Although critics argue aspects of the novel are ineffectively expressed, the portrayal of the protagonist emphasizes the notion that love transcends the ability to understand. In a flashback from the Adult Centre, a facility for mentally disabled adults, Charlie explains how “the only thing that mattered was pleasing Alice,” his special education teacher (Keyes 90). With a lower I.Q., Keyes displays the protagonist’s desire to impress Alice and instill a romantic connection for she’s “the only woman he has ever loved” (Keyes 234). This burgeoning relationship between a man with mental disabilities and a woman with none establishes that love has no restrictions and defies social boundaries. After the operation, Charlie refers to Alice as having “pigeon-soft brown eyes and feathery brown hair” (Keyes 76). This metaphor alludes to birds, which symbolize sentiments of joy, peace, and love, therefore suggesting that even with a heightened intelligence, Charlie’s affection for Alice does not falter. At his peak I.Q. level, Charlie confesses to Alice: “my feelings for you won’t change because I’m becoming intelligent” (Keyes 92). These examples indicate that love surpasses intelligence; it is a ubiquitous emotion that does not rely on intellect and exists without social barriers.
Keyes also applies this theme to familial love. He highlights the stark contrast between Charlie’s lower I.Q. and his family’s higher intellectual level. Charlie recalls his mother’s fierce aspiration for him “to be normal, whatever they have to do, whatever it costs” (Keyes 135). The use of parallelism provides a steady rhythm that reflects Rose’s apparent determination for her son’s well-being. Her determination is exposed in another flashback in which she threatens to “do more than just write to the board of education,” ensuring Charlie returns to his school for another year (Keyes 74). This establishes the powerful mother-son relationship Rose has for her child with the intent “to help him catch up to the others” and gain a higher quality of life by increasing his intelligence and education (Keyes 74). Through the flashback technique and parallel structure, Keyes reiterates the connection between intellect and love. It is peripheral whether one has, or is lacking intellect; the capacity to love and be loved will prevail in any case. However, having intelligence does not guarantee this love is flawless or trouble-free.
In contrast to his previous theme, Keyes proposes an increasing intellect will strain the relationships one forms with others, especially when there is a disparity in intelligence. Prior to the surgery, Charlie’s co-workers are willing to interact with him, even encouraging him to learn “how to make rolls” alongside them (Keyes 61). Their altruistic behaviour symbolizes that Charlie is supported by his colleagues and is more capable in the working community when he has a meager I.Q. and is at an intellectual level that is closer to theirs. Charlie uses a more jovial tone since “he is unaccustomed to this rare moment of” praise from the others (Keyes 61). Utilizing cheerful diction, Keyes establishes that Charlie forms flourishing relationships without the complications of an enhanced intelligence. When Charlie is unsuccessful at baking the dough, “Frank laughs kindly and Gimpy smiles” with no trace of a menacing grin. The positive connotations in these words “laugh” and “smile” suggest his co-workers are supportive and understanding of Charlie’s condition. As a result, the notion that an elevated intelligence has the potential to create strain on developing relationships is reinforced.
Keyes introduces this growing tension through the amiable relations between Charlie Gordon and his co-workers. Friendships begin to deteriorate after he has the operation to enhance his intelligence. The bakery’s employees are considerate of Charlie with his “ignorance and dullness; but now, they hate him for his knowledge and understanding” that he has gained following surgery (Keyes 108). The juxtaposition between “ignorance and dullness” with “knowledge and understanding” reinforces the gap between those with intelligence, Charlie’s co-workers, and individuals who struggle to withhold intelligence. Those working at the bakery resent Charlie because they feel “inferior to the moron… Charlie’s astonishing growth had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies… so they hated” him for it (Keyes 106). It is apparent this friendship is declining as harsh diction such as “inferior,” “inadequacies,” and “hate” are identified. This word choice has a callous connotation, further revealing that the co-workers no longer share any companionship. External communication is impeded as “any attempt at conversation usually fades away in a minute or two” and thus illustrates how progressing arguments can easily erupt (Keyes 242). Keyes uses diction to reiterate that Charlie’s developing “intelligence has driven a wedge between himself and all the people” with whom he interacts (Keyes 108). Although conflicts between the protagonist and his co-workers still exist when Charlie has a mental disability, the expansion of his intelligence manifests a harmful ripple effect in the amities he once forged.