Daniel Keyes’ Emotional Science Fiction Classic

Science fiction may seem unappealing to some readers, but “Flowers for Algernon” is different.  The story does not take place on a distant planet or in a dystopian future, but rather right here on Earth in the not-so-distant past.

Flowers for Algernon introduces us to Charlie Gordon, a developmentally delayed man with an IQ of 68.  Charlie works a menial job at a bakery at which he is constantly ridiculed by his co-workers.  But he sees it all as good fun, because he lacks a deeper understanding of the message behind the words of his co-workers, whom he calls his ‘friends’.

Charlie also attends a school for developmentally delayed adults, which is where he meets his teacher, Alice Kinnian, whom he considers his “best friend”.  Alice believes in Charlie’s potential, which leads her to recommend him for a clinical trial being held by two other professors at the institution.

The aforementioned procedure would entail brain surgery and, potentially, drastically increase Charlie’s mental capabilities.  When recommended to Charlie, the doctors tell him that they have experienced great success when the surgery was performed on a mouse named Algernon.  Charlie meets Algernon and then decides to go through with the procedure.

Similarly to the mouse, Charlie’s mental capabilities flourish following the procedure, nearly tripling his IQ score.  But he pays a heavy price for this, because he becomes more aware of the condescending attitudes of his coworkers and finally stands up to them, ultimately leading to him getting fired.  He also sees the humanity in the two doctors who operated on him, disillusioning him from this preconceived notion he had of them being all-knowing and powerful men.

Because of this alienation, Charlie only finds companionship in Alice and Algernon.  Regardless of where he stands emotionally, Alice Kinnian is there, encouraging him the entire time.  And as the only other being that has gone through the procedure, Charlie feels a deep kinship with Algernon, despite the inability to converse with him.

Additionally, Charlie cannot enjoy pastimes he used to anymore.  He can no longer mindlessly listen to music, and instead must analyze everything he hears from the beats per second to the tonal harmonies.  He now finds even the talk of the doctors who operated on him to be boring and unstimulating.  This leads him to wonder if he should have even been operated on in the first place, as he is equally ostracized as a genius as he was when he was disabled.

The story is unique in that it is told directly through Charlie in an epistolary format, with each chapter titled as a “progress report” (or “progris riport” as he writes in earlier chapters) chronicling the results of his surgery.  Readers will see his syntax, spelling, vocabulary and grammar drastically improve in the reports following the procedure.

The story of Charlie Gordon is one that will resonate with any reader who has had any experience whatsoever with alienation.  And it poses the question of which is preferable: to be ignorant and blissfully unaware, or to be aware of everything and suffer due to it.  This book tore my heart out, but I loved every minute of it.