The famous quote, “Where ignorance is bliss, tis’ folly to be wise” comes from Thomas Gray’s poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”. The meaning of is simply that a person is more comfortable when they do not know something. In the case of Charlie Gordon this is especially true since he knows very little. Charlie has a severe mental handicap, which was brought on by a fever he suffered with as a child, impeding his brain development. As an adult he works as a janitor in a bakery thanks to his uncles help.
Through his relationships at his workplace and his other acquaintances we see how different his life is before and after his experimental brain surgery and can judge for ourselves whether ignorance truly is bliss. At the bakery where Charlie works he interacts with many of his fellow employees who he believes to be his friends. They provide him with a great deal of attention that Charlie processes as friendly, but in reality he is the butt of all of their jokes. Despite the constant ridicule he received from this he kept on smiling and being happy.
Outside of work Charley is enrolled in a reading and writing class for retarded adults under the instruction of Alice Kinnian. In the beginning his relationship with Alice is nothing more than that of a student viewing a teacher who in his mind is much older than himself. Through this relationship however he is introduced to two researchers who are looking for a test subject for an experimental surgery that is believed to increase ones intelligence by three times.
As seen with his coworkers, Charley believes that these men are there to help him and are his friends, but similar to before they only view him as a test subject that can be used to further their research and propel them to scientific notoriety. His last relationship is one that he has with a fellow test subject, a mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the preliminary test of the procedure that proved its success by beating Charlie in a speed to test to solve a maze. After the surgery there is a drastic change in Charlie.
In a short period of time he went from being legally retarded to one of the brightest people in the world. Upon his return to the bakery, his old coworkers are astounded and do not know how to act around him. This becomes so big of an issue to them that they eventually have him fired for it. This new found intelligence comes at a price; while he may be the smartest person in the world, he still has the personal skills of a six year old child. The leads to issues in his relationship with Alice, who he now realizes is a very attractive and very single woman.
His attempts to romance her are hit with difficulties because of his lack of personal skills and acting like a child when things do not go his way. Though his IQ is higher than anyone else in the world it has not brought him happiness; the ridicule that he faced before the surgery is still there but now it has been made known to him. The only person that he feels has stayed true to him is Algernon, who becomes his closest friend after escaping from the convention.
The miracle surgery that allowed a simple-minded man to become the smartest man in the world was not without a downside. As Charlie spent more time with Algernon, he began to notice that the effects of the surgery were beginning to wear off and he feared that the same mental degradation would begin to happen to him as well. This is the lowest point in the story for Charlie who is no smart enough to know that is going to slip back into his old mental state, yet he can do nothing to halt its progress.
During this time, he has a brief romance with Alice but in the end turns her away knowing that she would only end up being his caretaker shortly after they were married. Charlie makes arrangements to return to his old job at the bakery but in the end decides to check himself into a state institution where he will live the remainder of his life in the haze of unknowing where he began. His final wish to the reader before succumbing to his old state is that flowers would be placed on Algernon’s grave every year in remembrance of his death.
In the course of this story Charlie went from a man that couldn’t comprehend when he was being made fun of to the smartest man on the planet, but in the process went from a person who was genuinely happy to one that was miserable. The advantages of being as smart as he was after the surgery, are as numerous as they are great, but if the cost of having them is to forsake the kind of happiness only a select few get to experience, is it worth it? It can be believed then, that sometimes it is better to be oblivious to the pains of this world than it is know everything and be forced to face those problems.