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Charlie Gordon is the protagonist and the most clearly drawn character. He is the narrator and the readers see everything in the book from his angle. The original feature of the novel is that Charlie changes due to surgery, and the readers can see Charlie the retarded person, and Charlie the ‘genius’ behaving like two different people.
There is no ‘antagonist,’ in the sense that, there is no ‘villain’ in the story. But different characters come into conflict with the protagonist at different stages. Charlie’s mother Rose Gordon, her obsession with ‘making’ him normal, her suppression of his sensuality and her complete rejection, all combine to destroy his self-esteem and make him crave for approval. This makes her the antagonistic influence in his past, which also carries over to the present.
Prof. Nemur with his arrogance and his attempts to keep away information from Charlie regarding himself, is also a hostile force at one stage. At one point, Charlie himself can be seen as the antagonist. For instance, the retarded Charlie constantly makes the ‘genius’ Charlie feel that he is lurking in his consciousness, by watching and inhibiting his actions. But this antagonism is neutralized when the ‘new’ Charlie accepts that they are one person. The main conflict in the book is not with any particular individual, but with Charlie’s handicap, and later his struggle to control his life and mind.
After the operation Charlie alters very gradually. Even then, he is rather docile and willing to abide by the research team’s decisions. The turning point comes at the Chicago psychology convention. It is here that Charlie gets disgusted with his and Algernon’s ‘exhibit’ status and with the way he is spoken of as if he was not human before the operation. The last straw is hearing of Algernon’s erratic, unexplained behavior, which has been concealed from him. He then decides to release Algernon from his cage and together they escape to New York. After this point he lives in a new apartment with Algernon, takes charge of his life and relationships, and faces the outside world on his own.
The novel is undoubtedly a tragedy. It takes Charlie from a below-normal intelligence to the level of a genius. He then develops the ability to look at himself, his family, and his environment with new eyes, and become his own man. This also gives him the capacity to realize that, the experimental surgery was defective and the research, incomplete. Ironically, it is he, the research ‘object’, who is able to track down the faults in the process, and hence foresee what a brief escape he has had from a retarded intelligence. He also has the intelligence at this stage to suffer agonies as he ekes out each precious day, till the old sub- normal intelligence claims him once again. As in classical tragedy, the hero is able to come to a painful acceptance of his condition, and accept it with dignity.