Flowers for Algernon: Review

I read the short story version of Flowers for Algernon in eighth grade English and it has always stayed with me, so when I recently found out it was expanded into a novel I read it right away. So, herewith my thoughts on it, and as most people know how it all turns out there will be spoilers. :)

Charlie Gordon is a mentally handicapped man in his early thirties who has a deep-seated longing to learn to read and write, to be 'smart,' and through his classes at the Center for Retarded Adults in Brooklyn, he meets the teacher (Miss Kinnian) who will eventually nominate him for an experimental surgery at Beekman University. Dr. Nemur and Professor Strauss have succeeded (so far) in performing the surgery on a mouse named Algernon, which greatly raised the little guy's intelligence, and they feel ready to attempt the same on a mentally handicapped human being.

Probably the best thing about the story is that it is told through Charlie's own words, via progress reports he keeps for Nemur and Strauss. Through his basic vocabulary, misspellings, and complete lack of punctuation we are immediately drawn into his mind and his world, and it's heartrending to read. Like a child, he carries no natural suspicion of others, least of all his 'friends' at the bakery where he works as a janitor; he's superstitious, carrying a rabbit's foot and lucky penny; and he has no real memory of the past.

The surgery, as we might expect, is a success, and there's something really exciting in being able to follow along as his writing, via the progress reports, reflects his increasing IQ. We're right there with Charlie as he begins to really understand the world around him, and this of course inevitably means the good he formerly saw in people is exposed for what it is. For example, he believed the men who work at the bakery were his friends because they laughed at him, which in turn made him laugh and feel good; in reality, he was always only their foil, their court jester, and when Charlie realizes this, he is ashamed. (That was probably the strongest impression I took away from the short story, that moment when the veil fell away)

Eventually Charlie's intelligence far outstrips that of Miss Kinnian, Professor Strauss and Dr. Nemur; most people, in fact, as his IQ reaches 185 and beyond. He reads voraciously, teaches himself twenty languages, becomes an expert on fringe mathematics – the world of thought is his oyster. At the same time, Algernon (who had the surgery weeks before Charlie) begins a slow decline.

By expanding his story into novel form, author Daniel Keyes was able to dig much deeper into all the implications of Charlie's new life. And it's this, I think, that veers the story off course. As a short story, only the essential elements are included, and instead of lengthy exposition only hints are dropped, which can be much more profound and affecting, in my opinion. While striving to create a detailed backstory for Charlie, through memories of a mentally disabled childhood, Keyes goes to far, gives too much. Perhaps it is because when the story was written – the late fifties – the average American did not have the glut of information regarding the trials of the handicapped as we do now. In any case, repetitive backstory slows the book down in many places.

We're also treated to the now-genius's nearly obsessive thoughts on what it means to be emotionally connected and to achieve sexual maturity. Good elements to have, but again – overdone and even over-wrought in places. I think if Keyes had scaled back some, and resorted to two or three powerful scenes instead of weighing down the entire middle of the book, Flowers for Algernon would have greater effect with modern audiences. Hindsight is so...twenty-twenty.

What I did find powerful was Charlie's eventual discovery that the old, mentally disabled Charlie was still there with him, just in the background, in the subconscious even, watching and waiting. Always waiting. The imagery of the little boy at the front window of his home, doomed to only look out at the world rather than engage it, is truly haunting, and is brought full-circle in a way that literally gave me chills.

The overarching theme of the book is that ignorance really is bliss, while intelligence is pain. Beyond his new comprehension of the negative subtexts all around him, Charlie's personality changes until he is nearly insufferable – unable to have conversations with normal folk without speaking down to them or becoming quickly bored, unable to understand the experiences of others. He finds that he actually has no friends now, where before he did even if only on the surface. “Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

Interestingly, it is just this problem that makes Charlie an unsympathetic character for the majority of the book. I'd assumed that as he grew smarter his original personality traits – good-naturedness, kindness – would only be enhanced. Which leads me to yet another thing I would like to have seen done differently, and that is much less emphasis on his tortured past and emotional stuntedness, and more on his intellectual achievements. Now, that's simply a road the author did not choose to go down, but a fully sympathetic Charlie would have taken the story to much higher heights. The kind genius, slaving away at mastering everything for the betterment of mankind – for the betterment of his fellow brethren and sisteren in disability – coming to the eventual, cruel realization that it is only for a time.

Yes, Charlie's reaction to the surgery mirrors Algernon's, and we are with him as he fights to stay reborn, to be smart, to remember things, to read the books he so loves. I can't think of a more poignant literary device than having to watch it all go away in his own words, the clarity slowly dissolving, the punctuation disappearing.

One could say that the author purposely did something very daring in making us feel most connected to the mentally handicapped Charlie, to prove that main theme of ignorance being bliss. The last few progress reports kind of gutted me. And they made reading the book and living with the story worth it in the end, despite its shortcomings.

Early on, Charlie's aptitude is tested in various ways, one of which being working mazes at the same time as Algernon. Before the surgery, the mouse wins every time - “I dint know mice were so smart” - and after, he is able to best the little guy. The metaphor of the maze is not lost on Charlie in his finest moment.

“Although we know the end of the maze holds death...I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am.”

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