Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon is a deeply emotional science fiction novel by Daniel Keyes which places society’s treatment of the disabled under the microscope, all thanks to its clever, high-concept premise. The story is told via journal entries written by Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68, who has volunteered himself to be a human test subject in order to improve his intelligence.
The researchers at ‘Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults’—Professor Nemur and Dr Strauss—have been keen to pioneer a technique which succeeded in enhancing the mental faculties of a laboratory mouse called Algernon. Charlie develops an attachment to this mouse, curiously observing him throughout the story after he undergoes the same procedure. It isn’t long before we’re swept up in Charlie’s mesmerising transformation.
Simply being lumped into the science fiction genre would be to do Flowers for Algernon a great disservice, as its tone is far more thoughtful and cerebral than most sci-fi stories dare attempt. Written purely from Charlie’s perspective, we venture deep into his mind as his psychological development escalates and his IQ skyrockets to 185—naturally, his emotions grow more expansive and his mindfulness of the world around him also widens exponentially.
Crucially, Charlie becomes more self-aware, noticing more how others treat him or have been treating him in the past. As a formerly disabled person he notices how whereas before he was looked down upon by the able-minded, he now vastly eclipses them, and he reflects upon his maltreatment in moments of tragic self-revelation. The themes this novel explores—musing on intellect and human capacity—make for a deeply humanistic and sobering read.
Without overstating the point too much, this is one of the most cleverly written novels I have ever read. Its epistolary nature allows Keyes to mirror Charlie’s IQ as his mental capabilities enhance, with all his spelling errors and grammatical flaws dissipating, eventually disappearing altogether with each subsequent journal entry. The novel truly is a masterclass in how style and form can produce great literature.
Flowers for Algernon is keen on exploring the concept of uplift: the process of transforming human potential into something greater. Unlike H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the scientific journey Charlie undergoes is completely flipped on its head. Instead of becoming a monster, Charlie blossoms into a better-realised version of himself, and sees the injustice of how others have treated him. This exposes how they are, themselves, the real monsters.
Originally starting its life as a short story in 1958, Daniel Keyes adapted Flowers for Algernon into a full-fledged novel in the mid-1960s. Thereafter, in 1966, it was named joint winner of the Nebula Award. Subsequently, the novel is rightly considered a classic of 20th-century science fiction, although Daniel Keyes’s writing style is refreshingly different from his peers. With clear reason, too, for if there’s one sci-fi book guaranteed to make one shed a tear, then arguably it’s Flowers for Algernon.
Knowing how the novel later unfolds, it’s fair to say there are downsides to Charlie’s metamorphosis—social interaction proves challenging as he struggles to adapt to his genius mindstate, bringing with it a whole new set of sociological questions about mankind’s ability to find happiness. If you like fiercely intelligent stories such as this, grounded in compassion and told with heartbreaking insight, then Flowers for Algernon will be extremely hard for you to forget. It’s a book that everyone should read.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.