In Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon, Charlie, a 32-year-old intellectually disabled man, undergoes a newly researched surgical procedure that turns him into a genius. Being intellectually disabled means having severe limitations when it comes to mental and cognitive capabilities. Many with this disability have an incredibly troublesome time adjusting to life, and generally, have IQs equal to or less than 70 (Berger 1). Charlie’s IQ of 68 meant that his mental age was younger than his physical age, which dictated that he could not perform as well as other people his age. However, after his life-changing operation, his mental state age increased exponentially, despite him still being the same age, 32. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, is determined to solve his neighbor’s dog’s murder. Portraying the protagonist as a teenager who struggles with communication is what shapes the complexly profound novel (Cline 1).
The research question is “How do the approaches to mental disabilities contrast in Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time?” This is a question worth researching further and answering because of each book’s historical circumstances, and how this reflects society’s response to mental disabilities at the time. Flowers for Algernon was published when the lack of research and understanding of mental impediments led to the rejection and ostracization of people with disability. Although people with autism are still not embraced as much as they should be, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time provides further insight into the thoughts and feelings towards the disorder. This book was written in the 21st century, therefore, more of a modern view of the disorder is established. Comparing and contrasting these two books will reflect society’s views on autism during the two different time periods. Is society still telling people to ‘be unique,’ while suppressing the autistic or is there genuinely a drastic shift in societal understanding reflected in the differences between the books?
Daniel Keyes highlights the feeling of what happens right after Charlie’s superior intellectual thinking is stripped away from him intentionally, which enables readers to easily empathize and feel pity for Charlie. He reverts back to being a man with a very low IQ, after achieving a lot in his short time of being intellectually gifted. Despite the valiant efforts of the protagonist to remain a hero/genius, his mental disability will forever impede him and define him indefinitely. This results in Charlie feeling ostracized as if he is not be a part of society. Keyes perceives that Charlie’s relapse, in spite of the fact that he comes back to his original state, is a cause of a disaster. This “tragedy” is perceived as pity toward the start of the novel in light of the fact that Charlie’s handicap makes him be feeble and uninformed (Cline 3). By the end of the novel, the disability causes the book’s reasonable hero, the astute Charlie, to cease to exist. All that had made the postoperative Charlie a different character—reason, love, creative ability, sexuality—deteriorates. Thus, it is as though smart Charlie is biting the dust. Furthermore, not only do the readers understand Charlie’s quick rise and demise, Charlie himself is able to grasp the situation, at both intelligence levels. How readers are to react to this demise must be assessed, however, when the smart Charlie is contrasted with his preoperative state.
Setting up this sentiment of complete pity for Charlie is fundamental as it gives background to the postoperative Charlie, who progresses toward becoming hyper-aware of his present state as a growing genius just as his previous condition of wretched, impaired man disappears. Keyes’s use of characterization reveals that when Charlie ends up smart, he turns into a haughty, narrow-minded man to everyone around him. This juxtaposition portrays an interesting appreciation for the mentally crippled because, despite the fact that they are unaware, such obliviousness is desirable over the grandiose narcissists in the scholarly world. This appreciation is fleeting, however, as readers before long move their loyalty to the hyper-clever Charlie who seethes against the individuals who ‘made’ him, while in the meantime grieving the incidental quality of his creation that drives him back to being crippled.
The mind-boggling pity readers feel for Charlie as readers can also be comprehended through the intellectually enhanced Charlie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Charlie’s extraordinary change has been from the obscure to the known, and since the obscure position is a place filled with uncertainties and the unknown, the known position is the alluring one even if the position had some drawbacks. His transformation from lack of knowledge to a person with immense knowledge is a development nobody, not even postoperative Charlie, predicts, but alas, he is someone who is publicly acknowledged. Charlie’s disability catches up to him and he must face the decay of his knowledge. Never having needed to see the initial Charlie as the equivalent to the genius Charlie, readers can change their minds about a man they first felt sorry for, into the man they eventually idolize; like dying, his disability eradicates how great he had become (Cline 108). Readers are left with the memory of Charlie who cherished Alice, his great love, and ached to make something enduring and useful for humankind. In a way, readers feel pity for the ‘death’ of intellectually gifted Charlie, just as they feel pity for the Charlie that has reverted and will no longer be treated as an equal. Mental disability, similar to death, has killed the likelihood for any new, positive encounters to happen.
Christopher’s naivety and trust in others not only forces readers to sympathize with him but to also relate with him and his childlike innocence. Christopher considers truth to be an anchoring standard of the world. If he is told the truth by someone, he can confide in them, but if they lie and he realizes, he panics. Since he’s diagnosed with Aspergers, he lacks full consciousness of reality. This leads to readers pitying him because of his naivety and innocence. Christopher additionally discovers that reality can sting as much as falsehood could. He is always mindful of his physical security; hauling his knife relaxes him because of the fact that he can protect himself while being able to inflict harm on others if need be (Haddon 13). Readers pity him because despite knowing how to protect himself physically, Christopher doesn’t have a clue how to defend himself emotionally. He, in some cases, reacts to his feelings of being hurt with his fists. One such instance is when he physically battles his dad, Ed, when Ed approaches him about his mom’s illicit relationship (82). Christopher trusts reality will protect him from emotional damage, but as the readers already know and he comes to learn, that’s not how things work, further enabling the reader’s pity for the teen.
Since Christopher at first structured his life to truth and lie, he opposes envisioning circumstances other than those that really exist. He doesn’t want people to consider how the deceased may respond to current circumstances since they can’t contemplate a world that goes on after their demise. Doing so, Christopher figures out how to shield himself from troubling considerations of his mother, who he thinks is dead, or of how things may have been in the event that she was still with Christopher. Christopher believes truth-telling is an indication of adoration, particularly seen in his dad. However, the reality about his mom winds up harming him. Ed finds the reality of his significant other’s departure from him too difficult to even consider dealing with, and so he imagines that lying to Christopher will ensure less grief for both of them.
Lying about Judy’s passing shields his dad from managing his very own feelings, but he thinks that lying is the more considerate and selfless option in this case; it is better for Christopher to think his mom is dead than to believe that she has relinquished him. Due to Christopher’s commitment to truth, however, he can’t see that his dad may have meant well in deceiving him, regardless of whether it was wrong or not. He feels the agony of reality, which in this circumstance has let him down as much as his folks have, placing him into peril instead of guarding him. Pity is incorporated here because Christopher is easily misunderstood and it seems like others are making important decisions for him when he is very much capable of making his own choices. In spite of the fact that reality harms Christopher, he can’t mature into a grown-up without confronting it.
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