charlie, the “main attraction.” Nemur calls Burt to go over Algernon’s intellectual progress, and Charlie is surprised to see Burt explain that Algernon’s behavior has become increasingly erratic and unpredictable—there are days when Algernon refuses to participate in the mazes and problems he’s been assigned. Charlie is even more upset when Burt shows the other scientists videos of Charlie—back when he was still mentally disabled—trying and failing to solve mental challenges. The scientists laugh at Charlie’s failures.
In this disturbing scene, we can’t help but agree that Charlie has a point. The professors at the conference in Chicago are no better than Charlie’s coworkers at the bakery: they’re intellectual bullies, celebrating their own intelligence and sophistication by laughing at their mental inferiors. But although Charlie can recognize this in others, he himself continues to feel a comparable sense of conceit when dealing with other people—including the professors themselves.
Furious with the scientists at the meeting, Charlie imagines letting Algernon out of his cage. He listens to Nemur reading embarrassing excerpts from Charlie’s progress reports. At one point, Nemur calls Charlie one of “nature’s mistakes,” and congratulates himself for “correcting” the mistake. As he listens, Charlie realizes how premature Nemur’s presentation really is: there’s no way to know whether the intellectual changes in Algernon and Charlie will last forever, or if they’re only temporary.
Nemur’s speech is incredibly rude and condescending to Charlie and to all people with intellectual disabilities: he regards Charlie’s mental disability as a hideous disease to be wiped out with brain surgery. This is dehumanizing at the most basic level, as Nemur essentially connects intelligence with human dignity and value—something everyone should have, no matter their IQ.
Suddenly, Charlie lets Algernon out of his tiny cage. Algernon runs through the conference, and Nemur shrieks for the scientists to catch him. Charlie is amused by the sight of hundreds of middle-aged scientists chasing after an animal. Charlie then finds Algernon hiding in a bathroom, and instead of returning Algernon to his cage, he slips the mouse into his pocket and tells the scientists that Algernon slipped into a ventilator.
In this critical scene, Charlie refuses to sit for Nemur’s condescension any longer. He’s aiming to embarrass Nemur in the most public, irreversible way: by humiliating Nemur in front of hundreds of colleagues. Once again Algernon acts aas living symbol for Charlie, as the two both escape from their “masters” at the same time.
Charlie leaves the scientists’ conference. He plans to return to New York and start a new life for himself. He also decides that he should track down his parents.
We’re about to enter the “third act” of the book. Charlie has fled academia, and embarked on a more personal journey: to track down his family.