Book: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
1st Year Published: 1959
OK, Flowers for Algernon has become my favourite book, of ALL time. In fact, until now I don’t think I have been able to say what my favourite book was. It’s knocked my socks off, thrown me in the corner and left me a crumbling, emotional wreck. I can’t fault it, the character and story development, the writing, the way in which it stirs the emotions and its sheer humanity have all hit the right spot. It’s a winner of both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award and is part of the SF Masterworks series and quite deservedly so.
The book tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a 32 year old who is ‘retarded’ (a word I dislike but this is 1959 and a language of its time) with an IQ of 68. Charlie is recruited into an experiment which aims to increase his intelligence to that of a genius. The ‘Algernon’ named in the title, and whom the flowers are for, is a white mouse who has undergone the experiment prior to Charlie.
The story is told from Charlies’ perspective in the form of ‘Progress Reports’. He has to complete these as part of the experiment in order that any changes in his intellectual development are documented and evidenced. An exerpt of the first progress report shows us where Charlie begins the experiment;
“progris riport 1 martch 3
My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday. I tolld Dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite like I talk…..Dr Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and everything that happins to me but I can’t think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today….” (p.1).
Over the months, we become privy to his observations and deepest thoughts and emotions as he looks back on his childhood and recent life with an ever-changing outlook and increasing intelligence. Situations, events, family and friends are all seen through new eyes and at times these observations are incredibly moving. As the reports progress, we witness not only his spelling and grammar improve, but also his thought processes and observations;
“Progress Report 13
….I have thought about death often in recent weeks, but not really about God. My mother took me to church occasionally – but I don’t recall ever connecting that up with the thought of God. She mentioned Him quite often, and I had to pray to Him at night, but I never thought much about it. I remember Him as a distant uncle with a long beard on a throne (like Santa Claus in the department store on his big chair…) (p.93).
In Charlie Gordon, the author has managed to develop a character who demands and receives our empathy, understanding and affection. Even at his most obnoxious (his emotional intellect does not progress at the same rate nor as favourably as his intelligence), the writing is such that we always seek to understand Charlie’s motivations and reasoning for speaking and behaving as he does. I believe that the book is more about the way in which society views, or, more accurately, has viewed, a person with a learning disability through the eyes of that person. It is also an emotional study into how a person may react to the possibility of the onset of dementia and how he perceives those around him.
If you have never been interested in the science fiction genre, please don’t let the tag put you off. Yes, Flowers for Algernon has won awards for science fiction and yes it is in the SF Masterworks list but, ultimately, it is a story of humanity and a person struggling to gain acceptance from others for who he really is and not for who others want him to be.