#49 – Flowers for Algernon Review – Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon is Daniel Keyes most famous novel and one that continues to challenge and inspire readers of all ages. Told through the eyes and words of a mentally retarded man named Charlie Gordon, the book manages to explore issues of intelligence, emotion and the ways in which the human mind is able to shape how we view the world and our relationships with the people in it. With only mild science fiction elements, the book has become a “gateway” book of sorts for readers who might not normally be drawn to the genre. It doesn’t take place in space and doesn’t feature any alien creatures or other dimensions. In fact, other than the experimental science elements, the characters and settings in the book are extremely ordinary. I remember reading it in school (probably sometime around 7th grade) and not even realizing it was a science fiction novel until it came time to discuss the book in class. For me, the most powerful part of the novel wasn’t the idea that there was an operation that could triple your IQ and make you a genius, it was the fact that Charlie’s increased intelligence finally made him aware of what a harsh, cruel and unfair world he was actually living in.  That, in my opinion, is why the book has remained universally popular for so long.

Flowers for Algernon Summary: With an initial IQ of 68, Charlie works as a janitor and delivery boy at a bakery in New York City, while also taking classes at a college for retarded adults. At the recommendation of his teacher Alice, Charlie is chosen to participate in an experimental surgery designed to increase intelligence. Told through a series of reports that he is asked by the scientists to write, the novel follows Charlie’s as he keeps track of his progress – as well as that of the experiment’s first test subject – a white laboratory mouse named Algernon. In the same way that Algernon begins showing signs of increased intelligence and problem solving skills, so does Charlie. With help from Alice, Charlie starts exercising his new abilities by reading and acquiring as much knowledge as he possibly can. But while his new found intelligence makes him more open and aware of the world around him, it also starts to affect the relationships in his life. When a suggestion that he makes for improving productivity at the bakery is implemented, his co-workers conspire to have him fired. He begins to express his growing resentment towards the scientists and their condescending attitudes toward him as merely a “test subject.” And as the object of his sexual desire, his relationship with Alice becomes muddled and complex due in part to memories from his past that he is now just starting to understand.

His increased intelligence also causes him to start recovering painful lost memories from his childhood, including the mental and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother while growing up. Unable to deal with Charlie’s disability and angry at him for not being “normal,” she beats him mercilessly whenever he starts to act out in any way (including sexually).  In an attempt to confront these memories and possible reconnect with his estranged family, Charlie returns to the family home in Brooklyn where he discovers that his mother is now suffering from dementia.  It’s a profoundly sad and touching scene, as Charlie realizes that their roles have now been reversed. While his mom is initial excited to see him and proud of his accomplishments, she briefly suffers a delusional spell and slips back into her old monstrous ways. While he is glad to have faced his demons and confronted these painful memories, his mother’s regression is a troubling reminder to him of how quickly we can revert back to our previous states –  a realization that foreshadows his own regression back to a pre-surgery state.

Flowers for Algernon Review: The final section of the novel follows Charlie’s realization that the scientists have made a fatal error in their calculations and that his increased intelligence is likely to disappear as quickly as it came. We are then forced to watch as Charlie slowly regresses, losing the memory of his brief time as a genius (including his romantic relationship with Alice). It’s a heartbreakingly tragic sequence, as Charlie cannot bear to have the people in his life feel sorry for him once again, and the author handles it with a delicate touch that serves to underscore the tragedy even further. In the end, Flowers for Algernon is a rather simple story about a simple character who comes to realize that his world (and his relationships) are much more complex than he had previously thought. And while the events in the novel are initiated by a plot mechanism that is not currently available to modern science, it is not your typical “Science Fiction” yarn by any stretch of the imagination. And in many ways, that’s actually a good thing. So even if you’re not a rabid Sci Fi fan like myself, I’m sure you’ll still find something to appreciate in this tale.

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