Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
The character of Charlie Gordon, a young retarded adult, and the changes in him as a result of a daring experimental operation, is the nucleus of the novel. When the book opens, Charlie is thirty- two, lives alone, and works as a lowly cleaner in a bakery. He owes his job only to his uncle’s lifelong friendship with the kind owner. Charlie is the butt of crude jokes by the worst of the bakery workers, but is treated kindly by the others. He is "happy," in a way with all these people whom he considers "smart," and he enjoys laughing with them, even when most of the laughter is against him. At this stage the only signs of unhappiness are the fact that Charlie scarcely seems to remember anything of his family, which has abandoned him, and his anxiety to learn and be "smart." This drives him to enroll in a special class, which he attends after a long day of drudgery at the bakery. Otherwise, he seems happy to entertain and be patronized by the co-workers at the bakery, which is his "world." Though he is thirty-two, there isn’t any sign of sexual frustration, with the few women in his life - Fanny Berden, Miss Kinnian, playing near-maternal roles.
It is the gusto with which he asks for the operation, never mind the risks he is told about, which gets him apart from other retarded people. The surgery then brings a radical change in his life.
Before the operation, Charlie is childlike, eager to please and have friends and willing to work hard. He thinks wistfully that he would like to be "smart like other pepul" so that they would treat him as an equal. The operation changes him gradually. Soon, he is critical of people around him, especially of the research team, which has treated him as a "guinea-pig." He doesn’t appreciate decisions being made for him, but he revels in the intellectual powers the surgical changes have given him. He is masters a dozen languages, and at least as many subjects - including literature, music, psychology, maths and linguistics, among others.
Unfortunately, the progress from sub-normal intelligence to genius disrupts his life in many ways. It makes him unfit for his earlier job and companions, even for the girl he loves, Alice Kinnian. It makes him very suspicious of the experimental team, as he can understand how little they know of the subject, and it arouses long-buried hurt and resentment against the horrible treatment meted out to him by his family. This and the high degree of knowledge he is able to achieve in a short time make Charlie, by his own admission, arrogant, opinionated and selfish.
Charlie is frustrated in his love affair because of the suppression of his sexuality, by his mother, in his adolescence. Though his rational mind knows he had the right, and his feelings are returned, Charlie can never achieve complete intimacy with Alice, until it is almost too late. But, he is able to have a passionate, but less intense, relationship with Fay, his Bohemian neighbor. Yet, Charlie is shown almost to be making use of both women, without giving back much. He is too troubled, unsure of his own identity, to be truly committed to anyone else. His discovery of the defective nature of the experimented surgery adds to his insecurity.
Another aspect of this is his constant awareness of two Charlies and the feeling that, the old Charlie has just "loaned" the use of his body to the new one. After drinking with Fay, and at Nemur’s party, the old Charlie surfaces. This increases the new Charlie’s uncertainty about, who he is. His fear of being haunted by his old self drives him to seek out his family, whose rejection of him has been so traumatic. After his return home, he comes to terms with his mother and sister as unhappy human beings, who had acted the way they did because of social compulsions. He also accepts that the old Charlie is part of himself, and will be the whole of himself when his intelligence leaves him.
Charlie goes through immense agony before he can accept these things. Agony he would never have known with his earlier low I.Q. He has a lively love affair with one woman, Fay, but his enduring love is only for Alice Kinnian who knows his past, present, and future, and had cherished him when he was alone. Through his research, he has known the excitement of intellectual discovery and the tragic fulfillment of being able to predict his own regression. Having had all this, Charlie keeps his dignity and humanity, and accepts his tragic end with grace. The author makes the readers share the thrill of Charlie’s expanding intelligence and the anguish of his regression in equal measure.
Alice and Fay are to an extent, archetypes. Alice is the nurturing, maternal type of woman. Initially, she is just the kind "Miss Kinnian"-ageless and almost sexless to the retarded Charlie. When the operation on Charlie is being considered, Alice constantly worries about its consequences, in spite of Charlie’s eagerness to go ahead. Yet, she is always close building up his confidence, yet cautioning him against getting involved with her, while he is still changing rapidly. She points out, "when you mature emotionally, you may not even want me. I’ve got to think of myself too." Yet, she goes to an open-air concert with him. She responds to his love making there, but with reservations, until his other repressed self intrudes and inhibits him.
Knowing there is no future for them, Alice does not withhold her friendship from Charlie. But, she is reserved about loving him. She tries to soothe his fears about his abnormal situation and explains "You’re a new swimmer, forced off a diving raft and terrified of losing the solid wood under your feet."
Yet, Alice is not one-dimensional. She is ill at ease with Charlie’s changing intellect and personality, and does not conceal it - "There was something in you before... a warmth, an openness, a kindness that made everyone like you and like to have you around. Now with all your intelligence and knowledge, there are differences..." She says frankly that after their meetings - "I go home with the miserable feeling that I’m slow and dense about everything. ...I wanted to help you and share with you-and now you’ve shut me out of your life." She knows that he’s as far away from her with an I.Q. of 185 as he was when his I.Q. was just 68.
While Alice is torn between her own conventional and more modern tendencies, she doesn’t give up on Charlie, even during his involvement with Fay. She overcomes her resentment of Fay, and tells Charlie that she is good for him.
When Charlie is deep in his research, Alice is the perfect helpmate, who brings him sandwiches and coffee and does not make any demands. Finally, when Charlie’s mind is regressing and he is lonelier than ever, Alice puts aside past quarrels and comes to him. She withstands all his efforts to repel her and takes an assertive role in making love, until at last, Charlie can overcome his past and achieve fulfillment with her. Alice doesn’t let him give up easily, but demands that he fight his lethargy. When Charlie can’t take this, he drives her out. In the end, she once again becomes "Miss Kinnian" for him. In his pride, he doesn’t let her get closer, yet she continues to see to his well being through his landlady. Charlie acknowledges this in his last report, bidding farewell to his friends.
In sum, Alice is drawn as an ideal lover and helpmate. The readers rarely see anything of her life other than the way she relates to Charlie. Even her suffering is shown only in relation to him.
Charlie’s neighbor is the anti-thesis of Alice. In her mid-thirties, she is artistic and unconventional. Charlie’s first sight of her is that of "a slender blonde in pink bra and panties," standing and painting at an easel. Quite undisturbed by her semi-nudity, she invites him in and asks him to sit amidst all the messy clutter of her room. Charlie discovers that she paints nudes, is divorced, drinks and dances at all times of day or night. "She’s been around" as Charlie discovers, and this both fascinates him and does away with his sexual inhibitions. Her own approach to sex is casual but enthusiastic, and Charlie feels she is just what he needs. Here too, his needs are paramount and Fay is more and less, just the means to fulfill them. Yet, he can’t help liking her as a human being, especially her fearless friendliness and lack of curiosity about him. Yet Fay is independent and makes her own set of values - "I don’t see that because I let a guy bring me home I’ve got to go to bed with him." When she invites a down-and-out woman home, she is robbed of her month’s allowance. But with quick generosity, she forgives and forgets, believing that the other woman must have needed the money more than she did!
Fay is frightened when a drunken Charlie behaves like the "old Charlie," but she doesn’t leave him alone all night, as she fears that he might harm himself. Charlie is thus as much attracted by her zest for life and her novelty among his circle, as by her sexual appeal. However, he never confides in her about himself or his past, and the relationship remains superficial. Once he is absorbed in his work, Fay becomes jealous and bored with him. As his condition worsens, she goes off with a series of lovers and snubs him when he tries to approach her. Thus, Fay is seen as Alice’s opposite, but like her, is never allowed to develop into a really rounded character.