“Darkness” and “Light” in Flowers for Algernon
By Laura Sherman
I have long remembered Flowers for Algernon as a heartbreaking story of a man with a learning disability who became very smart, and then lost it. The style of writing was different from most stories, engaging the reader from start to finish. It was born out of an idea for a script named “Brainstorm.” Author Daniel Keyes described it as “the pathos of a man who knows what it is to be brilliant and who knows that he can never again have the things that he tasted for the first time” (Keyes, Algernon 68). The protagonist received a chance to live a normal life through an experimental surgical procedure, which altered the area that creates memory in his brain. This paper examined the author’s use of darkness and light throughout the story to symbolize ignorance and knowledge. It attempted to support Plato’s position that a man is happier coming out of darkness into light by showing that the protagonist rejoiced in the experience of having knowledge even when he learned it was to be short-lived (Plato Quotes).
Key words: Algernon, Charlie, Charly, darkness, flowers, ignorance, intelligence, Keyes, knowledge, light, maze, memory, mouse, NMDA, Plato, symbolism
Daniel Keyes passed away in June 2014 at the age of eighty-six. He left us with a story that one of his friends referred to, with tongue-in-check, as a classic (Keyes, Algernon 82). Flowers for Algernon first published in 1959, is a science-fiction fantasy novel. It is also a short story, and has inspired two movies – most notably a 1968 American film directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Cliff Robertson as “Charly.” Keyes was inspired to write the story in part by a student he taught in a special needs class. The child approached him after class one day and “asked to be transferred out of the dummy’s class because he wanted to be smart” (Slotnik 3). Keyes wrote in his memoirs, “I was searching for a protagonist . . . with strong motivation and a goal who evoked a response from other characters.” He remembered the boy from his class, and the character of Charlie Gordon was born (Keyes, Algernon 72). Keyes prefaced the story with the following quote:
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes . . . arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light . . . And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other . . . – Plato, The Republic
Keyes compared Gordon’s hope of becoming intelligent to emerging from darkness, or enlightenment. Plato concluded that the man coming from darkness into light is the happy man. To Charlie Gordon, the chance to emerge from the darkness justified the risk of brain surgery, even when he later learned the experience was to be short-lived.
In Keyes’ story, Flowers for Algernon, a 32-year-old-man undergoes a brain operation to enhance intelligence. The research team at Beekman University is anxious to verify that the procedure that improved memory function and learning ability in a mouse will be as successful when used on a human being. Although the 20th Century enjoyed major improvements in healthcare, an operation such as the hypothetical one presented in Flowers for Algernon was a terrific risk to the subject. Yet Charlie Gordon, who has struggled with a learning disability all his life, is eager to find out what it will be like to be smarter.
Existing in Darkness: “Dumber than a Mouse”
Gordon works as a janitor at a bakery, eats leftover rolls and lives alone in a boarding house. Mr. Donner, Gordon’s boss, was a longtime friend of his Uncle Herman. Mr. Donner promised Uncle Herman he would see to Gordon’s care. The other employees tolerate Gordon, but they also make fun of him and play tricks on him. Gordon takes night classes at a special college for remedial adults.
A research team led by Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, sponsored by the Welberg Foundation, asks Gordon to submit to aptitude and personality tests to discern his eligibility for an experiment. The operation may improve his memory and increase his ability to learn if it is successful. It has already been determined to be successful when used on a mouse. Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur decide to use Gordon because of his motivation, earnestness, and his genuine desire to learn. They ask him to write progress reports in a journal. One of Gordon’s first entries reads: “If your smart you can have lots of fiends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time” (Keyes, Flowers 6).
Keyes gives the reader insight into Gordon’s status through the journal written from Gordon’s point of view (Keyes, Algernon 80). Keyes deliberately writes poorly at first so the reader can see Gordon’s progression. For instance, after the operation, Gordon’s journal entry looks like this: “I said whats the matter why dont you put on the lites and when are they gonna operate. And they laffed and Burt said Charlie its all over. And its dark because you got bandijis over your eyes” (Keyes, Flowers 5). Here, Keyes’ reference to the bandages alerts the reader to Gordon’s existence in the darkness. The reader anticipates when the bandages come off, and Gordon experiences his first glimpse of light.
Now that the operation is complete, Gordon must submit to assessment tests and works mazes at the same time as the mouse known as Algernon. “Algernon is a very speshul mouse with an operashun like mine. He was the first of all the animals to stay smart so long.” (Keyes, Flowers 11). Although Gordon knew that he was a slow learner, he experiences a negative “upward comparison” to his closest rival, the mouse, whom he views as “being in a more favorable position” (Paterson 167). Algernon appears superior to Gordon for his ability to solve the mazes. Algernon receives a chunk of cheese – a reward – when he successfully reaches the end of his run, while Gordon receives a mild shock through the electric stick in his hand every time he makes a mistake.
Gordon’s journal entry reflects his resentment: “I hate the tests . . . and I hate Algernon. I never new before that I was dumber than a mouse” (Keyes, Flowers 7). Later, Gordon will reflect on this time in his life, and write that “in his mental blindness” he believed his inability to read and write made him mentally inferior. “Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men. A child may not know how to feed itself, or what to eat, yet it knows hunger (Keyes, Flowers 63). Keyes uses Gordon’s words again to compare his “mental blindness”, or darkness, to his condition of ignorance.
Emerging From the Darkness into the Light: “Smart as a Mouse”
The day Gordon finishes the maze before Algernon marks a milestone in his progress. His improvement is evident in his journal entry: “I must be getting smart to beat a smart mouse like Algernon” (Keyes, Flowers 11). It is natural that he should feel protective of his new status and compare himself to Algernon (Paterson 167). Gordon’s writing shows compassion for the mouse: “and he has to solve a problem with a lock that changes every time he goes in to eat so he has to lern something new to get his food. That made me sad because if he coudnt lern he woudnt be able to eat and he would be hungry. I dont think its right to make you pass a test to eat . . . I think Ill be frends with Algernon” (Keyes, Flowers 11). It also shows Gordon still has much to learn.
Mr. Donner, his boss, cautiously promotes Gordon to run the mixer, a specialized task that took his predecessor two years to master (Keyes, Flowers 12). His peers at the bakery notice the difference in him since the operation and become uneasy around him because he is no longer an easy target to tease. Gordon learned to laugh when others laugh at him, before the operation. He thought if they laughed together, that meant they were friends. Now Gordon begins to understand that, “It had been all right as long as they could . . . appear clever at my expense, but now . . . by my astonishing growth I had . . . emphasized their inadequacies” (Keyes, Flowers 34). His relationships become strained and awkward, and Gordon finds he is still lonely. However, he is thirsty for knowledge and so he sets that aside and presses onward.
“The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life” (Plato Quotes). The operation set Gordon in a new direction, and he can now read and use a dictionary to improve his spelling. His writing becomes sophisticated. He attends concerts and learns about music appreciation. He performs difficult tasks with ease. He understands concepts he never knew existed, let alone contemplated. Gordon experiences a kind of happiness he never knew before.
Living in the Light: “Smarter than a Mouse”
Gordon’s knowledge increases so rapidly that he becomes not only smarter than a mouse, but also his peers at the bakery, his college professor, and the Beekman University research team. He says he is “living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed,” unable to get enough (Keyes, Flowers 75). College work now seems elementary (Keyes, Flowers 31). He also finds that “things he had believed in all his life were untrue” (Keyes, Flowers 23). For instance, he learns that laughing with his peers at the bakery did not mean they were friends. Now he understands their expression, “to pull a Charlie Gordon”, means, “to do something stupid” (Keyes, Flowers 8). He finds it ironic to be “on the other side of the intellectual fence.” His vocabulary has grown so much that even the research team has difficulty understanding him (Keyes, Flowers 36). Everyone is uncomfortable with the change in him. Before, they thought he had good intentions and a good heart. Now, they find him arrogant. Gordon simply wants somebody to talk with.
Keyes continues to speak through Gordon to illustrate his emergence from the darkness and coming into light. A woman at the bakery named Fanny speculates that Gordon has allowed men to tamper with God’s design. Gordon argues that, “I’m like a man born blind who has been given a chance to see light. That can’t be sinful” (Keyes, Flowers 34). “The man who is conscious of no wrongdoing is filled with cheerfulness and hope” (Plato Quotes). Gordon believes he has received a gift and sees no reason to feel guilty.
The Beekman University research team must make a presentation to the Welberg Foundation, who provided grants for the research. During the presentation, Gordon learns that Dr.Strauss and Professor Nemur are unaware of advances made by others in the field, since the written reports are in Hindi and Japanese, languages his mentors do not know. “They had pretended to be geniuses. But they were just ordinary men working blindly, pretending to be able to bring light into the darkness” (Keyes, Flowers 47). Gordon detects errors in the calculations in the reports written by the research team. Their knowledge of physics, mathematics and algebra is limited; and Gordon realizes that he knows more than they do about the operation performed on him. “Was not this … what we spoke of as the great advantage of wisdom — to know what is known and what is unknown to us?” (Plato Quotes). Gordon decides he will not be a guinea pig put on display, performing tricks to earn a meal. He takes Algernon from the cage and places the mouse in his pocket. They are the same. They must stick together. Gordon leaves the presentation without eating his dinner.
The surgical stimulus administered to Algernon and Gordon has what he calls “The Algernon-Gordon Effect.” Algernon’s artificially induced intelligence is “deteriorating at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase” (Keyes, Flowers 80). This means if Gordon’s IQ tripled, he will lose it three times as fast as he gained it. Gordon recommends to the Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur further research in the area of enzyme imbalances. He also recommends no further tests on human beings until there has been additional research on animals. His journal indicates he understands that the experiment was “carefully prepared”, and “statistically validated”, prior to the attempt on a human being. (Keyes, Flowers 81). “I tell myself there’ll be time enough to sleep later, when it’s dark” (Keyes, Flowers 87). Keyes uses Gordon’s words to reference “dark”, to show the reader that his intelligence will fade.
Gordon devotes the time he has left to further the research on memory improvement, anxious to leave behind him something of value. Keyes gives the reader insight into Gordon’s excitement: “. . . no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem. Incredible that anything could happen to take away this bubbling energy, the zest that fills everything I do. It’s as if all the knowledge I’ve soaked in during the past months has coalesced and lifted me to a peak of light and understanding. This is beauty, love, and truth all rolled into one” (Keyes, Flowers 76). Gordon’s passion flows into contributing to the research of the project in the hopes that it may prove to be helpful to others, like him, with learning disabilities.
Returning to Darkness: “Gordon and Algernon Experience Regression”
The fictional procedure described by Keyes in Flowers for Algernon is a reality today that may give hope and relief to Alzheimer’s patients by restoring memory cells in the brain. Plato describes education as “the art of orientation . . . It shouldn’t be the art of implanting sight in the organ, but should proceed on the understanding that the organ already has the capacity, but is improperly aligned and isn’t facing the right way” (Plato Quotes). Dr. Joe Z. Tsien conducted studies and discussed the results in “Building a Brainier Mouse” published in Scientific American in April 2000, and “Memory Code” published in Scientific American in July 2007. “Our results suggest that genetic enhancement of mental and cognitive attributes such as intelligence and memory in mammals is feasible” (Wade 3). The “Doogie” mice genetically engineered by Dr. Tsien produce an increased amount of protein known as the NMDA receptor in the hippocampus of the brain. The alteration of the NMDA receptor in itself does not “make the mouse smarter.” However, the longer the receptor can stay open, the greater the ability to create a memory. Dr. Tsien says, “Without memory, one cannot measure learning; without learning, no memory exists to be assessed” (Tsien, Mouse 67). Improving memory increases the possibility and opportunity for learning. For people such as those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, there is hope.
For Algernon and Charlie Gordon, the condition of improved memory proved to be temporary. Gordon knows there is no way to stop the regression. He admits to fear, but says he is not afraid of death, nor of “nothingness”, but of “wasting it as if I had never been” (Keyes, Flowers 87). Gordon gauges his own rate of regression into darkness, the speed at which he will return to his former state of ignorance, by monitoring Algernon’s regression. He notices that Algernon will no longer run the maze. Comparing himself to Algernon at this point is detrimental because it highlights the reality that his own situation will get worse (Paterson 167). When Algernon passes away, Gordon gives the mouse a funeral in the back yard at his home (Keyes, Flowers 81). Then he admits himself into an institution for retarded adults. Gordon’s final journal entry ends with a request that somebody please put flowers on Algernon’s grave (Keyes, Flowers 97).
Keyes’ notes in planning Flowers for Algernon pose the following “what if”: “what if someone the world views as the lowest of low . . . climbs to the . . . heights of genius, and then loses it all” (Keyes, Algernon 75). Society has historically regarded those with learning disabilities as inferior. People with learning disabilities know they are at a disadvantage, as revealed by Keyes’ student who expressed his desire to be smart. Keyes gave this awareness and desire to the character of Charlie Gordon. Algernon, the mouse, became Gordon’s counterpart. Gordon and Algernon emerge from the darkness, go “through the experience” into the light, and then are “thrown back” to the darkness (Keyes, Algernon 68). Algernon was the symbol of Gordon’s demise. His grave might represent what Gordon lost, a place where Gordon could grieve for that loss. Yet, Gordon’s good heart shines through his grief, asking only that his experience not be in vain, that others might benefit and have the same chance at a better life that he had.
In the end, Gordon is “no brighter than he was before, but having had a sample of light, he can never be the same” (Keyes, Algernon 68). Still, Gordon would not trade the experiences his increased intellect and knowledge afforded him. He tells the reader, “dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life . . . 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” (Keyes, Flowers 97). Even as he loses the knowledge he gained, and the ability to read and to write, he remembers the feeling of accomplishment. That feeling of accomplishment is what makes Charlie Gordon happier than never emerging from the darkness at all.
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