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.
Love and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Love and Sexuality Quotes in Flowers for Algernon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.