Isolation in Flowers for Algernon and the Catcher in the Rye Novels

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Alienation by definition is the state or experience of being isolated from a group. Usually when the word alienation is brought up, people immediately think that alienation involves an individual rejection from society. Alienation is initiated when one is significantly different from others. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger portray the alienation individuals go through and how individuals react being isolated when trying to be accepted by society. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is the story of a mentally disabled man who undergoes an operation which gives him artificial intelligence and he hopes to be accepted by society with his new intelligence. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who faces alienation for being unable to properly communicate with others and eventually ends up going insane from being isolated from everyone around him. Alienation occurs when one is being bullied or when one feels as if they are different and shunned by society. People can be alienated from their families, friends and community by being or behaving significantly different than others. Alienation causes confusion and helplessness as individuals ultimately feel like they can never be accepted by society and they feel they will be on their own for their lifetime.

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In the novel Flowers for Algernon, one of the themes of this novel is alienation. Keyes develops the idea that alienation occurs when an individual is not accepted by society. Protagonist Charlie Gordon is first alienated by his family, especially his sister Norma and his mother Rose. Charlie says, "I see now that when Norma flowered the garden I became a weed, allowed to exist only where I would not be seen, in corners and dark places" (Keyes 168). Charlie understands why his family alienated him; he knows that weeds are removed from the garden lest they ruin the image of the garden. Moreover, both Norma and Rose knew that they could alienate Charlie without any negative affect to their reputation. Charlie is also rejected and alienated by the community. Before he is accepted, Charlie notes, "If you’re smart you can have lots of friends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time" (Keyes 15). Charlie has been alienated since he was a child, laughed at by other children in school for being a slow learner. He never had any friends because he was 'different' from the other children. Finally, Charlie alienates himself. When he undergoes the operation that raises his IQ, it is revealed that there are 'two' Charlies inside one body. The intellectual Charlie is in control for most of the novel, while the low-IQ Charlie is 'locked away' in the unconscious part of his mind. Throughout the novel, Charlie has many conflicts with himself. During one conflict, intellectual Charlie says, "I'm not your friend. I'm your enemy. I'm not going to give up my intelligence without a struggle. I can't go back down into that cave. There's no place for me to go now, Charlie. So you've got to stay away" (Keyes 252). Ironically, intellectual Charlie alienates his low IQ self for the same reason society alienated him: because he’s different and doesn’t fit in.

Keyes also shows how society is pre-disposed to alienate those who are intellectually inferior. When Charlie enters the bakery where he works with his new artificial intelligence, he hopes that he’ll finally be accepted by his co-workers. Instead, his co-workers are equal parts fearful of and annoyed by his rapid increase in intelligence. The relationship between Charlie and his co-workers becomes strained, forcing Mr. Donner to fire Charlie. Mr. Donner tells Charlie, "But something happened to you, and I don't understand what it means. Not only me. Everyone has been talking about it. I've had them in here a dozen times in the last few weeks. They're all upset. Charlie, I got to let you go" (Keyes 104). Charlie's sudden increase in intelligence upsets the previously established balance in the bakery with his co-workers believing Charlie is inferior. They are uncomfortable when he begins to change, but they never accept that he is their equal and never accept him in their group. Another example is when Alice Kinnian starts to feel as though Charlie is becoming intellectually superior to her. Alice says, "Charlie, don't push me. I don't know. Already, you've gone beyond my intellectual reach. In a few months or even weeks, you'll be a different person. When you mature intellectually, we may not be able to communicate" (Keyes 92). Alice and Charlie are prevented from having a relationship because Alice fails to meet Charlies intellectual needs. Because of this, Charlie is alienated from the only other person who might understand him. A final example is the way Professor Nemur and Doctor Strauss react when they figure out that the operation is causing Charlie to learn much more quickly than expected and they realize he is becoming their intellectual superior. The knowledge that it has taken both Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss to learn over a lifetime, Charlie is able to master in a couple of months and he is continually surpassing them. The two take this progress as an insult and an embarrassment. Professor Nemur states, “This is not the time or place to go into that I’m certain all of these points will be adequately dealt with in tomorrow’s session” (Keyes 149). Professor Nemur is stunned Charlie knows more than him and begins to feel as though he is lesser than Charlie. Because of this, Nemur alienates Charlie, avoiding conversations with him. This affects Charlie, because the people with whom he was once close have alienated him yet again. This is emotionally and mentally frustrating for Charlie.

Finally, Keyes is pointing out that society mistreats the disabled and often alienates them. For example, Charlie’s friends at the bakery often mistreat and tease Charlie. Charlie’s co-workers attempt to embarrass him for taking on large tasks they know he will not be able to complete properly. His co-workers continuously laugh at him and find enjoyment in seeing him struggle on simple tasks. Once he figures out his friends have been making fun of him for failing to do simple tasks, he alienates himself from the bakery. Another example is how Charlie’s family mistreats him. Norma verbally abuses Charlie, while Rose verbally and physically abuses him. Charlie’s mother tells him that he will never be normal and he is better off dead (Keyes 184). She states this because she knows Charlie will never be accepted by society. Also, Norma tells Charlie that she gets picked on for having a ‘retarded’ brother. The two eventually decide to kick Charlie out of the house, forcing him to go live with his uncle. A final example is how Professor Nemur and Doctor Strauss mistreat Charlie. They promise Charlie that they will help him and get him the life he always wanted; however, the Professors treat him like a lab rat and run continuous tests on him. This actually prevents Charlie from having the normal life they promised, and Charlie starts to bicker with Professor Nemur. “Our relationship is becoming increasingly strained. I resent Nemur’s constant references to me as a laboratory specimen. He makes me feel that before the experiment I was not really a human being” (Keyes 113). After multiple conflicts with Nemur Charlie leaves Beekman College and alienates himself from the Professors.

Similarly, a major theme in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is alienation. In this novel, Salinger develops the idea that alienation can be used as self-protection. The character being alienated is Holden Caulfield, a young boy trying to understand the world around him. Holden uses alienation to protect himself from rejection. When Holden sneaks back in his house to see his younger sister, she is disappointed in Holden for leaving yet another school (Salinger 167). Holden always believed that his sister would accept him no matter what, but after her rejection, Holden runs away from her room. He alienates himself away from Phoebe because of his fear of rejection. Holden also uses alienation to remove pain. He had a little brother whom he loved dearly, but he watched his little brother die of leukemia. Reflecting on this event, Holden states, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody" (Salinger 214). Holden had given his little brother a lot of affection and after witnessing his death, Holden has a hard time opening up to anyone else or even spending time with others. Holden alienates himself from others because he does not want to be hurt again. Finally, Holden uses alienation to protect himself from the world of 'phonies.' Holden states everyone is a phony and is a false human being. For example, Holden thinks Sally Hayes is phony because she brings up topics only phonies talk about (Salinger 133). Consequently, Holden is rude to her and forces her to leave, because he would rather be alienated from everyone than spend time with a phony.

An additional point J.D. Salinger states about alienation, is that alienation causes pain and self destruction. Holden’s alienation leads directly to his depression. Holden states, "I was crying and all. I don't know why, but I was. I guess it was because I was feeling so damn depressed and lonesome" (Salinger 153). Holden is only human and he longs for human contact, just like everyone else. This affects Holden, because he wants to be with someone but is not sure who he wants to be with. Holden's alienation also causes him to think his life has no purpose. Holden holds a conversation with Mr. Spencer and says that he feels 'trapped on the other side' of life (Salinger 8). Life for Holden has been hard. He has become so alienated that he starts to wonder what his purpose in life is. This affects him deeply because he is clueless about what his problems are and why he feels so alienated from others, which is frustrating for him and causes his self-destruction. Holden's alienation ultimately leads to his suicidal thoughts. He says, "I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead" (Salinger 48). Even though Holden tries to reach out over and over, he always ends up alienated and alone. His alienation leads to depression, which leads to suicidal thoughts. Holden is not sure what use he could make with his life and he is not sure why he even was born.

In addition, Salinger is making the point that alienation can occur when an individual does not know how to properly interact with others. For example, when Holden isolates himself from the school football game. He describes the scene: "It was the Saturday of the football game. […] I was standing way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill. […] You could see the whole field from there, and you could see the two teams bashing each other all over the place. […]" (Salinger 2). Holden could have interacted with the crowd; however, Holden has an inability to connect with others because he claims he is superior to them and they are all phonies. This behaviour makes Holden unapproachable and difficult to be around. During another scene in the novel, Holden attempts to call someone to temporarily end his alienation and loneliness, but he ends up not calling anyone because he does not know what to say. "I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz […] but as soon as I was inside, I couldn't think of anybody to call up. My brother D.B. was in Hollywood. My kid sister Phoebe […] was out. I thought of giving Jane Gallagher's mother a buzz […]. I thought of calling this girl […] Sally Hayes. […] I thought of calling […] Carl Luce. […] So I ended up not calling anybody" (Salinger 59). Holden clearly has many options at hand, but he does not know how to start a proper conversation. Instead, he rules out everyone because they have a flaw or because he imagines they’re too busy – using rationalization to justify his increased alienation. A final example is how Holden's poor communication skills cause him to damage the relationships he is trying to create. Holden tries to break his alienation by inviting Sally Hayes on a date; however, Holden relies on his alienation to handle his fear of rejection. Therefore, when he begins to feel afraid, he falls back on rudeness and cruelty to push the person he is with away. He talks to Sally about “running away and living in a log cabin together.” She rejects Holden's idea and in response he says, "You give me a royal pain in the ass" (Salinger 133). Holden's poor communication skills have made him lonely once again and another individual has alienated Holden. Holden is unable to properly communicate with others, which increases his alienation and loneliness.

In conclusion, both Holden and Charlie face alienation. Both are rejected from society for being different. Alienation has negatively affected both characters and both ultimately go insane as a result. Both characters attempt to reduce their alienation from others through interaction which inevitably fails due to their major character flaws. Moreover, both Charlie and Holden feel as though they are superior to society and that they cannot find anyone on their level; thus their enormous egos cause further alienation from civilization. Even though Charlie and Holden have many similarities, they also have differences. These characters are alienated from society for different reasons. Charlie was first alienated from society for being mentally disabled, while Holden was alienated from society because he depended on alienation to protect himself and thus voluntarily moved away from others. Another difference is that the two characters react differently in the face of alienation. Charlie despises being alienated, while Holden embraces it. Ultimately, alienation causes both characters to be confused and depressed, which leads to a horrible ending for both of them.

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