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
Pride, Hubris, and the Tragic Hero Quotes in Flowers for Algernon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
"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."
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.