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Pierre Davy

Charlie Gordon

Charlie is the protagonist of the novel, and the story is told through his eyes. As the novel opens, Charlie’s writing reflects his IQ of 68. The changes in the quality and tone of Charlie’s progress reports reflect the changes in his intellectual and emotional transformation. We follow Charlie’s arc upwards to an IQ of 185, at the same time experiencing with him the challenges of painful recovered memories from childhood and a rapid emotional and psycho-sexual development. Then we watch Charlie intellectually regress once more to a low IQ state, but we can also see that he has gained a better understanding and a more rich emotional experience of the world that will stay with him regardless of his IQ.

Charlie is an extremely endearing character whose naïve way of seeing the world is apparent from the beginning. He is trusting of others and wants everyone to be his friend. He does not understand at first that some of his “friends” are laughing at him or taking advantage of him. After the surgery that increases his intelligence, Charlie has to come to terms with some of the harsh realities of the world and must deal with his newfound feelings of anger and resentment. As his intelligence skyrockets to genius level, Charlie for a time becomes rather self-absorbed and arrogant, and somewhat less likeable than he was before the surgery. However, his experiences and the complexity of his transformation make this understandable. Even during his most narcissistic stages, we can relate to Charlie and empathize with him. His recovered memories of severe childhood abuse are a window for self-understanding, and he navigates his experience with as much grace as can be expected. Throughout the novel, Charlie’s motivations are for friendship and helping others. As a genius, he is able to make a significant contribution to science, and it is this knowledge that gives him peace at the end of the novel.

Alice Kinnian

Alice Kinnian is a warm and compassionate person who genuinely desires to help Charlie. As a literacy teacher for mentally handicapped adults, she in many ways serves as a counterpoint to the scientists who study Charlie and Algernon. Her desire to help Charlie has nothing to do with making a name for herself; it is only out of a pure love of humanity. Because this is Alice’s nature, she is the only character in the novel with whom Charlie has a fully realized and mature friendship. Alice’s initial affection for Charlie develops into love as he becomes more and more capable of expressing himself and articulating his own personality. She is cautious about entering into a romantic relationship with him, because in her wisdom and maturity she understands the risks of this. However, her primary motivation to be Charlie’s friend and to support what is best for him never wavers. Even when she realizes that Fay and Charlie are in a relationship, she is able to see that this is good for Charlie’s development and she does not feel jealous or resentful. Of all the characters in the novel, she is the most capable of keeping the big picture in mind and responding in a healthy way to changing circumstances. She represents the challenges and the possibility of living an emotionally rich as well as intellectually stimulating life. With Alice, Charlie is able to briefly enjoy one of the rarest and most beautiful things life can offer to anyone: an emotional and spiritual connection of equals.

Harold Nemur

Professor Nemur embodies the scientific mind that has not been adequately tempered by an ability to connect with others. Although he has a level of scientific brilliance, he is uncomfortably lacking in compassion. He is never really able to see Charlie as a whole person, and this is a great source of tension within the novel. Although Nemur genuinely desires to do good for humanity, his motivations are complicated by his desire to be remembered in the history books as a “great man.” Nemur’s relationship with a cold, materialistic wife subtly contrasts with Charlie’s emotionally rich relationship with Alice. At the height of Charlie’s genius, he comes dangerously close to forgetting how to relate to others. Nemur serves as a kind of warning of what such a life involves, and it is by far less desirable than a life of true connection. As Charlie reminds Nemur at the end of the novel, it is very important to be able to laugh at yourself. If you can do this, then you will have friends, which Charlie suggests is really the most important thing in life. This is a profoundly touching piece of advice from Charlie, and it serves as an example of what Nemur, a brilliant man, has to learn from Charlie, with his low IQ.

Rose Gordon

Rose Gordon’s primary motivation in life is to keep up appearances. It is a bitter irony that Charlie was born to such a woman. Perhaps a different type of mother could have accepted Charlie for who he was, but Rose Gordon was unable to accept anything that was not “normal.” Her initial denial of Charlie’s mentally handicapped state and her insistence that he could learn and get smart is the root of Charlie’s own remarkable motivation to learn. His willingness to undergo a potentially destructive experimental surgery for this sake is an unconscious and desperate desire to please his mother. Rose is a huge figure in Charlie’s emotional past, which supports a Freudian psychological approach taken in the novel. Because of Rose’s violent and abusive response to Charlie’s sexuality as he went through puberty, Charlie has panic attacks when confronted with the ideas of sex and intimacy. However, once Charlie remembers his childhood traumas and forgives Rose for her mistakes, he essentially frees himself from her power. It is only once he has done so that Charlie is able to make love to Alice. This underscores one of the novel’s themes, the necessity of healing from past traumas in order to fully experience life in the present.

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