For decades—yes, decades—I’ve had this book on my radar, and after finally reading it, I can see why so many people have recommended it to me over the years. It begins with this epigraph (the quote is a bit long, so I’ve condensed it):
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light… if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.—Plato’s Republic, Book VII
The passage from the famous cave allegory turns out to be spot on. Particularly the bit about laughing at others.
The novel is about a mentally disabled 32 year old Charlie Gordon, who, along with a lab mouse named Algernon, undergoes an experimental surgery to improve his intelligence. The entire story is told in the form of the diary entries he’s been asked to write to track his progress—a fantastic literary device for this story because it gives us direct access to the drastic changes in Charlie’s intellectual abilities and emotional development throughout the course of the book. And, given the Plato quote, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Charlie’s progress and the prisoner’s ascent out of the cave. That said, I tend to prefer the divided line analogy (in Book VI of the Republic) for reasons I’ve explained in that post.
Here’s a diagram of the divided line so you can follow along:
A: Uncritical acceptance
When we first meet Charlie, we see right away he can barely read and write. We soon find out that the only reason he can do these things at all is because he’s incredibly motivated and has even sought out a class to learn how. Later we (and Charlie) will find out where his extraordinary motivation comes from.
On top of his desire to learn, Charlie exhibits an uncommon optimism and humility, personality traits which make him an especially good candidate for the experiment. When he’s taken into the lab to meet Algernon, the mouse repeatedly beats him in maze races, but instead of getting embarrassed or angry, Charlie says:
I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time. I dint know mice were so smart.—Flowers for Algernon, p. 9. ‘Progris riport 4, mar 6.‘
Charlie may not be upset over getting outsmarted by a mouse, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for him nonetheless. When his coworkers at the bakery he works at laugh at him, he laughs along with them and regards them as friends. The worst part is, deep down he seems to know they’re laughing at him, not with him, but he’s so lonely and desperate for friendship that he overlooks their malicious intent. He prefers to see the good in people, even if it takes a great leap of imagination to do so.
B: Naive Realism
It takes a while for the effects of the operation to kick in, at least from Charlie’s point of view, but as readers we see his thought processes as well as his grammar begin to improve almost immediately. As Charlie awakens to the bullying he’s been on the receiving end of for his entire life, you can imagine he gets pretty pissed. But more than that, he becomes suspicious and sees the world as full of lies. Whereas before he overlooked even the most egregious bullying, now he reacts with anger to the slightest miscommunication. He has lost his faith in the goodness of others.
For instance, while undergoing further testing after the procedure, he’s asked to describe Rorschach blots on flashcards, a test he’s encountered before the operation. At that time he thought he was supposed to see certain things in the images—a test, after all, is usually a matter of answering questions correctly—and he found it frustrating that he couldn’t figure out what it was he was supposed to be seeing. He wasn’t able to articulate then why he was having problems with the test, but now he can. When the professor explains to him there are ‘no pictures hidden in the inkblots’, Charlie feels as though the researchers been deceiving him all along:
I was sure they had made fun of me and tricked me when I was too ignorant to know better. My anger was an exciting feeling, and I didn’t give it up easily. I was ready to fight…—Flowers for Algernon, p. 51. ‘Progress Report 9, April 18.’
When the researchers explain they’re not making fun of him, Charlie can no longer take them at their word. He needs proof. They then offer to bring out recorded tapes of their session from before the operation to show Charlie they were simply repeating the same instructions then as now. Charlie says, “I’ll believe that when I hear it.”
A look passed between them. I felt the blood rush to my face again. They were laughing at me. But then I realized what I had just said, and hearing myself I understood the reason for the look. They weren’t laughing. They knew what was happening to me. I had reached a new level, and anger and suspicion were my first reactions to the world around me.Algernon, p. 51. ‘Progress Report 9, April 18.’
The anger and suspicion is a result of his dialectical sway between two absolutes. Charlie came into the world believing without even knowing what belief was. His attitude was uncritical acceptance. After the operation, his attitude easily falls into wholesale doubt and suspicion:
Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be (my emphasis).Algernon, p. 63. ‘Progress Report 9, April 27.’
Charlie’s learning may be artificially-induced, and it may be fast-paced and extreme, but it nevertheless parallels the growth that happens through the course of our lives. At this moment, Charlie has reached a teenaged level of maturity. During this period it’s not unusual to swing too far in the opposite direction from what we perceive as an error or lie handed to us in our upbringing, and Charlie, despite being an adult, is going through that phase very quickly. It makes sense that his reactions and emotions would be more acute. Once he realizes he’s been lied to, he’s unable to bracket a particular instance of deception and deal with it on its own terms, but instead generalizes from it inappropriately—his co-worker at the bakery tricks him, now everyone’s out to get him, everything is a lie.
I can relate. It’s similar to my thoughts about religion throughout middle and high school. It actually angered me that so many people could be fooled. Charlie, however, seems to be directing his ‘teenaged’ angst toward the authority figures in his life, which is certainly not unusual.
Charlie’s anger mirrors that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who enters the discussion like a “wild beast…as if to tear Socrates apart.”
B-C: Beyond Naive Realism
And yet, that quote on pg. 51 points to a dim, emerging self awareness that his learning is tied to his emotional development, that his first impulse to run to the polar opposite of his previous worldview is a normal stage of that development, and that ‘trust nothing’ is a typical knee jerk reaction.
In other words, if the world Charlie used to inhabit is a cave world in which its inhabitants occupy themselves by watching shadows, then the world he lives in now is responsible, in every sense of the word, for that shadowy existence. He may be in the light above the cave, but he still cares about the shadows. And what could be more shadowy and cave-like than a movie theater? In the theater everyone’s sitting in the dark, all facing the same direction, eyes glued to images projected onto a screen. Hardly anyone thinks about the means by which those images are made possible, certainly not while watching the movie. After all, if you’re not willing to suspend disbelief, there’s really no point in going to the movies. But when the movie is so poorly done that you can’t sucked into the story, or when it changes from one genre to another without warning or purpose, or when the characters do something that’s unbelievable, it’s as disconcerting as when a malfunctioning projector causes the images in front of you to rip in two. The more attuned you get to what makes for a good story, the harder you are to please. It’s no coincidence that the following scene—a discussion between Charlie and Alice, the reading teacher with whom he’s recently discovered he’s in love—happens just as they leave the theater and emerge into the “bright dazzling night-lights of Times Square” (p. 69):
The second picture interested me. A psychological film about a man and a woman apparently in love but actually destroying each other…. It [the happy ending] was pat and cheap, and I must have shown my anger because Alice wanted to know what was wrong. “It’s a lie,” I explained, as we walked out into the lobby. “Things just don’t happen that way.”
“Of course not.” She laughed. “It’s a world of make-believe.”
“Oh, no! That’s no answer.” I insisted. “Even in the world of make-believe there have to be rules. The parts have to be consistent and belong together. This kind of picture is a lie. Things are forced to fit because the writer or the director or somebody wanted something in that didn’t belong. And it doesn’t feel right.”…
“You’re beginning to see what’s behind the surface of things. What you say about the parts having to belong together—that was a pretty good insight.”… “Soon you’ll begin to connect things up, and you’ll see how all the different worlds of learning are related. All the levels, Charlie, like steps on a giant ladder (my emphasis). And you’ll climb higher and higher to see more and more of the world around you.”… “Ordinary people,” she said, “can see only a little bit. They can’t change much or go any higher than they are, but you’re a genius. You’ll keep going up and up, and see more and more. And each step will reveal worlds you never even knew existed.”Algernon, pp. 67-69. ‘Progress Report 11, May 1.’
If you’ve read my post about the divided line, the reference should be pretty clear and you probably won’t need much elaboration. (The ‘steps on a giant ladder’ refer to Plato’s Symposium, as does the title of this blog, Diotima’s Ladder.) Those inhabiting eikasia take the world of make-believe for granted without realizing the illusory nature of their reality. They are the ones who come out of a movie and say, almost invariably, “I liked it.” You know who I’m talking about. If you criticize the movie, they think there’s something wrong with you. Why would you spoil a nice evening with your negative remarks? Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. In any case, they aren’t likely to change. Charlie, however, has already begun the process of change, as is evidenced by his calling the movie a lie.
A lie. That’s an unusual thing to say when you think about it, and he says it twice. It’s a lie, this kind of picture is a lie. He insists that the shadows follow the rules. In other words, a movie that begins by reflecting the complication and ambiguity we encounter in the real world should do so consistently throughout, which means the ending shouldn’t be a simple happy ending borrowed from another type of movie altogether (a ‘feel-good’ movie, I suppose). Everything should be clearly labeled and should stay in its place. If you want to introduce a stipulative definition into a debate, okay, but be straight about it, don’t use it to equivocate. If you want to make a feel-good movie, okay, but don’t mislead viewers by starting out as something else. Otherwise we might think the world really does have pat, happy endings, which is dangerous for those uncritical moviegoers who continue to suspend disbelief long after they’ve exited the theater.
All of which is a metaphor for Charlie’s recent changes. Now, having stepped into the ‘bright, dazzling night-lights’, he sees that pat, happy endings don’t exist. People don’t always have good intentions like he once thought they did. He might have seemed happy believing in those lies, but now he knows he wasn’t. Ignorance is not bliss.
And that’s because ignorance is never complete, as we see from the self-awareness he experiences even while relishing his own anger. As Charlie begins to recall experiences from his previous life—particularly those involving abuse by his mother—he’s able to understand them better, but the emotional content of those memories isn’t changed by his improved understanding. Now he sees that he never felt truly happy when people laughed at him. He laughed with them and continued to think they meant well only because he didn’t know how to deal with the situation. The only way to reconcile the conflict between his naive trust in the goodness of others and his negative experiences of them was to bury the evidence. But now that evidence is resurfacing fast, before he has a chance to learn how to deal with it.
This phase of his life culminates in a personality split: Charlie before the operation, a child-like Charlie, and an intelligent, adult Charlie. This split creates conflict: the child-like Charlie prevents adult Charlie from making physical connection with his teacher, the woman he truly loves.
C-D: Critical Thinking
When Charlie confronts head-on all the dreams, memories, and people from his past, he starts seeing himself more objectively. It’s only by reaching an understanding of his emotions that he gains control over them:
All these months while I’ve been growing up intellectually, I’ve still had the emotional wiring of the childlike Charlie.p. 169
Here Charlie is recognizing that wisdom and intelligence are not the same. Child-like Charlie had assumed that if he became smarter, everyone would like him. But now Charlie realizes intelligence won’t necessarily make him happy. Plato makes this clear in the Phaedrus with his tripartite soul allegory in which the charioteer represents reason and the two horses represent appetite and what we loosely call spiritedness. Reason must successfully control these two other elements within in the soul in order to flourish.
But around the time Charlie progresses to critical self awareness, he notices Algernon’s behavior becoming erratic; he’s regressing, struggling to complete the mazes. Algernon had the procedure shortly before Charlie did, so Algernon is the canary in the coal mine, if you will. Charlie realizes his newfound intelligence may not last, and no one knows what lies in store for him.
Charlie decides to stop wasting his time with his new shallow girlfriend, who takes him dancing and drinking, and decides to get to work on finding a solution to his, and humanity’s, problem. In the following quotes, I’ll bold the parts that echo Plato’s divided line:
I’ve got to stop this childish worrying about myself—my past and my future. Let me give something of myself to others. I’ve got to use my knowledge and skills to work in the field of increasing human intelligence. Who is better equipped? Who else has lived in both worlds?p. 169
I’m on the edge of it. I sense it. They all think I’m killing myself at this pace, but what they don’t understand is that I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed…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.p. 204
As Charlie’s intelligence soars above everyone else’s, he becomes, as Dr. Nemur puts it, “an arrogant, self-centered, antisocial bastard.”
In that moment Charlie is telling off Nemur, “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love…I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown…”
Even as Charlie says this his own intelligence begins to break down. He runs to the bathroom and sees child-Charlie looking back at him. Adult Charlie says to him:
“Who’s to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who’s to say death is better than your darkness? Who am I to say?…But I’m not your friend. I’m your enemy. I’m not going to give up my intelligence without a struggle. I can’t go back down into that cave.”
If you recall, the philosopher must be dragged down into the cave against his will. This strange mirror incident marks the beginning of Charlie’s decline.
D-> C-> B-> A: Wisdom, then down the Cave
The next chapter begins with Charlie proving his hypothesis:
Artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase.p 216.
Shortly after, he finds Algernon dead in his cage. Charlie refuses to let the researchers dump him in an incinerator, and instead buries him the backyard and places flowers on his grave. Hence the title of the novel.
The only question now is: How much can I hang on to?p. 218
This is an important question.
Now Charlie knows his own fate at around the same time that he experiences something strange, something which can only be a vision into the Idea of the Good (you just have to read it yourself.)
Seeing what happened to Algernon lights a fire under Charlie. He realizes his knowledge can only go so far; there’s nothing he can do to stop his own regress and death. He decides to finally visit the one person in his past who caused him so much grief and who, at the same time, made him so eager to learn: his mother. He tries to tell her he has become intelligent, and “you can be proud of me now and tell all the neighbors. You don’t have to hide me in the cellar when company comes.” p. 224 Ironically, his mother now has dementia and can’t understand what’s going on. Which points to the universality of Charlie’s condition—none of us can escape decline and death.
In terms of the cave, Charlie’s visit to his mother represents the philosopher returning, out of duty, into the dark cave. (And if you have a mother like Charlie’s, you’ll see the task as a duty indeed.) This return, however, does end on a positive note when Charlie meets his sister for the first time after many years. Their reconciliation comes with a role reversal, and Charlie tries to offer his sister the comfort she was not capable of giving him.
The torch he carries into the cave is dimming fast. His intelligence declines rapidly from here. He returns to many people and places from his past, but his decline outruns him. He forgets how to read and write. He knows he did something important for science, but he can’t remember what. He doesn’t remember making love to Ms. Kinnian—the climax, if you will, of his life and, in some ways, his greatest achievement of all. But there’s one thing he does remember, which he makes clear in his farewell letter to the world—he asks Ms. Kinnian to put flowers on Algernon’s grave when he’s gone.