March 15. Charlie has left the hospital, though he hasn’t gone back to work yet. Professor Nemur gives Charlie puzzles to work on—mazes and logic games. Charlie gets headaches when he thinks. Miss Kinnian visits him and tells him that he has to be patient—he’ll be smart soon.
Charlie’s headaches are a sign of his brain’s growth, but they’re also a subtle reminder that intelligence is no guarantee of happiness: it’s painful—literally in this case—to get smarter. Through the mazes, Charlie is once again explicitly linked to Algernon.
March 16. Charlie goes to the college where Burt works. He listens to college students talk about art, politics, and religion. Charlie doesn’t know anything about these subjects, except that religion is good—his mother raised him to believe that God is great.
Charlie isn’t yet intelligent enough to participate in academic conversations, but he’s ambitious enough to aspire to be a part of them.
Burt explains that Charlie’s experiment is being kept a secret, for fear that Nemur will get bad publicity if the experiment fails. He adds that “no scientist is a great man to his colleagues.” Charlie learns that Burt is a graduate student who works with Nemur.
We begin to see that Nemur isn’t a saint or a genius by any means—he’s just another work-driven academic trying to achieve some success for himself in the medical community.
March 17. Every day, Charlie wakes up and imagines that he’s going to be smart. He wonders if the experiment has failed. He tells Miss Kinnian that he doesn’t want to write progress reports anymore, and that he gets headaches all the time. Miss Kinnian insists that Charlie remain patient.
Charlie begins to have doubts about his goals of genius. He knows what he wants, but he isn’t getting immediate results, so he starts to question whether the surgery was worthwhile to begin with.
March 20. Charlie goes back to work at the bakery, although he has instructions from Strauss not to tell anyone about his operation. Charlie has missed the bakery: he likes his friends and “all the fun we have.”
So far, we haven’t seen Charlie interact with his coworkers at the bakery. As far as Charlie’s concerned, he and his coworkers are friends. And yet we’ve also gotten hints that they look down on him, as he wants to “show them up” by becoming smart.
Doctor Strauss tells Charlie that he should continue making notes about his experiences. He adds that it’s going to take some time, but eventually, Charlie will become three times as intelligent as he was—just like Algernon, the mouse.
Here Charlie is explicitly paired with Algernon in the sense that Algernon’s experiences foreshadow Charlie’s—and that they are both “lab rats.”
March 21. At the bakery, Joe Carp, another employee, teases Charlie. Although Joe doesn’t know about Charlie’s surgery, he notices the scar on Charlie’s head and teases him for “getting some brains.” Charlie laughs, since he thinks Joe is his friend.
It’s heartbreaking to see Charlie’s coworkers—the people he regards as friends—making fun of him. But this brings up an interesting question: if Charlie believes that his coworkers are his friends, is the situation really tragic for him? We recognize the cruelty that Charlie faces, but Charlie himself remains blissfully ignorant.
Mr. Donner, the owner of the bakery, tells Charlie that Charlie been working there for 17 years (he’s 32 now). Charlie’s Uncle Herman was Mr. Donner’s best friend—as a result, Charlie will always have a job at the bakery. If Charlie hadn’t had this job, Donner explains, he would have been sent to the Warren home for mentally disabled people.
Charlie has spent his entire adult life living on other people’s kindness and generosity. Despite his age (32), he’s a child—he doesn’t make his own decisions, and he depends on adults’ supervision at all times. This is an important point, because it reminds us that this is a “coming of age” novel: Charlie basically grows from a child to an adult, albeit in only a few months.
At work, “pulling a Charlie Gordon” is a common expression, meaning that someone has made an embarrassing mistake. Charlie doesn’t understand what the expression means. That day, Charlie tells Mr. Donner that he could learn to be an apprentice baker. Mr. Donner looks surprised, since Charlie usually doesn’t talk so much. Charlie thinks to himself that he’s ready to become smart.
We get a small sign that Charlie is getting smarter—he takes some initiative, proving that he’s been thinking about an issue on his own time. This is just the first glimmer of Charlie’s future genius. There is also more dramatic irony here, as we understand tragic realities that Charlie does not.
March 24. Charlie is supposed to come to the science lab with Strauss and Nemur to conduct more experiments with Algernon the mouse. Charlie misses a few appointments with Algernon, and Strauss and Nemur come to visit him in his home. Strauss, recognizing that Charlie is frustrated, tells Charlie that he’s learning constantly, even if he can’t feel it yet.
This is an important scene, because it reminds us what motivates Charlie. Charlie wants to be smart—not just because being smart is good in and of itself, but because intelligence (he thinks) is a way to impress his coworkers and become more popular. Thus, when Charlie fails to impress his coworkers right away, he begins to doubt the efficacy of his surgery.
Professor Nemur gives Charlie a small device that looks like a TV—he explains that Charlie should listen to it when he falls asleep, since it’ll help him learn more information. The machine is also designed to make Charlie have dreams about his childhood. Charlie finds this frightening, but he agrees to use the machine.
This is one of the more obvious Freudian touches in the novel, as Keyes suggests that Charlie is learning “subliminally”—i.e., Charlie’s subconscious mind will learn lessons from the device when he is asleep. (There’s a similar subplot in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, another Freudian science fiction classic.)
Charlie adds one last thing—he’s going to go back to his classes with Miss Kinnian. He notes that Miss Kinnian “is nice.”
Here we see the first vague hint that Charlie is becoming attracted to Miss Kinnian, as once again his intellectual growth is linked to a discovery of sexuality.
March 25. Charlie uses Professor Nemur’s machine, and finds it impossible to sleep while he’s listening to it. When Charlie visits Burt at the university, Burt tells Charlie that the machine is helping him learn. Soon, Miss Kinnian will conduct tests on Charlie, and teach him “lessons.” Charlie is confused—if his TV device is supposed to make him smart, he wonders, then why don’t people get smart by watching the late show before they go to bed?
Charlie’s question is another sign that he’s getting smarter and is able to think more critically than before. He is starting to question his world and complicate his own assumptions about other people.
March 26. Charlie continues to listen to his TV device before going to sleep, and finds it difficult to sleep well. The device helps him remember something from “a long time ago.” He remembers asking Joe Carp to help him learn how to read. Joe laughed and told Charlie that he was wasting his time. As Joe laughs, Fanny Birden, another bakery employee, scolds Joe and tells Charlie that she admires him for wanting to learn how to read. She tells him about an adult learning center at Beekman College. Joe continues laughing, and Charlie concludes, “They are all good friends to me.”
With each chapter, we learn more about Charlie’s past. This reflects the fact that Charlie’s mind is getting stronger: he has an easier time recalling memories. But Charlie’s memories aren’t particularly happy, and the more we learn, the more we realize that Charlie’s life is sad and lonely. His “friends” at work are nothing of the kind—they treat Charlie like a clown. In this case, Charlie losing his ignorance also means losing his bliss.
After work that day, Charlie follows Fanny’s directions to the adult learning center, where he finds a group of adult students, led by Miss Kinnian. She tells Charlie to register for classes. Charlie concludes, “Thinking and remembering is hard.”
Charlie depends on the kindness of people like Fanny and Miss Kinnian to better himself.
March 27. Following his experiences with the TV device, Charlie goes to therapy sessions with Doctor Strauss. Charlie sits on a couch and talks about “anything that comes into my head.” On his first day, Charlie tells Strauss about his day at the bakery. He’s so tired from staying up late with the TV device that he falls asleep in the middle of his session with Strauss.
Charlie’s therapy sessions with Doctor Strauss aren’t particularly informative for either one of them. Charlie doesn’t seem racked by guilt or insecurity, at least not yet—it’s implied that these things will only come when his intelligence increases.
March 28. Charlie gets headaches. He sleeps better, since Doctor Strauss has showed him how to turn down the volume on the TV device. Charlie isn’t sure what the TV device is teaching him. Strauss explains that there’s an unconscious and a conscious mind—Charlie is learning information unconsciously. Strauss gives Charlie a dictionary, and Charlie spends time looking up new words, including “conscious.”
While most of the psychology in this novel has been debunked in recent decades (Freudian psychoanalysis is now considered limited and mostly false) it was all the rage at the time when Keyes was writing.
Later on, Charlie goes to a party with his “friends” from work. At the party, Joe Carp and Frank Reilly (another employee) give Charlie whiskey to drink and make Charlie dance with a lampshade on his head. Joe mocks Charlie for being a janitor, and when Charlie mentions Miss Kinnian, he suggests that Charlie and Miss Kinnian are “making out,” though Charlie doesn’t know what this means. Later on, Charlie’s “friends” ditch him, and he gets lost trying to wander home. He feels ashamed for getting lost, since Algernon could probably find his way home easily.
It’s significant (and very Freudian, as well as Biblical) that Charlie’s maturation coincides with the growing feeling of shame. In the Bible, Adam and Eve become fully “human” in the very instant that they feel shame at their own nakedness. Similarly, Freud looks on shame as a critical part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Shame is the earliest form of true self-awareness, and thus the beginning of adulthood.
That night, Charlie dreams about his parents. In the dream, Charlie cries while his parents lead him through a department store. He gets lost, and a man gives him a lollipop. When Charlie wakes up, he has a headache, and decides not to drink whiskey anymore.
In Charlie’s dreams, he’s still a child. This points to the fact that 1) Charlie still has a lot of growing to do, and 2) Charlie is getting in touch with his own unconscious mind. His childhood self is still very present in his subconscious.
March 29. Charlie beats Algernon in a maze competition. He realizes that he’s getting smarter, even if he doesn’t feel smarter. Burt, who runs Charlie’s tests, tells Charlie that Algernon is a very intelligent mouse. Algernon has to solve a logic puzzle every time he’s hungry. Charlie finds this “mean,” and asks Burt, “how would you like to have to pass a test every time you want to eat?”
Charlie measures his intellectual progress by comparing himself with Algernon. It’s interesting that he finds a moral flaw in the experiment with Algernon—although he’s not particularly bright yet, Charlie is naturally good at putting himself in others’ shoes, even when the “others” aren’t human. This suggests that morality and goodness aren’t by any means proportional to intellect.
Charlie takes pills to sleep more soundly. He remembers his Uncle Herman, a house painter. He also remembers his parents slapping his sister Norma for calling him “the artist of the family.” Charlie (still unaware that Norma was being sarcastic back then) he plans to go visit Norma as soon as he’s intelligent.
Charlie still has a lot of growing to do, as he doesn’t understand sarcasm yet. But at least he’s having an easier time remembering his childhood and his family.
March 30. Charlie begins lessons with Miss Kinnian. He thinks that Miss Kinnian looks younger than he remembered her being. Kinnian tells Charlie that she has confidence in him. Together, they begin reading a book, Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Dafoe. The book is very difficult for Charlie, but he responds to the story of Robinson Crusoe being marooned on an island, all alone.
Keyes likes to slip in allusions to books whose plots and themes mirror those of his own. Here, Robinson Crusoe’s fate—being marooned on an island—ironically parallels Charlie’s. Although Charlie believes intelligence will make him popular, the exact opposite is true: intelligence alienates him from his peers.
March 31. Miss Kinnian helps Charlie learn grammar and spelling. He’s frustrated with the rules of spelling—for example, that “through” and “threw” sound the same, but mean different things. Miss Kinnian tells Charlie that spelling isn’t supposed to make sense.
Charlie gains a greater understanding of the rules of language. In most psychological models of human development, language mastery is a crucial part—even the crucial part—of maturation.