Posted on | October 10, 2010 | 14 Comments
Sometimes I wish I was intelligent enough to get into Mensa. Well, maybe not quite Mensa, but I do wish things came more easily to me than they do – things that take some people around me a just couple of hours take me a couple of days, at least, and it frustrates the living daylights out of me.
And sometimes, you just need a book like Flowers of Algernon to put things in perspective. Charlie Gordon has an IQ of just 68, but he yearns to be “intelligent,” so much so that he’s taking classes to learn how to read and write. He lives alone, and supports himself by working in a bakery as a janitor, where he has lots of “friends.”
The book is essentially Charlie’s journal, in the form of “progress reports” – before he undergoes an operation which will make him smarter and after. The operation has already been successfully performed on Algernon, a mouse, and it’s going to be performed on a human being for the very first time.
The operation isn’t a miracle cure though – Charlie isn’t going to wake up and have all the knowledge in the world. Instead, what it does is makes him much more capable of understanding and figuring out things (and imbibing knowledge), than before. In fact, he’s more capable of doing that than most other people walking the planet post-operation, making him a genius. He reads up on practically everything – from literature to physics to astronomy – and tries to find people who will be able to have an intellectual conversation with him. Mostly, he’s unsuccessful in that endeavour.
His sudden genius scares off his colleagues at the bakery, who he discovers were laughing at him, not with him, and eventually, he loses his job at the bakery. When he starts interacting with women, and the surge of emotions are almost alien to him. The emotional confusion and turmoil he goes through is incredibly portrayed, as he questions his life before and after the surgery. His emotional intelligence is still the same as it was earlier, but his actual IQ is higher. It does raise the very important question: Was his life prior to the surgery better or worse? Was he “luckier” to be spared of the confusing emotions that people go through, or not really?
His emotional roller-coaster continues as memories of his past, his family, and his childhood come flooding back, and he tries to decipher them – who’s the hero, who the villain, and where did he fit in? How much of it was his fault, and how much totally beyond his control?
I have often read my early progress reports and seen the illiteracy, the childish naivete, the mind of low intelligence peering from a dark room, through the keyhole, at the dazzling light outside. In my dreams and memories, I’ve seen Charlie (referring to himself pre-op) smiling happily and uncertainly at what people around him were saying. Even in my dullness I knew I was inferior. Other people had something I lacked – something denied me. In my mental blindness, I had believed it was somehow connected with the ability to read and write, and I was sure that if I could get those skills I would have intelligence too.
This book was a wonderful thought-provoking read, which was incredibly written, and seems so contemporary, that it’s incredibly surprising that it was first published as a short story in the 1950s. It made me think about scientific experiments being performed on animals and humans, are the risks and rewards actually measured properly, and are the risks really worth it? On another note, it made me wonder if life would be easier if we were all “simpler” – not caught up in the rat-race or the politics that defines our lives? And of course, I did find myself questioning whether the surgery Charlie underwent was actually worth it, or not?