Compare and Contrast “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley and “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, Discuss the themes of alienation and isolation in both novels.
In 1818 Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’, the story of a man, so consumed by ambition and a thirst for knowledge that in the end his desire to live his dreams, became his death. Almost 150 years later Daniel Keyes wrote ‘Flowers For Algernon’, this too chronicled one man’s ambition and looked at what happens when science and ethics cross.
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Today, in the year 2002 we are faced with endless dilemmas and questions of integrity- test tube babies, cloning, genetic coding and as time goes on and science improves more and more have to be taken into account, especially as attitudes change. Though these books were written at completely different times and initially seem very different both share similar ideas and both question the consequences when science loses its conscience.
‘Frankenstein’ was written in a time of great decadence, Shelley was reasonably well off and her works reflect her own, upper-middle-class status in society. ‘Frankenstein’ has now become classed as a gothic horror novel, with an air of romance to it. In the grand tradition of all novels in the gothic horror genre, ‘Frankenstein’ is a tangled tragedy, in which surreal occurrences take place in real situations.
The term ‘romantic’ is placed in this novel, largely because of the time it was written rather than any particular part of the plot. During the 1800s, music art and literature acted as an outlet for the repressed society, through their work people managed to show passion and imagination, rather than order and form, novels of the time were remote from ordinary life. In the example of ‘Frankenstein’, although Shelley had led a rather colorful life, involving an affair and elopement, society at the time was not very interesting for women, through her work Shelley could take an absence from her own existence and could explore new and obscure ideas. The work of this time, particularly novels proved highly popular as the highly improbable occurrences provided entertainment, yet the realistic situations meant that they were easy to relate to.
‘Flowers For Algernon’ was written in the 1950s when technology and science were beginning to branch out as the world recovered after WW2. In America, consumer technology had been on the rise since the twenties, but after the depression and the subsequent war, all had gone quiet on the side of high-tech home gadgets. But the new decade brought with it a new positivity and meant that science began to work for the ‘good of the people, as it supplied them with easy alternatives and helped them in their daily routine. One of the major scientific developments of the 50s was the exploration of space travel, and in America, everyone was excited about the prospect of future changes, especially after, in 1958 NASA was created.
Keyes had a degree in psychology, for the 5th work he decided to explore the inner workings of a seriously retarded man’s mind, in doing this Keyes managed to describe the emotions and ambitions of Charlie Gordon, beautifully and meant that this novel, was touching as well as scientific. Unlike ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is simple, its language is not self-indulgent or overly lavish, this could be down to the different periods, or could be a more deliberate technique used by Keyes, the novel is made up of a series of progress reports written by Charlie, the language used, makes the story more believable and means that the reader is much more effected by the book.
Keyes’ other works included some short science fiction-influenced stories, this obviously had an effect on Keyes’ writing, as ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is centred around a somewhat far-fetched idea of life-changing brain surgery, yet the story is very believable. This technique of blurring the boundaries between the real and surreal is inherited from gothic literature, yet somehow Keyes’s work seems more mature and realistic than Shelley’s story. This difference may be down to the gap of more than a century between the novels, although today ‘Flowers for Algernon’ may seem slightly dated, it is still accepted as a piece of contemporary literature and still reflects some of the questions that still plague our society.
‘Flowers for Algernon’, is written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Charlie Gordon, a man in his 30s who is severely retarded. The book is a collection of progress reports written before, while and after Charlie receives medical intervention to help raise his intelligence levels. Ideally, the operation Charlie has is meant to raise his intelligence and ensure that he remains “smart”, however, as the first human to receive the treatment neither Charlie, nor the doctors have any idea how the story will end. Initially, the treatment seems to be a success as Charlie reaches new heights of intelligence and even is termed a “genius” however it soon becomes clear that the treatment was not long-lasting and Charlie’s mind begins to deteriorate as he implodes into his old self.
As Charlie’s intelligence is increased he is forced to take into account a new set of issues that involve him, the book takes on a deeper stance as the reader learns of Charlie’s struggles and how isolation attacks his spirit. In ‘Frankenstein’ much time is spent describing Victor Frankenstein’s life and his creation, however, a small section of the novel is donated to the ‘monster’ as the reader is able to view his life and struggles. The reader finds how the monster yearns for history and wants to know more about his existence, to do this he tries to track his creator, Charlie reacts in a very similar way as once his intelligence rises he wants to know more about his past and wants to find his parents.
‘Flowers for Algernon’ opens with a progress report written by the then seriously retarded Charlie, in the weeks that follow Charlie is counselled, taught and undergoes pioneering surgery that boosts his intelligence dramatically. However as his mind expands he underdeveloped emotional intelligence is put to the test, as he begins to notice things around him and is forced to face tough questions about his existence, Charlie learns the hard way that ‘being smart’ does not bring happiness.
As the story goes on the reader learns how throughout his life Charlie has always been isolated, even by his own parents who disowned him, however until the surgery Charlie has never noticed, let alone understood why. But Charlie’s social awareness is also raised along with his intelligence and he feels isolated and alienated daily. While retarded Charlie enjoyed his work at the Donner bakery, he had friends and was socially active, but after the operation, he realizes that his colleagues have been laughing at him and that he is seen as the joke of the workplace, he leaves his job and cuts these people out if his life. He decides that he would rather be an isolated recluse than the butt of all the jokes. When Charlie’s IQ reaches its highest point he is once again left completely alienated, as his new friends and associates such as Alice (his teacher, mentor and companion) feel inadequate and threatened by his overwhelming mind.
In his, work Keyes makes a statement about human nature, in that we are all seeking something and to us, the grass always seems greener on the other side. Charlie’s desperately wants to be intelligent but once he finally achieves this he is overwhelmed by a sense of anticlimax and sadness as he faces isolation once again, he rarely goes out and develops strange behaviour, such as when he causes chaos at the science conference as he helps Algernon to escape. In a way after reading ‘Flowers for Algernon’ the reader feels that part of the book message is that “ignorance is bliss”, although Charlie was not happy when retarded, he had more fun and enjoyed life more, however, when he became aware of his surroundings he got caught up in his troubles and became alienated. No matter what the situation we as humans are never fully satisfied and always want more, it is simply part of our nature and Keyes manages to display this in a powerful way.
After the operation Charlie is often referred to as a “study” or as “part of a scientific presentation”, the doctors mean no harm when they approach Charlie in this objective manner, as an aloof attitude comes with their job, however, Charlie is affected by their actions. Charlie can remember vague details of his life and as the story progresses he patches together more of his past, he knows that though his previous existence is now seen as petty and miserable, he did have a life and a mind before the treatment and he finds it hard to deal with the idea that his existence is purely down to a science and the work of Strauss and Nemur. Because Charlie lacks the emotional capability to deal with these new feelings he becomes inverted, he stays at home and throws himself into his work, or anything that can distract him from the issues he faces, for example when he meets Fay he begins to drink, as he finds it removes the pain and stops him from over Analysing the situation.
Most of ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is written chronologically as the months wear on, but as Charlie’s mind develops he starts to have memories from his childhood, he remembers scenes and events, mostly through dreams, these are part of the progress reports as Charlie recollects his day. These flashbacks add depth to the story and make it more touching, they also work as a literary technique, because they break up the narration and make the book more diverse and interesting. Through Charlie’s memories, the reader learns more about his tragic past, and the route of his emotional weaknesses becomes clear, we learn how Charlie’s mother was desperate for him to be ‘normal’ and “like all the other kids” however nothing could be done to help Charlie and at the age of six, Charlie was disowned by his immediate family and went to live with his uncle.
From an early age, Charlie was under huge pressure to be like everyone else and to be “smart”, this still haunts him in his adult life, even when he becomes intelligent, he still feels that he is not good enough and provides him with an overwhelming urge to be successful, we see this when, towards the end of the book, Charlie realizes that his new IQ will fade, with time as a limit Charlie plunges himself headfirst into his work and doesn’t stop, just so he can achieve something in his life, as his mother wished he could have.
After reading ‘Flowers for Algernon’, it is clear that although science helped Charlie it also caused him a great deal of suffering, however, it is harder to identify what the cause of this hurt is. Looking at the short term only it seems that the only culprits are Strauss and Nemur; after all, their operation and a failure to counsel Charlie adequately could be the root cause of Charlie’s suffering throughout the book. This camp of thought is similar to those who think that in ‘Frankenstein’ the true monster is Frankenstein himself, as his irresponsibility and lack of judgment created an innocent being and left it to suffer, alone in the world. Throughout time and still today many believe that ‘playing God’ is wrong, many think that it is too easy for scientists to cross the line and the natural balance is lost. Both Shelley’s and Keyes’ work reflects this view and shows that when science gains too much power the consequences cannot be foreseen and can end tragically.
However, as someone who is interested in psychology, Keyes shows that as humans we are likely to suffer in the present because our subconscious won’t let us forget our past. In the long term, we could blame Charlie’s suffering on his mother. Rose (Charlie’s mother) pushed him hard and over the years managed to erase any sense of self-worth Charlie may have had, especially after his sister, Norma was born. These memories and past feelings stay with Charlie and mean that he suffers greatly and it seems fair to say that in the end Charlie’s mind causes him the most pain as reminds him of his past. Strauss and Nemur did not create the suffering; they merely created a portal for Charlie to voice his anger and pain through.
Throughout the book Charlie is compared to the lab mouse, Algernon, who has also undergone brain surgery to raise his intelligence, he is seen as a ‘special’ case as he has had a stable level of intelligence for the longest time, unlike the other case studies. When Charlie first started the treatment, one of his tasks was to race Algernon in solving a maze problem, these tests came to an end when Charlie became much more intelligent than the mouse, but Charlie continues to look for similarities he shares with Algernon. Because Algernon had the operation earlier than Charlie, it is possible for Charlie to look at the long-term affects of the surgery, but when Algernon starts to deteriorate and become restless, Charlie realizes what the future has in store for him. One of the major similarities between Charlie and Algernon is that they both lived before the treatment, but in a way led a half-life, where they were not fully aware of their surroundings and we held back, Charlie by prejudice and Algernon by physical bars of a cage. Now both have made great progress but both are still caged as they feel frustrated and have to compete with the issues that face them. Algernon becomes aggressive and Charlie’s behavior becomes erratic.
An interesting detail from ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is that when Charlie’s intelligence is raised, he feels like a completely different person, even to the point of seeing the ‘old Charlie’ as a completely separate person. This disturbs Charlie and hinders his relationship with Alice. Perhaps Keyes wanted to look at an interesting psychological effect of powerful science and to once again, make a statement that although science can improve things, it cannot change them and when scientists intervene too much there are always victims who end up suffering rather than reaping the benefits of science.
When it comes to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, opinions as to who the real monster and victim differ greatly. Some think that Victor Frankenstein was just a tragic victim of his own ambition who was forced to live his life in fear after a moment of naï¿½ve bad judgment. However, others disagree and go as far as to name him the genuine monster of the piece, after all he created the “wretch” and no sooner had he completed his ambition he realized the consequences of his actions and abandoned his responsibility and left his creation to suffer.
One of the most controversial aspects of Shelley’s work is the idea that Frankenstein’s monster is comprised of body parts, that were collected in the darkest hours of the night, even to the ambitious Victor, this labour is repulsive, but is a preoccupation to create and restore provide him with the drive to complete his work. The creature, who is referred to as a “wretch” or “monster” has a ghastly appearance, he is torn, misshaped and his body is out of scale, giving him the stereotypical image of an ogre, this description reflects the time of that the book was written, as it seems rather dated, but would have been the only kind of monster the reading audience would have been able to imagine, it also gives the thriller a sense of a fairy tale, this adds to the surreal aspect of the book. When the monster encounters people, he is immediately revered and feared, this means that he is forced to live in solitude, cowering behind the darkness of trees and hovels, he is left completely alienated from society.
It is fair to say that the monster’s sufferings are down the Frankenstein’s actions or his lack of action in trying to help his creation. Victor created the ghastly creature and then abandoned him, leaving him to die in the squalor of the cholera-infected Ingolstadt. Victor was so consumed by the prospect of creating life, that he did not take into account all of the issues that would arise after the monster entered the world. Only when the monster actually lives, does Victor begin to assess the implications of his actions, he finds it hard to fight his fear and cannot accept the impact of his actions, he decides to flee Ingolstadt and return home to the security of his family, this act is both cowardly and cold and makes Victor seem like callous and selfish person.
Perhaps Shelley chose Victor’s actions to make a statement, rather than to simply move the story along, Victor’s urge to go home shows a level of immaturity as he has been so engrossed in the work that he has not given time to mature and develop. Victors actions reflect human nature in general, as when we fear something or are nervous we often return to our families and relish in the comfort and strength they provide for us, unfortunately, no matter how hard life gets for the monster he cannot simply return to victor to get help, this reflects the idea that Victor is the ruthless monster, who leaves his victim to perish alone.
Both ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Flowers for Algernon’ explore the themes of parenting. Shelley describes how Victor discards his paternal role and abandons his creation, which could be likened to a son. The monster, who knows nothing about his past, or even if he has one, cannot seek guidance or learn and he has no one to go to for love and support, he soon becomes dangerous and in a way starts living up to the connotations that his appearance give him. In ‘Flowers for Algernon’, Charlie’s parents remove him from the household and leave him in the care of an uncle. His father, Matt, finds it hard to simply ‘shrug off’ his paternal instincts towards Charlie and finds it hard to see his little boy leave, however perhaps his love for Charlie is what forces him to abandon his son, as he becomes worried for Charlie’s safety after Rose, threatens to use a kitchen knife on her own little boy, in Matt’s defence some could argue that his actions were caring, rather than callous. When Charlie was very little Rose showed great love for him, however when she finally admitted that eh couldn’t be helped and had Norma, who to her seemed ‘perfect’, she began to treat Charlie with hatred. In both novels the reader sees how both Charlie and the monster feel neglected and betrayed by the only people they have ever wanted acceptance and love from.
Unlike Charlie, the monster faces physical abuse as he roams the globe and is persecuted by everyone he encounters, even when he saves the life of a little girl he is only met by fear and is shot at by her father. The monster is left alienated by the shallow modern perceptions and ideals of society, which sadly existed both in 1818 and today. Image and beauty are so important to humans that they do not have compassion to see past appearances. Perhaps Shelley wanted to make a deliberate statement about shallowness, when the monster tries to befriend the cottagers he meets, it is only the blind man who talks to him, the others meet him with fear. This may just be part of the story or may have been included to comment on the shallow side of the human race and how we accept things purely on appearance.
After reading and comparing both texts I do not think it possible to judge, which character suffers more? Although Charlie does suffer, he manages to meet his aspirations and has a moment of happiness, when he works hard to write the report of the treatment he receives. However, the monster who has much more simple ambitions of finding companionship is never helped and never achieves his aims. Physically the monster suffers more as he is shot and beaten on several occasions, however, Charlie is forced to have a tough journey that tests him at every opportunity, and in the end, he is left in the worst state than at the outset of the book. Both Charlie and the monster are left alienated and isolated from society and finally, both are left to rot. The monster is left to die alone and physically decompose; Charlie is left to mentally rot as his mind decomposes. Both Keyes and Shelley express their reservations about science to show that when morals are cast aside of technology, suffering is inevitable.
Both Charlie and the monster are seen as ‘creations’ of science’. Their creators all shared hunger for knowledge and great ambition. In Charlie’s story, Strauss and Nemur both seem totally absorbed in their work, they both seem desperate to o help and to gain recognition for their actions, there is also a sense of selfishness to the doctors, who seem to want fame, we see this at the science convention when we see how they bask in the spotlight of their own success. Shelley’s novel shows that Victor Frankenstein was eager to learn and anxious to revive life, because of the loss he had experienced in his life (the death of his mother, while he was a teenager). Shelley manages to gain more support for Victor, as it seems that although selfish, he thought that he was working for the good of mankind and in the end had nothing to show for his sacrifices as his work was destroyed and lost.
Looking back at the texts most readers would be alike in saying that Victor suffered more for his carelessness and that he gains more sympathy than that of Nemur and Strauss, who seemed to ‘cash -in’ on their findings, without facing the consequences of their actions. Although the texts differ greatly both show that when great power is used irresponsibly the repercussions are always negative and people are left to suffer. Initially, I would agree that all of the scientists portrayed in the texts had a genuine want to help mankind but, obsession and ambition clouded their minds and made them short-sighted. This want for recognition is part of human nature, along with pride, Victor shows how important credibility is, even after years of pain, when he is on the boat, the sailors want to return home yet he urges them to go on, so they won’t have to return home as failures, this shows that Victor has not learnt much from his sad life and that he has not learnt to know limits, or respect them. When it comes to the issue of recognition, the two texts show how time has changed, Victor didn’t seem to be motivated by the prospect of fame and wasn’t even overly concerned that he lost all of his work, however by the 1950s, fame and celebrity were bigger issues, this would explain why both Nemur and Strauss are so desperate to produce their reports and announce to the world how amazing their findings are.
Although the settings of the novels differ greatly, it is clear that both authors used a similar technique in setting the scene. In Shelley’s time the most hostile environment was the countryside it was isolated, much of ‘Frankenstein’ is set in the great mountains of the North, or in the dramatic and highly dangerous parts of the North Pole. These settings add a sense of drama to the text as well as reflecting the theme of isolation dramatic settings were also typical of romantic, literature, for example, Bram Stokers ‘Dracula’ takes place in the harsh parts of Russia. Keyes takes a modern approach to create a scene, he chose New York, a famous city, filled with people, he shows that even when surrounded by others it is still possible to feel alienated and face hostility. For Charlie, the bustling streets are overwhelming and unwelcoming, to the monster the harsh landscapes mean that he suffers greatly and remains alone.
Though the writers differ greatly and come from completely different times, both seem to share a common interest in analyzing people and society as a whole. Both writers looked at the psychology behind science and scientists themselves, both also explore the philosophical questions that science poses. I think that both writers wanted their work to reflect their own views that it is not acceptable for scientists to ‘play God’ and to intervene with human nature. Both texts also remind the reader about the psychology of our culture and remind us of the social stigma that surrounds both intelligence and appearance.
The stories of these men are extremely interesting and raise important issues about science and human nature. Even though they are written years apart, at completely different stages of scientific development, both writers successfully warn against taking science to far and convey the idea that science without conscience can only end tragically.
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