The concept of artificial intelligence enhancement has been a well-studied and often controversial issue in the world of science. Charlie, a mentally disabled individual, has been selected for an experimental procedure that will boost his intelligence, thus setting the stage for “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. In the story, the story of Charlie is told, thus developing the central theme of the maltreatment experienced by the mentally disabled.
After Charlie undergoes an operation that will artificially enhance his intelligence, he begins to realize just how poorly he was treated initially when he was mentally disabled. Additionally, he realizes how those he knew before this treatment treated him as if they were superior to him. Charlie quickly moves from a mentally handicapped individual to a full-fledged genius; however, he gained intellect effectively sheds light on how he used to be treated not as an equal human being, but as an inferior being to all other ‘normal’ people. For example, back at his previous job at the bakery (before this operation), his coworkers were extremely harsh and cruel towards him, while others were outwardly kind; though others were kind, they were still condescending in that they considered themselves superior to him and thus deserving of their charity. Secondly, he is now able to determine just how cruel his “best friends” at the bakery are, such as Gimpy and Joe Carp. This brings painful memories to Charlie, as he recalls the traumas from his childhood (Keyes 67). Eventually, Charlie is fired from his job after a misunderstanding following Gimpy cheating. His now ex-boss claims that Charlie’s new ways are against God’s will.
One can see the great changes that Charlie goes through following his operation. For instance, Charlie decides to keep “progriss riports,” hence revealing his poor spelling and intelligence that is associated with his mental disability (Keyes 16). However, his spelling and grammar skills soon flourish, as he reaches an IQ of 185: equal to the level of a genius. At this point, he could enjoy his newfound genius and new ways of abstract thinking, as shown through his conversations with Beekman students (Keyes 58). Instead, these new skills and elements of being a genius also bring pain to Charlie. He begins to struggle with the dual nature of how the disabled are maltreated in society, now that he has a different perspective.
The theme develops further as Charlie begins to move towards similar patterns of thinking of the non-disabled: something he had always been on the other side of previously in his life. Following his operation, Charlie adopts a superior and condescending attitude towards those who are disabled, in a way. Charlie views those who are intellectually inferior to him in a disrespectful manner, not unlike what he has experienced before the operation. Charlie seems to struggle with this attitude and its associated sentiments. At one point, he sees people laughing at a mentally disabled boy in a restaurant, and demands that the people treat the boy better. Later, Charlie visits the Warren State Home, where the mentally challenged people he encounters revolt him, and thus he cannot show any friendliness or warmth towards them. In a way, Charlie fears these patients as he realizes the great possibility of his own return to being mentally disabled. While the central topic in this novel condemns the maltreatment of the mentally challenged, it simultaneously shows through Charlie’s story just how this maltreatment occurs, thus allowing the reader to understand both sides of the struggle.
In summary, the central theme of mistreating the mentally disabled in “Flowers for Algernon” is unique in that the reader is provided with both sides of the struggle through the story of Charlie. This subject is illustrated through Charlie’s intelligence progression, as well as his intelligence regression. This dual perspective provided by Charlie, as a result, enables him to accept that, regardless of intelligence, he is a human just like everyone else.