The definition and subject of intelligence is a very controversial topic in the realm of psychology, however, a consensus can be formed when discussing the great influence intelligence has on one’s life. Society has melded intelligence and happiness to claim the former feeds the latter. Yet, this concept does not always reap rewards for the genius. Daniel Keyes, through his novel, Flowers for Algernon, explores the complex nature of intellect following Charlie Gordon’s unique experience with both a magnified and scant degree of intelligence. Algernon contends that increasing intelligence leads to an unhappy life. The novel delves into the negative repercussions of heightened intellect: isolation, aggravation and depression. Happiness, like intelligence, bears complexities that are severely disturbed when impacted with a progressing intellect.
A factor of isolation can be approaching the conscious realization of negative surroundings. Algernon discusses how individuals take comfort in solitude after advanced comprehension allows them to understand prior, unbeknownst, circumstances. Charlie, the protagonist, separates from society after realizing his friends “Joe and Frank and the others liked to have him around just to make fun of him” (Keyes 42). Charlie feels sick “like getting punched and heartburn at the same time” and decides to stay secluded in his apartment even though he has never missed worked (66). Charlie is unable to cope with the realization that he is being pilloried by his so-called friends because, prior to his operation, he believed that “Frank Reilly laffed with him” and “rlly liked him” (22). Cognizant of his misjudgment, Charlie becomes miserable believing that isolation from his friends will spare him from the fabricated reality he lived in for years. Charlie produced a false concept of friendship and was happy living his conjured lie. His advancement shattered this happiness and further humiliates him as he realizes he never had friends. Furthermore, he is warned, by Dr. Nemur, that he will encounter more problems as his intelligence increases because his “intellectual growth is going to outstrip his emotional growth” (47). Charlie’s intelligence doubles at a faster rate compared to his emotional growth; this causes him to feel insecure with the person he has become. Charlie begins to resent writing progress reports as he believes “it’s getting harder him to write down all of histhoughts and feelings because he knows people are reading them” (59). Before his operation, Charlie did not understand the logistics of the world around him; after the operation, he is bombarded with a myriad of emotions that he cannot process. Unfamiliar emotions force him to separate from society because he does not know a course of action to take if he is judged for the thoughts in his progress reports. Charlie’s isolation stems from no longer having the ability to ignore negatives, because his newfound intelligence allows him to experience the downfalls of life he never familiarized with. Algernon characterizes how the convoluted nature of intellect thrusts solitude upon an individual, and thus results in an unhappy life as they are reserved from society.
A tranquil and phlegmatic existence is corrupted with proliferating smarts. Algernon suggests that hyper-intelligence is burdened with erratic feelings of anger and sudden aggravation. Throughout the novel, Charlie’s behavior becomes increasingly spasmodic as he progresses intellectually; “anger and suspicion were the first reactions to the world around” him (58). Charlie while completing a routine Rorschach test lashes out at Burt, a psychologist, and says “Those inkblots upset me…I never recall being so angry before. I don’t think it was Burt himself but suddenly everything exploded. I tossed the Rorschach cards on the table and walk out” (56). Before his surgery, Charlie was known to be docile and unlikely to lash out at another individual primarily because he “wasn’t smart enough to be mad” (24). His behavior with Burt is unnatural for Charlie and is caused because his intelligence makes it difficult for him to express himself which he compensates for through anger. According to Brian Bethune, a psychologist, Rorschach tests “slip by our defenses, because our brains are more visual than verbal… The test taps into something more primal and emotional, so an unbalanced person is going to often fall apart on a Rorschach test, even if they don’t on other tests” (Bethune, para. 11). The Rorschach test Burt conducts on Charlie prompts him to become aggressive as fostering Charlie’s intelligence has made him an “unbalanced person”. Gaining a library of knowledge unhinges him as he is unable to process the information. Rorschach tests are meant to draw out emotional responses; in Charlie’s situation “the inkblots upset him” (56), because it forces him to confront instances in his life where he has been ridiculed. The situation encourages an angry response, simultaneously, stripping happiness from his personality. Similarly, Charlie displays irrational aggravation, again, when he is reading Paradise Lost and “breaks the binding with the pressure of both his hands, as he wanted to tear the book in half” (290). Displaying acrimonious emotions towards an insentient item is unnatural for Charlie’s character and suggests his transmute in personality. Keyes decides to incorporate aggressive words such as “breaks” and “tear” in Charlie’s diction to indicate his growing unhappiness as he transitioning to anger. Fanny, the only co-worker who showed kindness towards Charlie, urges him to “go back to being the good simple man he was before,” (107). Fanny’s deduction of Charlie’s change addresses the negativity intelligence has instilled in him transforming a good-natured man into an aggressive. Charlie’s descent into baseless anger hinders him from taking pleasure in the positive aspects of life. He is unable to express happy emotions, seemingly making his life unhappy.
Depression can be onset with sudden changes in personality. Keyes explains the absence of happiness in Charlie’s life by using dark imagery to describe his spiraling depression, caused by his advanced intellect. Keyes, in Charlie’s voice, writes “shadows out of the past clutch at my legs and drag me down. I open my mouth to scream, but I am voiceless” (Keyes 132). The harrowing description of Charlie’s emotions suggest his developing depression. Charlie feeling like he is being “dragged down” and “voiceless” perpetuates the idea of unhappiness; as he is being squandered by his intelligence. A research study, conducted by Mensa, found that “intelligent people with “hyper brains” are more reactive to environmental stimulus and that may predispose them to certain psychological disorders as well as physiological conditions” (Austin, para. 5). Depression is widely recognized as a psychological condition. The study supports the reason for Charlie’s depression as the cause is his amplified intellect. Charlie explains “the feeling of cold grayness everywhere around him…surrounded by no hope…the feeling of living death—or worse, of never having been fully alive and knowing” (231). Phrasing his sentences with words like “cold grayness”, “no hope” and “death” establish a sense of misery in Charlie that was nonexistent before his surgery. Charlie using sad words showcases his unhappiness with life; his sentences are missing words like “excited”, “happy” and “friendship” that he used before his surgery. The final straw indicating Charlie’s depression arises when he considers “suicide to stop it all now while he is still in control” (278). The contemplation of suicide showcases Charlie’s bleak mental state since he is unable to cope with the surgery that he underwent. Charlie is no longer grateful for his intelligence but rather miserable because his newfound wisdom added newfound sadness to his life. Thus, the cause of his depression indicates that copious amounts of intelligence leads to dolor.
Algernon explores the abstruse nature of obtaining knowledge and emphasizes it’s glaring flaws. Charlie Gordon’s unique experience spotlights the convoluted essence of the way happiness can be disrupted by intelligence. Keyes development of Charlie accentuates the manner in which intelligence regresses his quality of life: Charlie’s isolation from society, Charlie’s descent into anger and Charlie’s onset depression. The novel explains the complicated nature of intelligence and puts into perspective the joy simplicity can add in an individual’s life. Algernon comments on the dangers of amplifying human intelligence as advancement harbors the potential to destroy felicity.