Jun 04

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes


Fiction / Science Fiction
First Published in 1966
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World
Flowers for Algernon won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960
and was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966

Click here to buy the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (free delivery worldwide)

Book Synopsis:

With an IQ of 68, Charlie Gordon works as a sweeper in a bakery. He thinks has friends, but little does he know he is the butt of their jokes, an amusing plaything.

Charlie’s life changes radically when he undergoes an experimental operation that to enhance his intelligence. Charlie becomes a genius.

However, Algernon, the mouse who had been successfully enhanced before Charlie, dies. Charlie has to live with the knowledge that his new life and his insights into the world are only temporary.

My Book Review:

This book, Flowers for Algernon is interesting on many levels. Firstly because of the fantastic ‘What if?’ question that it poses. What if there was an operation that could enhance a man’s intelligence? We could make all the mentally disabled people like us, they could integrate into society, they could live ‘normal lives’, they would no longer be a burden.

But this book goes deeper, as it charts the changes in Charlie, who undergoes this operation. As he becomes a genius, his eyes are also opened to the ugliness of the world and he realises that the people whom he thought were his friends, were actually making fun of him the whole time. So, despite gaining superior intelligence, he has lost what made him happy, friends who enjoyed his company, who laughed with him. As a reader we feel the cringe of Charlie’s lack of knowledge before the operation, that his colleagues are actually laughing at him. But in Charlie’s mind, he has great friends, and he is happy. Which begs the question: is Charlie better off in his lack of knowledge, or in knowing the truth of his situation?

Flowers for Algernon covers many areas, from the disparity in the intellectual and emotional growth in Charlie, to flashbacks to the past and the way his family treated him, to love . Charlie was severely taught that he was to keep away from women. This inculcated a fear of getting close to women, which stayed with him, even as he became intelligent and integrated into society. The love story with his former teacher, Miss Kinnian, shows the push and pull of these emotions. Will the old Charlie let the new Charlie be free of this fear?

The main arc of the novel is the lack of knowledge of whether this experiment will last, and then the knowledge through Algernon’s behaviour and subsequent death, that Charlie would end up back at square one.

The book is written in the form of Charlie’s journals, or Progress Reports for the scientific experiment. Charlie’s writing starts off simplistic with bad spelling. Then immediately after the operation, when he is told how to spell the word ‘progress report’ correctly, he remembers it, and continues spelling it correctly. That is the first sign of Charlie’s change, even if Charlie himself doesn’t recognise it. But then, he suddenly becomes super intelligent, learning new languages, going through pages of books at one glance. I missed the leap. So when the men at the bakery became afraid of him, and both the bakery workers and Miss Kinnian suddenly felt inferior to him, I missed the connection. I didn’t get the full impact of this intellectual shift, the wideness of the subverted gap, as I didn’t realise it had happened. I guess the author doesn’t have to spell the shift out, but I think my understanding and the impact of their reaction would have been clearer and more powerful if he had established this beforehand, as opposed to after. As a reader I knew that Charlie would become intelligent, but I didn’t realise that he’d become a genius.

The questions that were raised when I read the book were:

Would Charlie have been better off if he had never had the operation?

Is Charlie a better person before or after the operation?

Why do people make fun of disabled people? What in them makes them do this?

Reading about how Charlie’s family treated him, made me realise that we don’t truly treat the mentally disabled like human beings. Directly or indirectly, consciously or sub-consciously, we have an aversion to such people, a dread or sheer thankfulness that we are not like them. We see them as deprived of a real life, a burden. But we don’t know what’s really going on inside. Could they be happier than we the ‘normal people’?

I’m beginning to realise that what makes us happy is not what we think makes us happy. The external societal push towards this concept of ‘happiness’ doesn’t always equate to us actually being happy. Money, material things, education, career, marriage, children. The ‘normal things’, that everyone is striving for, may not be what will truly make us happier in our own skin. What we are striving for is the path that society has said is the correct and ‘normal’ one, or we end up searching for surface happiness, instant gratification that will soon fade away.

But then the question is: What DOES make us happy?

I don’t know yet.

x Julie

Reading Like Rabbits

Bookstore and Book Review Site

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  1. forex robot says:

    found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

    • juliewee says:

      Hi forex robot,
      Thank you for your comment! If you have any book you’d like to recommend, do let me know on the ‘Your Book Recommendations’ page.
      x Julie

  2. unicornpoo says:

    this review isnt for the book. its for the movie. in the book charlie doesnt work in a bakery, he works in a ruber factory.

    • juliewee says:

      Dear Unicornpoo (love the name by the way!),

      I reviewed the book myself from the book I read, I haven’t actually watched the movie yet. Maybe the version of the book I read was adapted from the movie?
      Thanks for your comment!