Daniel Keyes – Flowers For Algernon

Posted on | October 10, 2010 | 14 Comments

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for AlgernonSometimes 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?


14 Responses to “Daniel Keyes – Flowers For Algernon”

  1. JoAnn
    October 10th, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    I remember reading this book in junior high school (when I was 12 or 13). I liked it well enough then, but have been wondering how I’d react to it as an adult. Sounds like it would make a good book club selection, too.

  2. Lija (writer's pet)
    October 10th, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    This book just knocked my socks off when I was 14, although I might not have grasped some of its more subtle points. I’ve seen it praised so much in the blogosphere that I think it might be worth an adult re-reading one of these days.

  3. Pam
    October 10th, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    I read this when I was about 14, it was a set work book for school. Such a sad story, but a very well written one!

  4. bellezza
    October 10th, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    I will never forget this book, though it’s been probably thirty years since I read it last. Such a sorrowful ending…my heart still breaks for Charley (and those in real life who struggle with disabilities).

  5. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    October 10th, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    I’m really pleased that you enjoyed this one and I agree with you. This book made me realise that sometimes it is good to have a lower intelligence. Those that aren’t aware of the terrible events in this world will have a much happier life, free from stress and heartache. Such a powerful book. I hope your review persuades a few more people to give it a try.

  6. mee
    October 11th, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    You probably remember that I read and loved this book earlier this year. I’m glad you loved it too. It’s a really special book. I would recommend it to anyone. I wonder if Daniel Keyes’s other works are nearly as good as this one?!

  7. Sarah
    October 11th, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it: it’s a long time since I read this and I have been putting off the planned re-read in case it disappoints second time round. Thank you for the timely reassurance!

  8. Kerry
    October 11th, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Like many of your other commenters, I first and last read this heartbreaking and thought-provoking work in school decades ago. I have to agree with Lija that this book is worth a re-read. I likely missed some more subtle points and am interested to find how well it holds up for me. But from your review, it sounds as though it holds up quite well, and may actually be better the second time around.

    Thank you for this spur to re-read it. Plus, I think I will share it with my daughter (13) as well.

  9. Coffee and a Book Chick
    October 11th, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    I remember reading this when I was younger and really, really enjoying this. So glad to see that you enjoyed this as well!

  10. Joanna
    October 15th, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    Who knows which is easier… Some people say that ignorance is bliss, that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, and other such things. To me, in the end the positive experiences of emotional maturity make the painful stuff worth it.

  11. Jessica
    October 19th, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    I loved this book and funnily enough my husband is reading it at the moment and is really enjoying it. I always thought that for me one of the messages was ‘ust because you can, doen’t mean you should’

  12. Jodie
    October 20th, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Every time I read about this book it sounds like an absolute horror story to me. I remember seeing the film version and freaking out in my head when the effects of the operation begin to disappear. Maybe if I read the book I’d come out with a more complex idea about it, but to be honest it scares me stiff.

  13. Mae
    October 20th, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    This sounds fantastic. I’ve heard of the title but didn’t know anything about it.

  14. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 25th, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    @ JoAnn : I agree with you – think it would make a great book club selection. I wish I’d done some better reading as a 12/13 year old, but I was hooked on Nancy Drews. Good times…

    @ Lija : I’d be curious to see what you make of the re-read. The book is so packed with little gems, that I think a re-read would just make me love it more.

    @ Pam : I know – I was really counting on the fairytale ending, for it would feel right, but I guess the ending helps in making the book as poignant and thought-provoking as it is.

    @ bellezza : Wow! Thirty years is a long time. Disabilities in the real world must be the toughest thing – I mean, just to feel you’re not as good as the next person. It’s awful!

    @ Jackie : I hope so too. It’s a book that everyone should read, just for the insight it gives us into a lesser known life, and to an extent, I’m grateful that it’s a lesser known life. Call me selfish, if you will, but…

    @ mee : That’s a good question. I haven’t actually heard of any of his other works, but I’d love to give them a try. I remember your review, and I’m glad to see that we agree :)

    @ Sarah : Looking forward to your thoughts on the re-read. Your thoughts on most books are so much more articulate and insightful than mine, that after reading your review, I’ll probably want to re-read the book immediately!

    @ Kerry : Hope your thirteen year old daughter enjoys it. I agree, it seems like a good time to share it with her (unless she’s only got her eyes on Nancy Drews – what were my parents thinking?!). I’d love to read your thoughts on a re-read as well. Like Sarah, your thoughts are just so much more perceptive, that I actually can’t wait to read them! :)

    @ Coffee and a Book Chick : Yay! Glad you loved it as well. Still to find someone who has read it who didn’t love it.

    @ Joanna : I guess, at times, it’s easier to just think the grass is greener on the other side. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t ever want to trade lives with Charlie, but one does have to question some of the *drawbacks* (?) of intelligence, and how sometimes, life is more painful as a result of it. I wouldn’t trade that – I don’t want to be the ice girl either – but sometimes, one does wonder….

    @ Jessica : Yeah, that sums it up nicely! And, be content with what you got. But there’s temptation, and who can resist a better quality of life? Just read a review over at your blog, and looks like your husband enjoyed the book as well. I’m glad :)

    @ Jodie : Wow! I’ve not seen the movie, and after that comment, I don’t think I want to. It might make it way too real, although, to be fair, the book was graphic and real enough as well. I think you should give the book a shot – it’s one of the best I’ve read this year, and definitely one of the most thought-provoking.

    @ Mae : It absolutely is! Hope you read it.

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