Flowers For Algernon: Essay Q&A
1. What is the significance of the window in the novel?
The window is an important symbol in Flowers for Algernon On a literal level, a window is an object that allows the penetration of light By admitting light, it facilitates illumination or understanding A window allows someone on the inside to look out, and someone on the outside to look in
On the outermost level, the novel itself operates as a window Charlie has been asked to produce the progress reports for Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur so that they can gain insight into his mind At the same time, the reader uses the novel to gain insight into Charlie's mind, as well as the minds of the other characters The reader actually sees how Charlie's mental functions improve as his writing becomes more sophisticated And through Charlie's comments, the reader gains insight into the other characters' personalities and motivations
In a sense, a window restricts our view of the world; it puts limits on what we can and cannot see It may also affect the way we see the world Thus, we might view Charlie's operation as providing a larger window, or perhaps drawing the blinds covering his window and letting in more light For as he becomes smarter, he begins to understand more and more of the world around him
On more than one occasion Charlie finds himself looking through a window It is as if he cannot directly connect with much of the world, but instead must experience it from behind a pane of glass, operating as a passive viewer rather than an active participant In some ways this results in a voyeuristic approach to life, such as when Charlie spies on a woman in another building emerging from her bath When Charlie's intellect grows, an odd shift occurs; he finds himself on the opposite side of the window We see that he becomes a much more active participant in the world around him He even begins to play an important role in the very experiment where he is the subject
Finally, we might see the window as a protective device A window allows illumination but at the same time it filters out harmful effects of the sun and other elements of nature Initially, Charlie's window on the world protects him Though we know better, he thinks of his coworkers at the bakery as friends The nasty comments and harsh treatment he receives from them are filtered out by his intellectual window Of course, as his window to the world opens, the ensuing insight causes him much emotional pain And as his window is fully opened, even Charlie begins to treat others in a less civil manner
2. What role does religion play in the novel?
While we might think of Charlie as a spiritual being, he is not what we would consider a religious person We learn that in his early years he had some exposure to religion His mother told him that he should pray to God, and late in the story Charlie asks God to at least leave him the ability to read When Charlie eventually reconnects with his mother, she thanks God that her prayers were finally answered Yet there is a hollow ring to her words For Charlie, God is not a deity to be worshiped; he is a rather innocuous figure This attitude remains much the same even as Charlie's intellect expands, for rarely do we see him contemplating God or thinking religious thoughts For a time, when Charlie begins hanging out in the places university students frequent, he becomes interested in a number of philosophical discussions, some of which pertain to the existence of God But this line of thought does not play a major role in his mental life
The novel, however, does ask an important religious question, namely what should the relationship between God and man be? More specifically, can man, through science, overstep his bounds and play God?
Hilda, Charlie's first nurse after his operation, suggests that perhaps the operation shouldn't have been performed because if God had intended for Charlie to be smart, he would have made him that way in the first place Thus, the novel raises the notion of God as the sole creator However, Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur's experiment has, in essence, re-created God's work Through Hilda we are prompted to ask whether it is an act of hubris to alter what God has created And even if man can redo God's work, should he?
We notice that Hilda is immediately replaced, presumably after Strauss and Nemur read of her remark in Charlie's report We could interpret this as a purely pragmatic act: the scientists removed Hilda because they were afraid her comments would somehow taint the experiment However, we might also view it in a larger context, that science always does its best to remove religion from the equation Put another way, religion has no place in science
3. What is the significance of the maze in the novel?
The maze is a literal and symbolic element in Flowers for Algernon. Both Algernon and Charlie must complete mazes as part of the experiment To the experimenters, the maze is a test or marker of intelligence, and successful completion of the maze is viewed as evidence of learning Metaphorically, the maze is a symbol for life As with a paper maze, life is an ever-changing affair and there are various pathways, dead ends, and even rewards associated with it
Several times in the novel Charlie encounters maze-like structures, such as in a dream when he remembers being separated from his mother in a department store or when he runs in the darkness through the maze-like paths of the park to elude would-be captors One might suggest that prior to his operation Charlie was hopelessly lost in the maze of life Of course, if Charlie wasn't aware that life is difficult, perhaps this is an unfair assessment As the experiment progresses, both Charlie and Algernon are required to complete increasingly complex mazes Thus, the novel asserts that the more intelligent one becomes, the more difficult it is to navigate the maze of life
A maze is a type of puzzle whose completion offers some reward Initially, Algernon receives food as a reward for completing the maze However, as the mouse's intelligence becomes stronger, he no longer desires the food As Charlie observes, Algernon seems to want to complete the mazes purely for the sake of trying This is also true of Charlie, for whom, initially at least, the maze is simply a game with no perceived consequences or rewards However, as his intelligence grows, so too does his desire to complete the maze His first motivation is simply to beat Algernon; he recognizes that it is embarrassing to be beaten, particularly by an animal As his mind continues to grow, completion of the maze becomes a way of proving to himself and the rest of the world that he is intelligent Near the end of the novel, Charlie's quest to uncover the flaw in the experiment can be likened to completing his final maze This time, however, the maze is completely within his mind, and the reward is literally the life or death of the new Charlie
4. Besides becoming smarter, how does Charlie's intellect change as the experiment unfolds?
As the experiment unfolds, Charlie's intellect blossoms in several ways The first change involves a more developed ego Prior to the operation, Charlie loses a maze race with Algernon but is not overly concerned that the mouse has beaten him In essence, he doesn't have a strong self-image The next time Charlie races Algernon, following the operation, he becomes angry that the mouse has beaten him Here we see that a sense of self-image has developed It is, of course, further developed as Charlie's intelligence increases to the point where he can easily beat the mouse With Algernon's defeat, Charlie takes a certain pride in himself As his intellect is further magnified, Charlie develops a heightened sense of self-importance; he sees himself as playing an important role in the lives of others, and at one point he even fantasizes that he might be able to help all mentally challenged individuals by coming up with a solution to the experiment's flaw
Another significant change involves Charlie's imagination Prior to the operation Charlie seems to exists mainly in the physical world Like an animal, he reacts to the various stimuli confronting him, in an almost reflexive manner He does not appear to fantasize or to have much of an imagination This is why he initially has so much trouble with the Rorschach inkblot test Following the operation, the creative side of his mind flourishes His dreams become more vivid and more complex, and he actively fantasizes He also demonstrates creativity, gaining an appreciation of art and by taking up the piano and creating music
A third changes involves Charlie's sexuality Prior to the operation Charlie exhibits no awareness of his own sexuality This, however, changes following the operation The first indication that Charlie is developing sexual feelings occurs when his co-workers from the bakery take him to a bar and force him to dance with a woman The activity stirs some odd and unfamiliar feelings within him Not long after his dance, Charlie has a "wet dream" involving the woman The next step in his sexual development is seen in his crush on his teacher, Alice Kinnian Charlie's relationship with Fay, the painter across the hall, constitutes a much more complex, adult type of sexual relationship Finally, when Charlie eventually reconnects with Alice, we sense that he has developed the full capacity for love
5. The entire story takes place over nine months. Why might the author
have chosen this span of time?
The author may have chosen a nine-month span to depict Charlie's mental rise and decline because that is the time it takes for a normal human conception and birth In many ways, prior to the operation Charlie is child-like Though he is thirty-two years old, his world is rather womb-like: it is small, comfortable, and generally protective For Charlie, the operation is like a rebirth It gives him a new intellect, personality, expanded range of emotions, and new ways of interacting with the world He is suddenly born into the world at large, a world of wonders, delights, and, unfortunately, pain It is a world that he never knew existed
The nine-month timeframe also prompts the reader to consider in what other ways Charlie was "created." It is clear that Professor Nemur feels he and his team have created Charlie At one point, Nemur asserts that they have made Charlie what he is today, and he resents that Charlie is not more appreciative of what they have done for him Charlie deeply rejects Nemur's stance, insisting that he was as much of a person prior to the operation as following it While the novel does not raise any direct comparisons to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, it clearly echoes Victor Frankenstein's creation of his monster and the monster's eventual rebellion against his creator
Another force that has created Charlie is his mother The story makes it clear that Rose Gordon had a significant role in shaping her son's life Her initial attempts to "cure" him resulted in Charlie's life-long desire to become smarter Of course, as her attitude toward her son darkened, resulting in Charlie's institutionalization and the complete severing of connections with his family, Charlie became subconsciously traumatized Many of his nightmares and his problems dealing with women can be traced back to his mother's actions Throughout much of the novel, Charlie struggles to deal with the impact his mother had on him