Man's Inhumanity to Man
One of the primary themes in Flowers for Algernon centers on man's inhumanity to man. Though the novel doesn't involve the horrific crimes against humanity seen in war or unjust social policy, we do see humans mistreating each other throughout the novel. The novel suggests that even when we have the best of intentions, such as perfecting a means of enhancing the minds of mentally challenged individuals, humans frequently mistreat each other.
The theme emerges early in the novel, at Donner's Bakery. Prior to his operation, Charlie is happy with the way his co-workers at the bakery treat him, believing that they are truly his friends. Yet we see that they not only mistreat him but they also take pleasure in it. Besting Charlie is a game, completely at Charlie's expense, of course. As Charlie's intellect increases, he recognizes that his co-workers workers aren't really his friends; they are simply using him to feel better about themselves. Following the operation, when Charlie returns to the bakery and uses his intellect to improve some of the baking equipment, not only do the other workers begin to resent him, they actually band together to get him fired. Unfortunately, even Charlie falls victim to this tendency. As his intelligence surpasses even that of Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, he develops a certain arrogance. His reaction to the pregnant woman who tries to pick him up in the park is one of disgust. He never deliberately mistreats others, but it is clear that his personality takes on a less humane tint as he becomes more intelligent. Thus, the novel seems to suggest that it is human nature to need to feel superior to others.
We also see this theme in the experiment itself. Although the underlying goal of the operation is to improve the ability of mentally challenged people, the reality is that Nemur and Strauss are primarily using the experiment to build their careers or to satisfy their own egos. This becomes clear when Charlie and Algernon are the main attractions at the annual psychology conference; they are mere objects for display, instead of distinct living beings. We also learn that the experiment was performed on Charlie even though Strauss and Nemur suspected the effects might not be permanent. Charlie is, quite literally, their human guinea pig.
We again see the theme in the Warren Home. The novel presents no direct evidence of physical abuse of the home's patients. However, the fact that they are broadly categorized into the "tidy" and "untidy"-as one might divide animals-and are more or less warehoused at the facility implies a certain amount of sanctioned neglect by society. Patients of the Warren Home are, in effect, swept under society's carpet.
Finally, we see the theme in the way Charlie's family treats him. His mother initially denies the reality of his condition and then works to have him institutionalized. At best, his father adopts a policy of benign neglect. His sister resents the ridicule she must face as the result of having a mentally challenged sibling and lies to her parents about Charlie's behavior.
The Illusion of Progress
Another theme in the novel surrounds the notion of progress. We generally think of science as the prime mover of progress. Many people believe that through scientific method we are able to identify, scrutinize, and eventually correct all of the world's flaws. The novel, however, suggests that this notion may be nothing more than an illusion.
It's interesting that the entire novel is composed of a series of progress reports written by Charlie. As we move through his journal, we fall into the trap of believing that Charlie is making progress. And by most scientific measures he is making progress: his IQ increases, the physical boundaries of his world enlarge, his interaction with other people becomes more sophisticated, and his imagination flourishes.
At the same time, however, Charlie's life becomes more difficult and more painful. His enhanced personal relationships eventually erode, as he cuts off ties with Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, lapses into an estranged relationship with Alice Kinnian, and has a rather meaningless affair with Fay Lillman. In addition, his enhanced memories of his family result in difficult reunions with his parents and sister.
It is true that Charlie's intellect expands tremendously as a result of the operation, so much so that he is eventually able to deduce the experiment's main flaw. Yet this knowledge isn't sufficient to allow him to reverse-or even to keep in check-his mental regression. Of course, Charlie's eventual decline calls into question whether or not any real progress has been made. Charlie states that he is glad he had the opportunity to experience the world fully, if only for a short time, yet we can't help but wonder if the brief benefit was worth the cost. We tend to view progress as a linear process, but it appears that the experiment has moved Charlie in a circle: he ends up at nearly the same point where he started. Is this progress?
Flowers For Algernon: Theme Analysis
Man's Inhumanity to Man