Science fiction is an influential genre, it forces us to look at another world close to our own and ask the question “what if?” Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes asks the question “what if you took a mentally disabled man and raised his IQ considerably?” It was published in 1966, a time where you couldn’t fathom that you could raise someone’s intelligence in such a way via an operation. With our technological advances it’s more likely today, but this in no way changes the raw emotion of the journey Charlie Gordon embarks on. The journey is about perseverance, human struggle and self-acceptance.
The concept for Flowers for Algernon was 14 years in the making, Daniel Keyes wrote the novel after an experience he had with one of his special needs students. He wrote with an iron pen never once shying away from emotion. The only way to accurately describe this novel is a ride on a rollercoaster made of salty, salty tears. (I’m only joking, kind of.)
Charlie, a 32-year-old with an IQ of 68 is desperate to be like everyone else, he longs to understand people’s conversations and to be able to do things the “normal people” can. His dreams come true when two researchers approach him for an operation that has only ever been tested on animals, a small mouse called Algernon is their prize subject. But like all dreams, this once wasn’t how he had imagined it. His new found intelligence drives a wedge between himself and the people around him.
The novel is written through a series of ‘progris riports’ from Charlie. The very first line in the book is:
“Dr Strauss says I shod rite down what I think and remember and every thing that happins to me from now on.”
The spelling mistakes and grammatical errors make for an extremely daunting read at first, but Keyes has crafted them in such a way that we can still read the first 10 entries without too much trouble. The mistakes add a lot to Charlie’s character, it’s extremely hard not to adore him. Especially when he’s just beginning to learn.
“Punctuation, is? fun!”
It’s like watching a baby giraffe take its first steps, entertaining in an endearing way. Before his intelligence improves he talks about his life in a transparent way. We learn that he’s just a vulnerable man that has absolutely no idea that the people he calls friends are constantly making fun of him. They are blatantly using him for their own enjoyment, it’s one of those situations where you find yourself wanting to yell at the character. But when he does realize it’s still no solace to us, the knowledge only causes him more pain.
“Only a short time ago, I learned that people laughed at me. Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts the most.”
As his intelligence grows the reports become clearer not only for us, but for Charlie as well. He writes about everything he learns about the world around him, the reports are an exclusive insight into his life. The first big change in character, besides the improved English skills, is his reluctance to share his entire life with the researchers. They need the reports for their thesis so they come to a compromise that he doesn’t need to surrender them as soon as they’re written. This way he’s able to share intimate details about his life that he would be embarrassed to share in the moment, his love affair, haunting memories, and his thoughts about the researchers.
Before the operation Charlie never had dreams, his memory was extremely bad so he had no material to make the dreams out of. These things are second nature to us, but Keyes writes about having them for the first time in an insightful way. Charlie comments that he’s not entirely sure if he’s making the memories up or if they actually happening. For Charlie every memory he has was a deeply repressed one. It makes you imagine what it would be like to wake up one day and have all your memories available in a box that’s been opened in your mind. It only just makes it more harrowing that Charlie’s box is full of hateful people.
The second main character is Algernon, he’s the only creature that Charlie feels he can relate to mostly because their journeys of intelligence mirror each other. When they first meet Algernon beats him in a race to get through a maze, instead of resenting him he tries over and over again. Letting Algernon show him how to do it. Charlie and Algernon’s friendship is based on empathy. They have to stick together because no-one else in the world could possibly understand what they’re going through.
Flowers for Algernon forces us to tackle the prejudices that are held against not only the mentally disabled but also the acutely intelligent. While it may not be knowledge that is new to us, it shows us how it can affect a person first hand. Laughing at someone who doesn’t know better is not a harmless act. Even just something as simple as treating someone differently because they’re not like you isn’t okay. In Charlie’s words:
““Exceptional” refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my life I’ve been exceptional.”
Not many books will stay with you the way Flowers for Algernon will. It should be a staple not only for lovers of Science Fiction but anyone who enjoys a heart touching journey.