Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Meet Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man living in New York. Charlie’s parents spent years attempting to get help to make Charlie smarter. When that failed, they sent Charlie away to live in a special home, but Charlie’s uncle took pity on him and took him home to his house. When his uncle passed away, his uncle’s friend who owned a bakery, promised to care for Charlie and give him a job. Charlie likes working in the bakery and sweeping up. He also attends a special school to learn how to read and write. He has lots of friends who make him smile and laugh.
Algernon is a lab mouse who has been through an experimental series of procecedures and tests performed by medical researchers. The doctors in charge of Algernon’s research hope to find a way to increase a person’s intelligence. The experiments on Algernon appear to have worked successfully and the researchers are ready to move on to a human subject. Charlie’s teacher has led the researchers to think that Charlie would be their perfect test subject.
As the time approaches for Charlie’s procedure, he is instructed by the doctors to begin a series of “Progress Reports,” so the story is from a first-person POV by Charlie himself through this series of reports. We can tell that his is challenged by his language and spelling in the beginning. After the procedure, Charlie’s writing changes substantially along with his IQ, which is shooting sky-high. Charlie is reading everything he can get his hands on, learning several languages and out-smarting everyone he knows. Not everyone is comfortable with this and it impacts his relationships in unexpected ways.
Now that Charlie has gained more intelligence he begins to have flashbacks to his childhood. He realizes how his parents struggled with him as a child. He realizes that other children teased him a lot. He realizes that those “friends” at work were really making fun of him. He no longer has a lack of awareness for the cruelty in the world around him. Gaining more intelligence may not be such a blessing for Charlie. As he tries to come to terms with his past, he also struggles to gain some emotional maturity in his relationships with people, particularly his teacher, Alice.
The doctors are lauded for a breakthrough success within the scientific community. But when Algernon starts to display signs of aggression and frenetic behavior, Charlie begins to realize there is a flaw in the doctors’ research. Charlie begins to do his own research and soon grasps the full implications for his future.
Flowers for Algernon was originally published as a short story in 1958. The expanded version was published in 1966. There is a movie named “Charly” based on this story too. It has had a wide audience over the years but I was completely unaware of it for some reason. When I saw another blogger recommend it, I added it to my TBR list for 2016.
I can see that this book was a breakthrough for its time, and it will remain as a classic example for years to come. I hope that we have learned to treat the mentally challenged with more kindness and respect these days. I think it’s true to some degree, but I’m sure there will always be cruelness out there somewhere.
The end was quite predictable but Charlie’s story is absolutely heart-breaking. I was so profoundly saddened. It reminded me of my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and what she may have been thinking as she felt her world slipping away.