Flowers For Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

“If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”

Flowers for Algernon was published as a science fiction short story in 1958 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, soon after which, it was expanded to a novel.  Algernon is the name of a laboratory mouse whose intelligence has been increased via artificial means as a part of an experiment. It is a success; as slow-witted Charlie Gordon, with an IQ of 70, is unable to beat it at maze solving. With the breakthrough with a mammal, the next step is to perform the experiment on a human subject.

Charlie Gordon is a naïve 37 year old man who works as a janitor at a bakery. He assumes with his childlike mind that he did not have friends because he was not smart like other people he knew at the factory, but they still enjoyed his company because they laughed a lot when around him. The point of interest of this book is that we follow the protagonist Charlie by his “progris reports” as he writes them whilst being a part of an experiment that could forever change the dynamics of human society.

We open with Charlie mentally incapable of even serious human contact, and the realization that he does not realize this. But, we see a gradual improvement in his reports, suggesting that he is now, in fact, smarter than he was before. But this comes at a price; his intelligence throws him into a whirlpool of harsh realities. He knows now that none of his “friends” we laughing with him, but at him. He had been taken advantage of during several times in his life, and was always only helped because of pity that emerged in the hearts of people close to him. All the people he knew were now insecure of being inferior to the person they had considered a “moron” for so long. He faces rejection, loss and an inability to relate to people around him, but the worst part is, he is now stingingly aware of it.

The novel is a short albeit difficult read; but that should not deter a reader from experimenting with the ideas in the book. The book develops on numerous themes at the same time. Charlie’s relationship with his co-workers is affected first, followed by his attraction to his former teacher Alice Kinnian, who also reacts favorably. But much like other people in his life, he soon outgrows her intelligence. He is tortured by memories of his mother and sister, both of whom were tormented with the idea of having a kin who “just wouldn’t work hard enough”. As his intelligence grows, he is haunted by memories of his former self, the one he calls Charlie in third person, and finds himself being followed and spied on. The irony is sharp and hurtful; he is just as lonely and rejected as he was before he became smarter.

Reading this book calls for serious thought-provoking questions, and the pain that Charlie feels when he is addressed merely as a human subject/experiment is vivid and induces guilt that is uncalled for. We see Charlie as a mentally incapacitated adult-child who can barely put thoughts clearly enough to be understood, to becoming a genius whose brilliance not only brings him loss he was unprepared for, but alienates him from people he sought the acceptance of.

It has become one of my favourite reads, but I cannot say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The book is as emotionally torturous as Charlie’s mind by the end and will be a compelling book if read with enough empathy to follow through.

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