Flowers for Algernon Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for Flowers for Algernon

Symbols and Motifs in Flowers for Algernon


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes, Motifs, and Imagery to Look For and Discuss

Intelligence and Social Relationships

The novel challenges our ideas about how social relationships are formed and maintained. When Charlie had an I.Q. of 68, he had lots of “friends” at the bakery who teased him and used him as their verbal punching bag. However, Alice notes that there was a kindness and warmth to Charlie when he had a lower I.Q. that made him pleasant to be around. As Charlie’s intelligence increases, his sense of intellectual superiority alienates him from those around him. Because his emotional intelligence doesn't progress along with his intellect, he lacks the ability to deal properly with his anger and frustration.

Ethics of Human Advancement through Experiments

This novel highlights the ethical questions that come along with experimenting on humans and animals in the name of science. The first ethical question is: Is there something wrong with Charlie that needs to be fixed? Why does low I.Q. need to be changed when the person is perfectly happy in his life as it is? Why is being highly intelligent the goal? What possibilities might this lead to in terms of genetic engineering in humans later on? With so many of these questions in mind, students may also begin to question more recent high-profile scientific experiments, like cloning. Fanny Birden tells Charlie, “‘If you’d read your Bible, Charlie, you’d know that it’s not meant for man to know more than was given to him to know by the Lord in the first place. The fruit of that tree was forbidden to man.’” Religion aside, this does pose the question: How much is science able to change a person before it has crossed a cosmic or moral line?

Prejudice and Discrimination of the Developmentally Disabled

The novel delves into the mistreatment of Charlie in his childhood by his family, the neighborhood kids, and at the bakery. Charlie can sense when something is wrong, like if he is in trouble, but he doesn’t understand what he’s done. He also doesn’t understand the verbal abuse, and those around him take advantage of it. While they assume Charlie doesn’t know any better, Gimpy rightly states, “But you know better.” The irony of Charlie’s mistreatment by the people around him before the operation is that as his own intelligence grows, he begins to mistreat those around him with a condescending attitude and feeling of intellectual superiority. So much importance is placed on intellect in society that the humanity of a person is often overlooked, and the motivations behind this attitude are important to examine.

Motifs & Symbols


Algernon represents the intelligence that Charlie is striving for. When Charlie first meets Algernon, he is impressed by how smart he is. As they progress in intelligence together, Charlie notices how they are both treated as science experiments and not like individuals. Like Algernon, Charlie feels like he’s trapped in a cage. At the convention, Charlie frees Algernon and takes off with him, freeing both of them from the sideshow attractions Nemur and Strauss have turned them into.

The Other Charlie

Charlie often notes that he feels like he’s being watched by the old “Charlie”, the emotionally-stunted child who is still trying to figure things out for himself. The old Charlie interferes with new Charlie, consistently interrupting his thoughts and any attempts to advance his emotional relationships with women. The Other Charlie was routinely screamed at by his mother for normal sexual development, leaving him with feelings of fear and shame when he tries to cross this threshold with Alice. The Other Charlie represents New Charlie’s attempts to reconcile his newfound intelligence and superiority with his former naivete and humility. Old Charlie is also New Charlie’s fear of this new emotional world he must now learn to navigate.

Inkblots (Rorschach Test)

The inkblots for Charlie first represent failure, as he is unable to see any pictures in them. The second time, when Charlie’s intelligence has increased and he now understands the directions, the test represents Charlie’s newfound anger as he explodes for the first time at thinking he’s being ridiculed. It’s one of the first times that the reader sees Charlie developing his sense of inner self-awareness. It also represents confusion, because Charlie’s mind has developed a more questioning side, as he wonders why anyone would make up lies about seeing things in the inkblots. When Burt gives him his final Rorschach Test, as Charlie regresses, the inkblots are the last straw of all of the testing for Charlie. He frantically goes through the cards, swearing that, “somewhere in those inkblots there were answers I had known just a little while ago. Not really in the inkblots, but in the part of my mind that would give form and meaning to them and project my imprint on them.” After Charlie realizes that he has lost this part of his intelligence, he tells Burt he is done coming to the lab, and sheds his identity as a science experiment.


Charlie makes sure that Algernon’s grave is marked with flowers, because he was no ordinary mouse; this mouse was special. In a way, this also symbolizes that Charlie’s experience is special despite the experiment ultimately being deemed a failure. Charlie himself hopes to be remembered as special, too. His last progress report notes his wish that someone visit Algernon’s grave and continue to leave flowers once Charlie is committed to the Warren Home. In doing so, Algernon’s memory will be kept alive - along with Charlie’s.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Flowers for Algernon. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from Flowers for Algernon you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for the example(s) that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

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