Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, is the story of a man named Charlie Gordon. Charlie was born with a brain disorder that caused him to have an IQ of just 68. However, Charlie has just been approved to pilot a radical operation that will turn him into a genius. Well, human pilot. It’s already been tried on a rat named Algernon, and it was an unqualified success. The story is told as a series of “progress reports” written by Charlie after the operation, for the purpose of documenting the effects of the operation for science. The operation is a fast success, and soon Charlie has an IQ of 185 and is an expert in every subject. But can his humanity survive the change?
For me, Flowers for Algernon was an extremely engaging and thought-provoking book. The book starts out with a quote from Plato comparing visual impairment with mental impairment, and admonishing anyone who would laugh at those with either. This seems like a straightforward thing to do. Only a deeply cruel person would laugh at a disabled person. But Flowers shows us that even our most well intentioned acts can carry unconscious cruelty. The scientists who design the operation, the medical community, even his own mother are all trying to “fix” Charlie. But, as Plato said, “the bewilderments of the eyes are two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.” At the beginning of the story, Charlie was entirely in the dark, the worlds of politics, academics, and religion closed off to him because of his illness. Yet, when he comes into the light, is he not equally blinded?
As he gains intelligence, Charlie very quickly realizes that most of those whom he thought of as friends were actually laughing at him, patronizing him to feel better about themselves. He starts to see people for who they really are, frauds trying to navigate their way through life. As he surpasses everyone in intelligence, people start to resent him, and his social relationships suffer. He finds himself no more a part of the world than he was before. I was absolutely absorbed by Charlie’s transformation, from what was essentially a small child to an adult. The characters in this book are very believable, from the scientists that designed the procedure, Dr. Strauss and Dr. Neimar, to Charlie’s former teacher and current love interest, Miss Alice Kinnian. Everyone had a different, unique reaction to Charlie’s change, and they all teach him something about what it is to be human. This was probably my favorite part of the story, during his transition from “idiot” to genius.
There are too many themes in this story to count: The benefits of innocence, the insecurity of mankind, the limits of intelligence, the allegory of life. Yet what remains most striking is the emotional attachment that we feel for Charlie during the course of the novel. One of the things that makes me personally feel the most emotional is when someone who clearly is in a terrible situation nonetheless maintains a positive attitude. Charlie, and we imagine Algernon as well, don’t want people to feel sorry for them. All they really want is to impress their families and peers. In my opinion, Keyes is telling us that we have no obligation to do so. Charlie so desperately wanted to be smart, he never realized that what he had – his innocence, his kindness, his drive, and his love of people – was worth more than that. Life isn’t a contest like Algernon’s maze, after all. No matter what you do, you’ll reach the end. The value comes from the relationships that you form in the somewhere in the middle. A lot of society’s ills come from people taking themselves too seriously, worrying too much about their own pride. As Charlie puts it, “Its easy to have frends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.”