Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon Progress Report 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
July 14. Charlie goes out to visit the Warren State Home for the mentally ill. He meets with Mr. Winslow, the director of the Home, saying that he’s a professor at the university. Winslow, a calm, sensible man, tells Charlie that the Home makes no effort to imprison its patients—they’re free to wander away if they like.
This visit is tragically ironic, as genius-Charlie surveys the place that will probably become his home once he regresses. The home at least seems like a nice, nurturing place—unlike many “asylums” for the mentally ill or disabled.
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Winslow escorts Charlie through the facilities. Charlie sees mentally disabled patients taking care of each other in very tender ways. He also sees teachers working with deaf and intellectually disabled students. The principal of these students explains that most of the students in her program have IQs of well below 60—someone with an IQ of 70 would be intelligent compared to these students.
Keyes again brings up the idea that there might be a negative correlation between intelligence and kindness. The intelligent characters in the novel seem overworked, miserable, and selfish, while the mentally challenged patients respect and take care of each other.
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Charlie leaves Warren, thinking about the people who work there—people who’ve chosen to devote their adult lives to helping those who are less fortunate. Nevertheless, he worries that he wasn’t shown the most horrific parts of life at Warren—parts that he may be intimately acquainted with in the near future.
Charlie now recognizes the virtue of devoting oneself to other people, and seems to realize that intelligence has nothing to do with moral goodness or strength.
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July 15. Charlie continues to work on his research with Algernon, partly because it’s very important but partly because he’s been putting off a visit to see his mother. Algernon is erratic and frustrating to work with. To relax himself, Charlie drinks and goes dancing with Fay. He becomes irritated with Fay for showing no interest in his research. Fay is only interested in three things, he decides—painting, dancing, and having sex.
Charlie used to accept and even admire Fay’s sensuality and anti-intellectualism as her greatest asset, but now he ridicules her. Charlie is working hard on research that will potentially benefit other people, but in his personal relationships he seems to be growing arrogant and withdrawn again.
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July 16. Alice goes to visit Charlie in his apartment—Burt has told her about Algernon’s mental deterioration. While Alice is at Charlie’s apartment, Fay comes by, carrying a bottle of alcohol. To Charlie’s surprise, Fay and Alice get along well with each other. They chat about art and laugh about Fay’s suggestion that everyone should join a nudist colony.
Charlie has been so egocentric that he’s been unable to imagine any interactions between his female friends—as far as he’s concerned, Fay and Alice are real only insofar as they interact with him. Seeing Fay and Alice interact with each other reminds Charlie that he’s not the center of the universe.
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Later, Charlie goes downstairs with Alice to hail a cab for her. Alice tells Charlie that she likes Fay. Charlie insists that he doesn’t love Fay—Alice is the only woman he’s ever loved. Charlie tells Alice that he hasn’t told Fay about his mental disability, and he notices that Alice relaxes as he says this. Later that night Charlie has sex with Fay, but thinks about Alice and no one else.
Charlie seems more perceptive than usual: he’s always been good at reading other people, but even so, his attentiveness to Alice’s jealousy seems like a sign of his increased emotional intelligence. The question, then, is whether or not he’ll lose the wisdom he’s gained when he loses his intellect.
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July 27. Charlie works hard studying mental deterioration. His only reality is the laboratory where he studies Algernon. Although it’s the summer, and everyone outside is bright and energetic, Charlie is dirty, morose, and tired.
The paradox of Charlie’s intelligence (and, one might say, of power in general) is that he can’t enjoy it, because he spends too much time trying to preserve it. It’s also ironic that Charlie seems to be mentally deteriorating even as he studies mental deterioration.
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July 28. Charlie learns that Fay has a new boyfriend, but he isn’t hurt—in fact, he’s relieved. He continues working hard to study Algernon. Sometimes, he notices Algernon confidently navigating his way through a maze, only to forget where he’s going, or indeed, what he’s doing. Charlie knows that even if he doesn’t save Algernon from mental deterioration, his research will be valuable to doctors of mental disability in years to come—he’s indirectly helping other people, even if he can’t help Algernon or himself.
Charlie has moved past his sensual phase: instead of hanging out with Fay, he throws himself into his research. While it’s possible to read this decision as a moral regression (i.e., Charlie’s cutting himself off from other people), it’s actually the case that Charlie is becoming closer to his “fellow men.” As he says here, he’s conducting research in order to help other people as much as himself.
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July 31. Charlie senses that he’s on the edge of a major breakthrough with Algernon. At the same time, he can feel that he’s at the peak of his intelligence. He prays that his research will turn out to be correct, but even if it isn’t, he must try to be grateful for “clearing the way” for future researchers in this subject. Charlie also mentions that Fay’s new boyfriend works as a dance instructor.
Charlie has made a great deal of moral progress, even in the time since his last progress report. The fact that Fay has essentially left Charlie for a dancer has larger significance, suggesting that there is a world of physicality and interpersonal connection that is just as important or powerful as intellectual genius like Charlie’s.
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August 11. Charlie has reached a dead-end with his research. He knows that Algernon is regressing mentally, but he can’t imagine why or how. Against his instincts, Charlie decides to take a break. He goes to a cocktail party organized by Bertha Nemur, Professor Nemur’s wife. At the party, Charlie meets Mr. Raynor and Mrs. Raynor, two of the most important people on the board of the Foundation that’s sponsoring his research. Mrs. Nemur greets Charlie warmly, but sneeringly implies that his research is secondary to that done by her husband, Professor Nemur.
In this chapter Keyes gives us a sense for the ins and outs of academic research (Keyes spent most of his adulthood working at various colleges and universities, so he knows what he’s talking about). Keyes is unflinching in his critique of the pettiness and small-mindedness of scientists. While Charlie seems at least partly motivated by an abstract desire to help the human race, his colleagues at the Foundation seem entirely motivated by their selfish desire for fame.
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Charlie drinks more and more, despite the warnings of Doctor Strauss. He tells Strauss, loudly enough for all to hear, that the Raynors are fools who don’t understand the research they’re sponsoring. Suddenly, Charlie finds himself face-to-face with Professor Nemur, who attacks Charlie for his rudeness and lack of gratitude. Charlie shoots back that Nemur is embarrassed that his “lab rat” turned out to be smarter than Nemur himself.
Here, the two sides of the argument come head-to-head. Nemur is an arrogant narcissist, but so is Charlie. Charlie is right to call out his former mentor, but he’s also wrong to take such great pleasure in doing so. All this also continues Keyes’ commentary on intellect vs. morality. At the home for the disabled everyone was kind and caring to each other, but this gathering of intellectuals is full of jealousy and spite.
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Charlie goes on to chastise Nemur for his condescending attitude and egocentrism. He explains that intelligence—so often celebrated at universities and research institutions—isn’t worth much unless it’s tempered by love and human affection. As he talks, Charlie’s speech begins to shift so that he is speaking like his former, mentally disabled self. Alarmed, Strauss drags Charlie out of the room.
Charlie reveals the extent of his progress as a moral agent. Previously, he’d measured success in the narrowest, most personal terms. Now, he’s talking in terms of human dignity and human happiness—terms that seem more or less foreign to someone like Professor Nemur.
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Charlie staggers to the men’s bathroom, and looks at his face in the mirror. He asks himself, “What do you want?” and then shrugs. Charlie, addressing his mentally disabled self, says, “I’m your enemy,” and vows to defend his intelligence with every ounce of strength he has. He walks out of the bathroom, past Doctor Strauss, and out of the building. It occurs to him that he’s gone from a kind, likable, mentally disabled man to an arrogant, insufferable genius.
In a way, Charlie has been “looking in the mirror” ever since he became a genius. He’s examined his own psyche—his traumatic childhood, and his feelings of ambition and insecurity. Here, Charlie finally states the plain truth: he hates his inner child and resents the fact that he had such a tragic childhood. This is also an important step forward, as Charlie admits to himself that he’s a narcissist. As we’ve already seen, the first step to finding a solution is admitting there’s a problem.
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Charlie goes to his apartment. He considers knocking on Fay’s door, but he hears a man’s laugh, and decides that he’s too late. At 4:30 AM, he realizes ”the flaw in the experiment” he’s been conducting on Algernon. He resolves to finish his work as soon as possible.
It’s now clear that Charlie has become cut off from Fay’s world of sensual innocence. Instead, he devotes himself to intellectual endeavors, motivated not by his own arrogance (as he was before) so much as an abstract sense of right and wrong.
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August 26 – Letter to Professor Nemur. The chapter consists of a letter from Charlie Gordon to Professor Nemur. Charlie explains that he’s completed research on the “Algernon-Gordon Effect,” the process by which Nemur’s surgery deteriorates over time. The greater the increase in artificially-induced intelligence, he realizes, the quicker the rate of deterioration. This means that Charlie’s own intelligence will deteriorate very quickly, soon after it reaches its peak.
This is the only passage in the book that’s not presented as an entry from Charlie’s progress report,—signaling that this is a particularly important chapter in the novel. Charlie has now officially discovered and confronted his fate: he’s doomed to lose his intelligence and quickly regress.
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Charlie ends his letter by thanking Professor Nemur for his patience, and apologizing for the fact that his own academic career in psychology must “rest upon the ashes of the work of this staff, and especially those who have done so much for me.”
Although Charlie has learned his fate, it’s not clear if he’s accepted it. At any rate, Charlie seems genuinely apologetic to Nemur. Perhaps the nearness of his own “mortality” is making Charlie more grateful and forgiving..
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September 1. Charlie has discovered that he’s going to lose his intelligence very soon. He tries not to panic. Recently, Professor Nemur presented Charlie’s research to colleagues at the university, and they verified the “Algernon-Gordon Effect.” Charlie tells Alice that he’ll lose his intelligence soon, and Alice cries when she hears this.
As Charlie faces the tragic truth that he’s going to lose his intelligence, he turns to Alice for love and comfort. Alice has been an important influence on Charlie’s moral and intellectual development from the very beginning, so, it makes sense that he would turn to Alice now.
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September 2. Charlie is eerily calm. He’s powerless to do anything to prevent his mental deterioration. And yet he doesn’t blame anyone—not even Doctor Strauss or Professor Nemur. His only question is: “How much can I hang on to?”
Charlie’s mental state is both selfish (he wants to hold on to his brains) and magnanimous. It would be easy to imagine Charlie blaming Strauss and Nemur for his suffering, and yet Charlie refrains from blaming anyone. He’s taken the mature path of accepting that things are the way they are, and all he can do is try his best with what he has.
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September 15. Professor Nemur informs Charlie that his findings have been professionally confirmed—something Charlie has already predicted will happen. Charlie tells Nemur that the other scientists should devote their time to researching enzyme imbalances, so that perhaps one day, it will be possible to increase intelligence permanently.
Even after he give up all hope of preserving his intelligence, Charlie doesn’t stop his research. This proves that Charlie really is motivated by a desire to help other people: even if he can’t save his own mind, he can still improve the minds of others.
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September 17. Charlie notices that he’s becoming absent-minded. He’s also upset because of the recent death of Algernon. Charlie dissects Algernon’s body and finds that his theory was correct: just as he predicted, Algernon’s brain had become smooth and pale, a sign of deterioration.
Algernon’s death prefigures the “intellectual death” that awaits Charlie, and adds more tragic foreshadowing to the novel.
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Charlie has developed an unusual friendship with Algernon, and he’s sorry to see Algernon die, not least because it reiterates that Charlie’s own mind is going to deteriorate soon. Charlie buries Algernon in his backyard, and puts some flowers on his grave. He can’t help but cry.
Charlie is weeping for his own impending fate as well as for Algernon, but it’s also clear that he genuinely loved and empathized with Algernon, and so his tears are far from purely selfish.
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September 21. Charlie plans to visit his mother tomorrow. He’s very nervous, and keeps telling himself not to hate her.
Whether he’s ready for the psychological strain or not, Charlie is running out of time to visit his mother and reconcile himself with his past.
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September 26. It’s been three days since Charlie saw his mother. He describes the visit.
This is the climactic chapter of the book: the moment in which Charlie confronts the cause of his sadness and sexual anxiety, and the source of his feelings of ambition and inadequacy.
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Charlie drove to Marks Street, to the house where he grew up. He’s amazed to see his mother sitting on the stoop outside, washing the windows. This reminds Charlie that Rose was always interested in what other people thought of her and her family. Rose sees Charlie staring at her, and irritably asks him if he wants something. Charlie is unable to speak. After a moment, he says, “Maaa.” Rose gasps: she recognizes that it’s Charlie, her son.
The reunion starts on an uncertain note. Merely being around his mother is enough to make Charlie regress from a genius to a child—he can barely speak. It’s telling that Rose (unlike Matt) recognizes Charlie right away: even if she was cruel to her son, she spent more time thinking about him than anyone else, and, it would seem, continues to think about him decades later.
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Rose looks at Charlie with panic and fear. As Charlie moves toward her, Rose tries to run away. She slams the door in Charlie’s face, and Charlie bangs on the door window until it breaks and he cuts his hand on the glass. He manages to reach through the window and unlock the door, and then walks down the hall to his mother’s room.
Charlie is so desperate to see his mother—so desperate for a moment of catharsis—that he’s willing to break into her house. This scene also has some symbolic resonance: one could say that Charlie is ”smashing the mirror,” i.e., rejecting the narcissism and rigorous self-contemplation he’s been engaged in for so many pages.
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Charlie calls to Rose and begs her to talk to him. He explains that he’s changed—he’s no longer mentally disabled—and he just wants to see his family. Hesitantly, Rose opens the door. She takes Charlie to wash his bloody hand, sighing, “Charlie, Charlie, always getting yourself in a mess,” as if Charlie were still a little boy. Suddenly, she says “Oh my God,” and walks away from Charlie.
In this important scene, Rose’s obsession with taking care of Charlie comes across as stubborn and oddly childish—even after Charlie tells her that he’s become a genius, she refuses to treat him any differently. We realize that Rose’s obsession with taking care of Charlie was as much a mark of her own neuroses and insecurities as it was a mark of Charlie’s mental disability.
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Charlie listens as Rose babbles about her son—a brilliant boy with a high IQ. Then, she claims that her sister is coming for dinner with a young guest—she has to clean their house. Charlie realizes that Rose doesn’t really understand who he is. Suddenly, he hears her ask, “How could it be?” Charlie explains that he’s had an operation that has made him brilliant and famous—“Thank God,” Rose responds. She claims she’s going to tell everyone about her son’s new intelligence, including Uncle Herman (who’s dead).
Slowly, we realize what’s going on. Ironically, Rose, not Charlie, is now the one with a mental disability: she has dementia, and doesn’t really understand what’s going on (even though she’s read about Charlie’s operation at some point). Strangely, the fact that Rose has dementia clarifies the kind of person she is. Even after she loses her mind, she maintains her strong desire to be perceived as “normal.” Rose is the embodiment of the Freudian “superego”: her first question to herself is always, “What will other people think?” Previously, Charlie was afraid of his mother, but now, her obsession with public appearances comes across as pathetic and rather sad.
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Charlie decides that he should go. Before he leaves, he gives Rose a copy of his report on the Algernon-Gordon Effect—proof that her son turned out to be someone important. Then, the front door opens—it’s Norma, Charlie’s sister.
It’s a sign of Charlie’s perceptiveness—and his pride—that he presents his study as proof that he turned out to be important. Charlie knows that Rose cares about other people’s opinions, and now he’s giving her concrete proof that he turned out to be successful.
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Norma recognizes Charlie right away. She explains that Professor Nemur told her about Charlie’s operation, and that she’s been wanting to see Charlie for some time now. Rose had always told her that Charlie died in Warren, and she believed this until Nemur’s visit. Norma offers to make Charlie some food. Together, they sit down and talk.
In Charlie’s memories, Norma came across as a mean, self-absorbed girl. But it’s now clear that this was mostly the result of a young girl growing up in a difficult environment, and she seems to have changed in her maturity.
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Charlie notices that Norma owns a dog now, and this reminds him of the fight they had years ago. Norma apologizes to Charlie for being so unfriendly for so long. She explains that she always resented Charlie because their parents never punished him. In school, everyone laughed at Norma for being Charlie’s brother. But she hates herself for resenting Charlie, and apologizes to him again and again. She admits that she’s been feeling guilty for years—if it hadn’t been for her, Rose wouldn’t have sent Charlie away from home.
Even if Charlie can’t quite confront his mother, he gets some much-needed closure with his sister. By confessing her feelings of resentment for Charlie, Norma proves that she wants a good relationship with her brother. One mark of Norma and Charlie’s kinship is that they both suffer from a strong sense of guilt and shame: Charlie because of his mother’s cruelty and the belief that his disability hurt his family, and Norma because of her own cruelty.
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Norma insists that Charlie should stay with her family. Charlie shakes his head—he needs to travel, make some speeches, etc. But he promises to come back soon. He urges Norma to take good care of Rose. Norma is appalled that Charlie is leaving her so soon. She touches Charlie’s hand. Abruptly, Rose shouts, “Don’t touch her! Dirty mind!” and waves a knife at Charlie and Norma. Norma manages to take the knife out of Rose’s hand. She tells Charlie that the sight of her mother with a knife reminds her of a dream she had years ago. Charlie doesn’t tell her that this dream was probably real; i.e., that it’s the same memory he still thinks about.
It’s a mark of Charlie’s progress in this scene that when Rose shouts, “Dirty mind!” he isn’t the least bit frightened. By confronting the source of his problem—his domineering mother—Charlie gains more control over his own emotions. In Freudian terms, this is essentially Charlie resolving his “Oedipal complex,” and moving past his sexual neuroses regarding his mother so that he can be in a healthy relationship with another woman. Another sign of Charlie’s new maturity is that he chooses not to tell Norma about his memory of Rose waving the knife. It’s subtle and ironic that Charlie recognizes that—sometimes, anyway—ignorance is bliss.
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Charlie thinks about Rose’s anger and hatred, and realizes that there’s no point in hating her. He forgives his mother for threatening him and hating him for all these years. Calmly, he tells Norma that he’ll see her soon, and leaves the house. As he walks away, he turns back, and thinks he sees a little boy staring at him from the window.
It’s hard to gauge Charlie’s behavior in this chapter. He clearly wants a resolution with his family, and yet he doesn’t seem to want a real relationship with them. Perhaps the reason that he chooses to leave Norma so quickly is that he doesn’t want to hurt her further down the line: but it could also be that he’s essentially using them as “objects” (like he did with Fay) to cure his psychological problems. Even though Charlie has confronted the source of his trauma, he continues to hallucinate himself as a little boy: a sign of his impending regression to a childlike state.
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