I’ve been hearing quite a bit about this book lately even though it is not new. Flowers for Algernon was written by Daniel Keyes, published in 1959, has sold over 5 million copies, won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, and inspired an Academy Award-winning movie called Charly. I had never read the book nor had I seen the movie but I was intrigued by everything I read and decided to read the book first.
Charlie Gordon has an unusually low IQ. He works at a bakery mopping up the kitchen, the store and the washrooms. He thinks his co-workers are his friends but they set him up for stupid pranks and then laugh at him. Charlie, however, always maintains an easy-going attitude. He hasn’t seen his mother, father, or sister in many years; his parents put him in a home when he was a teenager because they couldn’t deal with his lack of progress at school.
Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss of the Beekman University have met Charlie through his night school teacher and think Charlie is the perfect candidate for an experiment based on their theory that a certain operation on the brain will enable anyone to improve their IQ markedly, even to that of genius. The other half of the experiment is Algernon, a lab mouse, who has the same operation and is able to perform exceptionally at racing through mazes to find the treat at the end.
We follow Charlie’s amazing increase in IQ through the journal he keeps as part of the experiment. In the beginning, he writes simple sentences with phonetic spelling, low vocabulary, and almost no punctuation. As the story progresses, he becomes a fluent writer, an able linguist, and, indeed, goes beyond the level of those using him for their experiment. Along with his ability to sate his thirst for knowledge comes an awareness that he didn’t really understand the people around him, hadn’t grasped the fact that his so-called friends were really just using him as the butt of their jokes. He also comes to realize that he can’t have relationships with people when his IQ went way beyond theirs any more than he could when his IQ was lower than those of the people around him. Each scenario carried its own curse.
Even as his IQ develops exponentially, Charlie’s emotional state is still that of a child — he has never had any romantic encounters and has no idea of appropriate ways to show his feelings and woo a lady. His world begins to come crashing down when Algernon — and several other experimental mice in the lab — begins to exhibit erratic behaviours, loses interest in completing the maze, and becomes disoriented and lethargic. Charlie tries to use his now vast knowledge to help solve the dilemma of why the process begins to reverse. I don’t want to spoil the story for you so I’ll stop here.
This is more than just an interesting look at how science might help to solve social problems, it looks with sensitivity at how society treats the handicapped, and how they even treat people of lower intelligence differently than they would blind or crippled people. This is a book that leaves you with a lot to think about and perhaps more of an awareness of those we marginalize within our society by what we value and what we are prepared to overlook. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your opinion of it, and how it impacted you. * * * * *