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Free Study Guide-Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes-Free Online Book Notes
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OTHER ELEMENTS

SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS

A lot of the writing is bare and simple, as befits the narrator, but it is also a psychological study. Hence, the latter part the book has several symbols, sometimes used as links, which set off associations with the protagonistís memories.

The author uses the knife as a repeated symbol of the motherís threats and punishments. He has dreams of sex, ending with the woman carrying a bloody knife. When he tries to make love to Alice, he canít go on. Later, he dreams of being chased by someone holding a bloody knife. This is later connected to his motherís threats when he had an unconscious erection while observing a girl. It is also linked with the knife his mother picks up, when she demands that his father should take him away from home.

Another symbol, which recurs in the novel, is the window. After the operation, the "new" Charlie often imagines that his old self is another person who is often watching him from a window. This window becomes a symbol of the retarded Charlieís alienation from the outside world. It always shows him as an observer, one who is not allowed to actually participate in life but can only watch wistfully while others act.


In the final stages of the novel, Charlie frequently sees his existence as being a journey from a cave into the light, and back again into the cave. The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Platoís "Republic," which contains this idea. There, Plato speaks of the "soul of man" which "has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light." His brief spell as the "new" Charlie is his period in the sun, although he is always haunted by fears of the returning darkness. The cave appears again in the experience Charlie has during his last therapy session with Strauss. He feels faint and sees a brilliant light - "a blue-white glow...gathering into a shimmering ball" later called a "grotto of light" in which the "core of this unconscious" blooms into " a shimmering, swirling, luminescent flower." But "Charlie doesnít want to know what lies beyond" and so he is drawn back to earth. Here the light represents God and death, as a merging with God. The cause symbol becomes "the wet labyrinth," "quiet and dark"-his earthly existence into which he is reluctantly pulled back.

Algernon, the white "super-mouse" is not so much a symbol, as a parallel, an "alter-ego" of Charlie. Initially, he hates Algernon for beating him at every maze. Then he grows fond of him and is comforted to know he is "smart" because of a similar operation. Charlie is upset that Algernon has to "perform" to earn each meal, and later, after they escape, he invents mazes, which will stimulate the mouse, but does not reward him with food. At the convention, he resents their "exhibit" status and frees Algernon from his cage and escapes with him. At the convention, Burtís report on Algernonís erratic behavior reveals to Charlie, his own future doom, making the comparison between them overt. Later, he discovers the plans to dispose of Algernon after his death, and canít bear to think of him being disposed off that way. Ultimately, he buries Algernon in the back garden, and puts flowers on his grave. His last thought in the book is that his friends place flowers on the grave of Algernon. The treatment of the white mouse, as in the case of any other laboratory animal, is exploitative and uncaring. Charlie, being considered sub-human is treated very much the same, hence he considers the mouse as an extension of himself.

Thus, the author, while using symbols common to modern psychology, makes them an organic and essential part of his theme.

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