Saturday, September 25, 2010

Flowers For Algernon: man-made genius and retardation

One of the more poignant stories I had students read in college actually came from my 9th grade year in high school.  I never forgot the lessons I learned from Charlie Gordon's life story in Flowers for Algernon.  It actually follows several themes in literature, including the original Frankenstein-creature-from-science, as well as the original (not the Disney version) of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast

I was also moved by the depth of Charlie's capacity as a modified genius to learn forgiveness for those who were tormenting him with words and actions (both his family and his alleged friends).  The remarkable circumstances in which he learned this as a categorized moron was also very compelling, and also reflected on the treatment faced by those families to whom children were born (allegedly) mentally retarded.  The story of Joseph Kennedy, Ambassador to England (and father of JFK, Robert, and Teddy), and his daughter Rosemary's lobotomy operation and the subsequent limited mental state she lived in afterward is found at this link.

Matthew Modine later played Charlie in a movie, the same role that Cliff Robertson originally was cast.  A synposis of the story is
as follows:

This is the touching story of a gentle, mentally-handicapped man who faces the chance of a lifetime and the hard changes that come with it. After undergoing experimental brain surgery to increase his intelligence, Charlie is emboldened with his new-found genius, but finds himself questioning the value of his intellect and struggling to accept his former self. He confides in Algernon, a lab mouse who has had the same procedure, and his teacher, Alice, with whom he falls in love.  Charlie also learns of the troubles faced by alcoholism and the unrelenting pressure of the academic and scientific professional, and the price they will subject unto others in order to gain acclaim and success.  Adapted from Daniel Keyes' timeless novel, Flowers for Algernon  is an acclaimed drama of self-discovery, the unbreakable bonds we form with those who understand us, and the capacity we hold to change.


 "Some people spend their lives wishing for something or someone to make a difference in their lives.  They want a change: to be better looking, stronger, richer…or even smarter.  Charlie Gordon, the main character of Flowers For Algernon, was such a person.  

Born retarded, Charlie wanted more than anything to be just a little bit smarter—and his wish was granted by way of an operation. However, Charlie must face his new life as a man of extreme intelligence and deal with people, his job, and what he really learns about his life story. The message of 'Be careful what you ask for: you might get it—and it might be more than expected' is a theme repeated in more ways than Charlie ever realized. But something different has happened: the sacrificed individual who suffers has made a difference."


Flowers for Algernon essay questions: These should be done in essay response WITH EXAMPLES/quotes from the book.  Just quote directly. You may number your essay responses; two paragraphs MINIMUM on each response.  You need to pick four (4) questions.

1.    What is the romantic comparison/contrast between the characters in FFA and Beauty and the Beast and "Frankenstein"?  In particular, address the roles of Charlie and Alice Kinnian. 
Also, use the Social Hero concept and explain why (or why not, if you choose) that Charlie Gordon could be considered in this way.

2.    Why do Drs. Nemur and Strauss consider Charlie a suitable candidate for the experiment? Why does Alice Kinnian recommend him? How does Charlie see himself by way of his lifestyle, and what are his interests in doing this? How does his lack of social skills create issues? What are his Personal Motivating Factors?

3. Why is Charlie initially upset right after the operation? What other types of evaluations upset him and why? What was his perception before and after and his expectations? What realizations does Charlie come to regarding Drs. Nemur and Strauss at the convention and how does this affect him? What IS the "Algernon-Gordon Effect" really telling the world about the experiment?

4. What does he learn about the Warren home for the mentally challenged and disabled? What has he learned about people like himself in society? Describe Charlie’s overall responses and memories about his sister, father, and mother. What does he learn about each of them personally? About how they have “shaped his thinking” (specifically) and his life?

5. Why is Fay’s behavior possibly worsening the outcome for Charlie? What's the significance about the cause-and-effect? How and why is it noticed? Specifically, how does Charlie feel about the total effect of the experiment? Please indicate both levels of his thinking as a genius and moron.

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