The character of Charlie Gordon, a young retarded adult, and the changes in him as a result of a daring experimental operation, is the nucleus of the novel. When the book opens, Charlie is thirty- two, lives alone, and works as a lowly cleaner in a bakery. He owes his job only to his uncle's lifelong friendship with the kind owner. Charlie is the butt of crude jokes by the worst of the bakery workers, but is treated kindly by the others. He is "happy," in a way with all these people whom he considers "smart," and he enjoys laughing with them, even when most of the laughter is against him. At this stage the only signs of unhappiness are the fact that Charlie scarcely seems to remember anything of his family, which has abandoned him, and his anxiety to learn and be "smart." This drives him to enroll in a special class, which he attends after a long day of drudgery at the bakery.
Otherwise, he seems happy to entertain and be patronized by the co-workers at the bakery, which is his "world." Though he is thirty-two, there isn't any sign of sexual frustration, with the few women in his life - Fanny Berden, Miss Kinnian, playing near-maternal roles.
It is the gusto with which he asks for the operation, never mind the risks he is told about, which gets him apart from other retarded people. The surgery then brings a radical change in his life.
Before the operation, Charlie is childlike, eager to please and have friends and willing to work hard. He thinks wistfully that he would like to be "smart like other pepul" so that they would treat him as an equal. The operation changes him gradually. Soon, he is critical...