Flowers for Algernon
Flowers for AlgernonDaniel Keyes
For Further Study
Originally published as a short story in 1958, Flowers for Algernon appeared as a full-length novel in 1966 and has remained a critical and popular success. The novel is told as a series of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie Gordon, a thirty-two-year-old man whose Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 68 is tripled by an experimental surgical procedure. Unfortunately, the effects of the operation wear off after several months, and at the end of the novel Charlie is once more of subnormal intelligence. Although originally published as a work of science fiction—the short story won the World Science Fiction Convention's Hugo Award and the novel won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America—Daniel Keyes's story has achieved wide popularity outside the science fiction field. Much of the novel's power comes from Keyes's remarkable use of first-person point of view, as Charlie's entries move from semi-literacy to complex sophistication and back to semi-literacy. And the character of Charlie Gordon is a memorable portrait of alienation, of an individual who is at odds with his society and who struggles to have satisfactory relationships with others. The novel gained additional fame when its 1968 film version, Charly, earned Cliff Robertson an Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon. Although some critics have found portions of the novel overly predictable or sentimental, Keyes's most famous work has continued to enjoy great popularity. Over thirty years after publication, Flowers for Algernon is still regarded with both respect and affection by readers within both the science fiction community and the public at large.
Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 9, 1927. He was educated at Brooklyn College, where he received an A.B. degree in 1950. After graduation, Keyes worked briefly as an associate editor for the magazine Marvel Science Fiction while pursuing his own writing career; he later taught high school English in Brooklyn. In 1952 he married Aurea Georgina Vazquez, with whom he had three children. Keyes returned to Brooklyn College, received an A.M. degree in 1961, and went on to teach English on the university level, first at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and then at Ohio University, where in the 1970s he became Professor of English and director of the university's creative writing center.
Keyes was still teaching high school English when he first published the work that would make his reputation. The original short story version of "Flowers for Algernon" appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959. After the story won the Hugo Award for best science fiction story of the year and was adapted as a television drama, Keyes expanded the story into a novel, published in 1966. The novel won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America (tying with Samuel R. Delany's Babel-i7) and was filmed in 1968 as Charly. The film was a notable success, earning Cliff Robertson an Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon.
Although none of Keyes' other work has achieved the popular and critical success of Flowers for Algernon, he has continued to write while pursuing a full-time career in English academics. He published two other novels, The Touch (1968) and The Fifth Sally (1980), and the nonfiction works The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981) and Unveiling Claudia: A True Story of a Serial Murder (1986). Both The Minds of Billy Milligan and The Fifth Sally share with Flowers for Algernon a concern with extraordinary psychological states, as both books examine the phenomenon of multiple personalities. Indeed, Keyes was able to write his book on Billy Milligan—the first person in the United States ever acquitted of a major felony on the grounds of multiple personalities—only after several of Milligan's selves read Flowers for Algernon and agreed to work with the author.
Now retired from Ohio University and living in Boca Raton, Florida, Keyes has recently completed a new novel and seen his work attain tremendous popularity in Japan. Daniel Keyes Collected Stories (1993) and The Daniel Keyes Reader (1994), and the sequel to The Minds of Billy Milligan, The Milligan Wars (1993), have all been published in Japan, with The Milligan Wars appearing in a U.S. edition in 1996.
Part I—Charlie Becomes a Genius
Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie Gordon, a thirty-two-year-old man with an IQ of 68. As Keyes's novel opens, Charlie has volunteered to be the subject of an experimental surgical procedure which would more than triple his IQ. Although Charlie is of subnormal intelligence, he is unusually motivated, taking night school classes at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults. At first, he is afraid he won't be chosen for the project. He doesn't understand what to do when he is asked to tell what he sees in inkblots, and when he traces through a diagram of a maze in competition with Algernon, a mouse who is running an actual maze, Algernon always wins. Nonetheless, Charlie is chosen by the scientists in charge of the project— Professor Nemur, the psychologist who developed the technique, and Dr. Strauss, the neurosurgeon who performs the actual operation.
After the surgery, Charlie returns to his job as a janitor at Donner's Bakery, where nobody is aware of his operation. The sad state of Charlie's life prior to the surgery is made clear when Joe Carp and Frank Reilly, whom Charlie regards as his friends, take him out to a bar, get him drunk, make fun of him, and leave him to find his way home.
As time passes, however, it becomes obvious that Charlie is getting smarter. At the bakery, he successfully operates a complicated machine that mixes baking dough. His performances on the psychological tests improve, and he finally beats Algernon at running the maze—a significant development, as the mouse has had its intelligence raised by the same surgical procedure that Charlie underwent. And his Progress Reports are more sophisticated and articulate than before.
As Charlie's IQ increases, so does his awareness of himself and others. Now, when his "friends" make fun of him, he understands their true motivations. He steadily advances at work, but takes no satisfaction from it because the other employees resent him. Eventually, his coworkers at the bakery are so unnerved by his unexplained changes that they sign a petition demanding that he be fired. The only one who doesn't, an old woman named Fanny Birden, nonetheless thinks Charlie's condition "ain't right" and wishes he could return to "the good simple man" he had been.
Charlie also realizes that he has fallen in love with Alice Kinnian, the night school teacher who originally recommended him for the operation. Despite the gentleness of her rejection, Charlie is terribly upset, as he is when he catches Gimpy, the one person at the bakery who had been kind to him, stealing. Charlie is becoming aware that factual knowledge and intellectual ability may not prepare a person to deal with all of life's problems.
Part 11—Charlie as a Genius
As Charlie tries to cram a lifetime of intellectual and emotional development into a period of months, he also increases his self-awareness by recovering lost memories, a process triggered by sleep-learning devices and continued through his ongoing psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Strauss. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the agonizing details of Charlie's early life. Charlie's father, Matt, tried to do the best he could for his son. But Charlie's mother, Rose, denied that there was anything "wrong" with him and beat him when he was unable to learn like other children. However, when Charlie's sister Norma was born with normal intelligence, Rose turned against Charlie and sought to "protect" Norma from him, reacting with particular violence to anything he did that showed his developing sexuality. Finally, after an hysterical outburst in which Rose threatened to kill Charlie, Matt took Charlie to live with his uncle Herman. When Herman died several years later, Rose tried to have Charlie committed to the Warren State Home and Training School, an institution for the mentally handicapped, but Charlie avoided this when the owner of Donner's Bakery, a lifelong friend of his uncle Herman, offered him a job. The "new" Charlie now realizes that both his extraordinary motivation to learn and his confused responses to women are rooted in how he was treated by his mother.
As Charlie's IQ surges to nearly triple its original level, his relationship with Alice deepens, but when she is finally able to return his feelings, his childhood traumas leave him unable to make love to her. More importantly, the gap between their respective IQs makes it harder and harder for them to communicate, a problem the genius Charlie now has with almost everyone. In particular, he has come to regard Nemur and Strauss, who previously seemed unapproachable geniuses, as narrowlyfocused specialists more interested in acquiring fame and power than they are in increasing knowledge and helping others. When Nemur and Strauss take Charlie and Algernon to a psychologists' conference in Chicago to announce the success of their procedure, Charlie is outraged by their treating him like an object on display rather than as a human being. He is also disturbed by what appears to be an error in Nemur's analysis of the "waiting period" after the operation. Disgusted, Charlie deliberately lets Algernon loose in the conference room. While the others are frantically trying to recover the mouse, Charlie slips Algernon in his pocket, leaves the conference, and returns to New York, where he rents an apartment and drops out of sight.
Now completely on his own, Charlie devotes himself to reading, thinking, and recovering his memories. During this time he forms a relationship with Fay Lillman, a painter who lives down the hall. Charlie is attracted to Fay's free spirit and lack of inhibitions, but, as with Alice, he is unable to have a sexual relationship with her. His sense of isolation increases. Yearning for meaningful contact with others, he walks the streets of New York feeling an "unbearable hunger" for human contact. He even goes to visit his father, who left his mother several years earlier. His father fails to recognize him, and Charlie cannot bring himself to reveal his identity. A few days later, while dining alone in a restaurant, Charlie witnesses a young man drop a stack of dishes:
When the owner came to see what the excitement was about, the boy cowered—threw up his arms as if to ward off a blow.
"All right! All right, you dope," shouted the man, "don't just stand there! Get the broom and sweep up that mess. A broom … a broom! you idiot! It's in the kitchen. Sweep up all the pieces."
When the boy saw that he was not going to be punished, his frightened expression disappeared, and he smiled and hummed as he came back with the broom. A few of the rowdier customers kept up the remarks, amusing themselves at his expense.
"Here, sonny, over here. There's a nice piece behind you … "
"C'mon, do it again …"
"He's not so dumb. It's easier to break 'em than to wash 'em…."
As the boy's vacant eyes moved across the crowd of amused onlookers, he slowly mirrored their smiles and finally broke into an uncertain grin at the joke which he did not understand.
I felt sick inside as I looked at his dull, vacuous smile—the wide, bright eyes of a child, uncertain but eager to please, and I realized what I had recognized in him. They were laughing at him because he was retarded.
And at first I had been amused along with the rest.
Suddenly, I was furious at myself and all those who were smirking at him. I wanted to pick up the dishes and throw them. I wanted to smash their laughing faces. I jumped up and shouted: "Shut up! Leave him alone! He can't understand. He can't help what he is … but for God's sake, have some respect! He's a human being!"
The incident makes Charlie decide to return to Beekman University and work on his own to perfect Nemur and Strauss's procedure so that it might help others like himself.
After returning to the University, Charlie renews his relationship with Alice but is still unable to make love to her. He turns back to Fay, whom he does not truly love but with whom he is able, finally, to have a sexual relationship. Eventually, though, Charlie becomes so immersed in his research that he moves into the lab and breaks off with Fay, who resents the time he devotes to his work—and who also has never known the truth about Charlie. Time is of the essence, as Algernon is beginning to show signs of instability and decline. Charlie works feverishly to determine if the effects of his operation will last, driven both by his fear of reverting to his former self and his desire to find any information at all that might help other mentally handicapped people. He also begins to achieve a more mature insight into his own nature and that of other people. In a confrontation with Nemur, Charlie declares that "intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."
Part III—Charlie Loses His Genius
Finally, Charlie's completes his research. In a letter to Nemur, he announces his discovery of the "Algemon-Gordon Effect": "artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase." Charlie will revert to his former IQ within a matter of months. Shortly after this discovery, Algernon dies.
Faced with the prospect of losing all he has gained, Charlie seeks to come to terms with himself and his memories. He visits his mother and sister, who still live in Brooklyn. Rose has sunk into senility and only momentarily recognizes her son. Norma, far from being the hateful rival Charlie remembers, is a kind and intelligent woman who sincerely regrets both Charlie's hardships and her own inability to help him through them.
Charlie also comes to terms with Alice Kinnian, who is determined to stick by him as long as possible. Having put the ghosts of his past to rest, he is finally able to make love to her, and they are fully together for a brief time. But Charlie's decline is rapid, and he pushes Alice away before he completely reverts to his former self.
Charlie's final Progress Reports reflect his rapid deterioration as his writing reverts to its earlier semi-literacy. However, he has retained some memory of his experiences, and perhaps some insight as well. When he goes back to his old job at the bakery, he notes, "if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were." The bakery workers accept him back; Carp and Reilly, who formerly had tormented Charlie, defend him when a new worker makes fun of him. However, Charlie finally decides to leave New York for good and check himself into the Warren State Home and Training School. His final Progress Report, dated only eight months after the first, asks that someone "put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard."
The mouse who was the first subject of the surgery which raised Charlie's intelligence. Charlie forms a close emotional bond with the mouse, who is the only other creature to have had its intelligence artificially raised. Its experiences, and fate, parallel Charlie's.
An older woman who works at the bakery with Charlie and who is the only employee who does not sign a petition demanding Charlie's resignation after his IQ is raised. She compares the change in Charlie's intelligence to Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and wishes that Charlie "could go back to being the good simple man you was before."
One of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, and, with Frank Reilly, one of his chief tormentors.
Mr. Arthur Donner
The owner of the bakery where Charlie works, Mr. Donner is a friend of Charlie's Uncle Herman and gave Charlie his job there. Unlike many others at the bakery, he treats Charlie decently, if condescendingly.
A worker at Donner's bakery who treats Charlie better than many of the other workers do. However, Gimpy is the cause of one of the post-operative Charlie's first major crises when Charlie sees him stealing from the cash register. When Charlie confronts him about stealing, Gimpy says, "I always stood up for you. I should of had my head examined."
The narrator and central character of Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon is a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. As a child, Charlie had a father who loved him and tried to take care of him, but he was abused by his mother, an emotionally unstable woman. His mother at first refused to admit that there was anything "wrong" with Charlie and beat him when he did not perform up to the standards of other children. When Charlie's sister was born with normal intelligence, his mother admitted his handicap but became obsessed with the fear that Charlie would harm his sister—especially, that he would sexually molest her. This unreasoning fear led Charlie's mother to violently repress any display of sexuality on Charlie's part and, eventually, to threaten to kill him if he was not removed from their home.
This pattern of childhood abuse marked the adult Charlie in two significant ways: with repressed sexuality and with a strong desire to learn. It was the latter that led him to take night classes at the Beekman School and which led to his being accepted as a subject for an operation that would raise his intelligence. Before the operation, Charlie is perceived as a "good, simple man" and a "likeable, retarded young man." His main goal in undergoing the operation is "to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of friends who like me."
However, once Charlie attains normal intelligence, he sees that many people he thought were his friends were actually ridiculing and abusing him, and once he attains a genius IQ, he finds himself as remote and alienated from other people as he had been previously. He struggles to deal with the emotions he now has the intellect to recognize, but which his intellect alone cannot control. He also works to recover and come to terms with memories of his childhood. Through it all, Charlie's main desire is what it always has been: to be treated as a human being and to be able to establish satisfactory relationships with other human beings.
Although Charlie demonstrates some character flaws after his intelligence peaks, such as arrogance and self-absorption, he is basically a good man. When he realizes that the surgical procedure is flawed, he throws himself into research to discover the flaw, feeling that if his efforts contribute at all to "the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied." When he finally determines that nothing can be done to prevent his return to his pre-operative state, he does what he can to come to terms with his family and those around him, and they in turn recognize his worth as a human being. Even after Charlie returns to his previous subnormal level of intelligence, he has learned to be understanding of the failings of others because they are "not so smart like you once thot they were." Although the experiment has failed, Charlie Gordon has not.
Charlie's father, a salesman of barbershop supplies. He is basically a kind man who loves his son and tries to protect him but who is consistently overpowered by his wife: first, by her hysterical denial that Charlie is handicapped, and then by her equally hysterical conviction that Charlie is a danger to their daughter. When Rose threatens to kill Charlie, Matt takes Charlie to his Uncle Herman, who offers Charlie a refuge. Years later, Matt finally leaves Rose and opens his own barbershop. When the adult Charlie seeks him out, he does not recognize his son.
Charlie's sister. Charlie's memory of her is of a "spoiled brat" who hated him and treated him badly. However, when the adult Charlie visits the adult Norma, who now has full-time care of their senile mother, he finds a grown woman who is "warm and sympathetic and affectionate." She genuinely regrets her youthful hostility towards her brother, and wants to reestablish contact with him.
Charlie's mother. She is an emotionally unstable woman who was largely unable to cope with having a mentally handicapped child. During Charlie's early childhood, she refused to admit that he was anything other than "normal" and beat him when he was unable to perform at the same level as other children. After Charlie's sister Norma was born without mental handicaps, Rose quit trying to make Charlie "normal" and became obsessed with "protecting" Norma from him. Eventually, Rose breaks down completely, declares that Norma is in danger of being sexually molested by Charlie, and threatens to kill him if he is not removed from their home. When Charlie reestablishes contact with his mother many years later, he discovers an old woman far gone into senility who barely recognizes her son.
- The original short story version of Flowers for Algernon was adapted for television as The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon for CBS Playhouse in 1961.
- The novel Flowers for Algernon was made into the feature film Charly in 1968. Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Gordon. Available from CBS/Fox Home Video.
- The novel has also been presented on the stage. David Rogers adapted the novel as a two-act play, Flowers for Algernon, in 1969; a dramatic musical, Charlie and Algernon, was first produced in Canada in 1978 and played on Broadway in 1980. Stage plays based on the novel have also been produced in France, Australia, Poland, and Japan.
- Flowers for Algernon has also been adapted for radio: as a monodrama for Irish radio in 1983, and as a radio play in Czechoslovakia in 1988.
A nurse who attends Charlie immediately after the operation and who tells him that the scientists should not have altered his intelligence. She compares their action to Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and being cast out of Eden.
Miss Alice Kinnian
Charlie Gordon's teacher at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults, the person who recommends Charlie for the procedure which raises his intelligence, and the woman Charlie loves. Alice is an intelligent and dedicated woman who takes a strong personal interest in Charlie and consistently treats him in a responsible and respectful manner. As Charlie's intelligence increases, she guides him as best she can; when he falls in love with her, she gently declines. However, they maintain a close friendship, and Alice eventually finds herself returning Charlie's feelings, only to discover that the traumas of his past prevent him from making love to her. She remains his friend, despite the increasing distance his towering intelligence places between them. When the operation finally fails and Charlie enters his decline, they are finally able to have a romantic relationship. Alice tries her best to stick by Charlie, even when he pushes her away, but when he is finally back where he began, with an IQ of 68, she is forced to admit that he is lost to her and that she has to go on with her life.
A free-spirited artist who lives across the hall from Charlie when he "disappears" in New York. When Charlie first sees her painting in her underwear, she thinks nothing of it, and she does not hesitate to crawl along a window ledge to get to Charlie's apartment. Charlie eventually enters into a sexual relationship with her, although he does not love her, and she provides Charlie with a whirlwind social life of drinking, dancing, and having a good time. Although she evidently feels genuine affection for Charlie, she is uninterested in his research, perhaps in part because she does not know that Charlie has had his intelligence artificially raised. When Charlie moves into the lab because Fay is interfering with his work, she loses interest in him and drifts away.
Professor Harold Nemur's wife. An ambitious woman who used her father's influence to get Professor Nemur the grant that funded his research and who is constantly pressuring her husband to excel and produce great results. According to Burt Selden, she is why Nemur is "under tension all the time, even when things are going well.…"
Professor Harold Nemur
The psychologist who developed the theories behind the operation which raised Charlie's intelligence. Nemur is a brilliant scientist but egotistical and ambitious, the latter stemming partially from pressures from his wife. He is eager to establish his reputation as the discoverer of the process that made Charlie a genius and rushes to make the results of the experiment public, against the advice of the other scientists working on the project. He does not initially want Charlie to be the subject of the experiment, and after Charlie's IQ is raised, relations between the two are often strained, as Charlie's intelligence eventually exceeds Nemur's. This hostility culminates in a shouting match between the two during which Charlie accuses Nemur of treating him as less than a human being and Nemur accuses Charlie of having become "arrogant, self-centered," and "antisocial."
One of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, and, with Joe Carp, one of his chief tormentors.
A graduate student who assists Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss. He is in charge of Charlie's psychological testing, and he treats Charlie in a more relaxed and friendly fashion than either of the senior scientists. It is through Burt that Charlie gets much of his information about Nemur and Strauss, and it is Burt who suggests that the post-operative Charlie needs to develop "understanding" and "tolerance."
Dr. Strauss, Professor Nemur's partner, is the neurosurgeon who performs the surgery that raises Charlie's IQ. He is more sympathetic to and concerned for Charlie than is Nemur. He advocates that Charlie be chosen for the experiment, intervenes when Charlie has a potentially violent confrontation with Nemur, and tries to look after Charlie when the effects of the experiment have finally worn off.
A nurse at the Warren State Home who impresses Charlie by her devotion to her patients. Because he already knows he is regressing and could end up as a resident of Warren, Charlie wonders what it would be like to have her care for him.
Science and Technology
Relating the story of a mentally impaired man whose intelligence is increased through surgery and then lost, Flowers for Algernon touches on a number of literary themes. The most obvious of the novel's themes is the use and abuse of science and technology. The critic Mark R. Hillegas has identified Flowers for Algernon as the type of science fiction which deals with "problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses"—in this case, a surgical procedure that can turn a person of subnormal intelligence into a genius. While the novel does not specifically take an anti-technology stance, it does make clear the limitations of technology as a "quick fix" to human problems—Charlie's operation is, ultimately, a failure in that he does not remain a genius. In a reversal of the classic notion of tragedy, the "flaw" which causes Charlie's downfall is not within him, but in the technology which sought to change him.
Knowledge and Ignorance
The idea that "there are some things humanity was not meant to know" may be traced in modern literature to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818), and in some ways Flowers for Algernon contains echoes of Shelley's tale. The critic Thomas D. Clareson has directly connected Keyes's novel to Frankenstein in that Keyes combines the figures of the mad scientist and the "inhuman" creation into "the single figure of Charlie Gordon." This theme is further emphasized by the comments of Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie's coworkers, which compare his operation to the acquisition of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise.
However, Flowers for Algernon does not argue that humans should not try to attain knowledge, but rather that they should be conscious of the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to life. When Charlie buries himself in research to try to find the solution to the flaw in the operation, he declares, "I'm living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed." But later, during an argument with Professor Nemur, Charlie acknowledges that intelligence alone isn't enough: "intelligence and education isn't worth a damn … all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love."
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of public attitudes towards mental retardation in the United States and discuss the problems Charlie Gordon faces in the novel in the context of this history.
- Research Sigmund Freud's theories of psychology and discuss how Charlie Gordon's emotional problems (not his low IQ) can be explained in terms of Freudian analysis.
- Read the original short story version of Flowers for Algernon and compare it with the novel. What changes have been made, and how do those changes affect the reader's response to the story?
Alienation and Loneliness
In an early "progress report," Charlie writes that he wants to be smart "so I can have lots of friends who like me." Unfortunately, once he becomes a genius, he discovers that there are a whole new set of problems that prevent him from establishing satisfactory relationships with other people. He has substituted one sort of alienation for another, as the condescension and cruelty he once faced from humanity has been replaced by misunderstanding, insensitivity, and fear. He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the teacher who recommended him for the operation, but he realizes, "I am just as far away from Alice with an I.Q. of 185 as I was when I had an I.Q. of 70." Almost everything Charlie does in the novel is motivated by his desire to understand himself and establish functional relationships with others, perhaps most dramatically expressed when he wanders the streets of New York City by himself: "for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection."
Atonement and Forgiveness
A major aspect of the novel is Charlie's efforts to understand and come to terms with the various people who have hurt him throughout his life: his mother, who physically and emotionally abused him; his father, who failed to defend him; his coworkers at the bakery, who brutalized him; the scientists who raised his intelligence but treated him like a laboratory animal. It is significant that when Charlie realizes the effects of the operation will not last, his major goal is to locate his family and establish some sort of peace with them. When he finally locates his mother, he tells himself, "I must understand the way she saw it. Unless I forgive her, I will have nothing." The tragedy of Charlie's fall from genius is relieved somewhat by the knowledge that he has come to terms with the people who mistreated him. In his last progress report, he writes, "if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were."
Prejudice and Tolerance
Written during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Flowers for Algernon shows a profound concern with the rights of individuals to be treated as individuals, no matter what their condition in life. The early pages of the novel paint a grim portrait of how the mentally handicapped are treated, as Charlie is continually abused, verbally and physically, by his coworkers at the bakery. And when he becomes a genius, he is subject to a different sort of dehumanization, as the scientists in charge of the experiment regard him "as if I were some kind of newly created thing.… No one … considered me an individual— a human being." This is perhaps most dramatically expressed when, witnessing a slow-witted boy being ridiculed for breaking dishes in a restaurant, Charlie lashes out at the customers: "Leave him alone! He can't understand. He can't help what he is … but for God's sake, have some respect! He's a human being!"
Although the novel is not primarily focused on sexual issues, a good deal of attention is paid to the fact that Charlie is sexually repressed as a result of an abused childhood. His mother, terrified that her "retarded" son would sexually assault his "normal" sister, violently repressed all normal displays of adolescent sexuality. The adult Charlie, once his intelligence has been raised to where he can understand the issues involved, initially has difficulty establishing a sexual relationship with Fay Lillman, a neighbor who seeks out his company, and is unable to have a physical relationship with Alice Kinnian, the woman he is in love with. Charlie's ability to have sex with Fay and, eventually, with Alice, is seen as an important step in overcoming past traumas and becoming a fully functional adult.
Point of View
Keyes's remarkable use of first-person ("I") point of view is perhaps the most important source of Flowers for Algernon's narrative power. Charlie's journey from an IQ of 68 to one almost three times as high, and his fall back into subnormal intelligence, is told in the form of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the experiment that raised his IQ. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in nonstandard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult:
Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.
As Charlie's intelligence grows, his reports become more and more literate and sophisticated:
I've got to realize that when they continually admonish me to speak and write simply so that people who read these reports will be able to understand me, they are talking about themselves as well.
The striking contrasts between the earlier and later entries, both in style and content, dramatize both the changes Charlie undergoes and the obstacles he must overcome. Even more dramatic is the contrast between the high-IQ entries and the final entries, when Charlie loses his intelligence and falls back into the semi-literacy of the earlier entries. Keyes's use of Charlie as the narrator makes the reader's experience of Charlie's inevitable fate more immediate and more moving, and shows that, as a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement put it, Keyes "has the technical equipment to keep us from shrugging off the pain."
Another source of the novel's power is the inevitability of Charlie's fate, once we learn that the results of the experiment will not be permanent. But even before we learn that the experiment has failed, Keyes offers several moments of foreshadowing, events which hint at what is to come. The most obvious of these center around Algernon the mouse, who has had the same operation as Charlie and whose progress and deterioration both mirrors and forecasts Charlie's own. When Algernon begins to grow restive, has trouble running the maze, and starts biting people, it does not bode well for Charlie. In addition, two minor characters—Hilda, a nurse, and Fanny Birden, one of Charlie's coworkers at the bakery—both invoke the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which foreshadows Charlie's own "fall" from genius. Charlie's trip to the Warren State Home while he still possesses heightened intelligence foreshadows what is in store when he finally loses that intelligence. And, in a more subtle moment early in the novel, as Charlie is on the operating table before the surgery, he tells Dr. Strauss that he's scared. When Dr. Strauss reassures him that he will "just go to sleep," Charlie replies, "thats what I'm skared about"—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of Charlie's later descent into darkness.
The setting of Flowers for Algernon is New York City, with a brief episode in Chicago, in the present or near future. Although the physical landscape and cultural background is not a major part of the novel, critic Robert Scholes has noted that the very normality and non-distinctiveness of the setting makes the one "different" element of the novel—the surgical procedure that raises Charlie's IQ—all the more distinctive. And at one point in the novel, when Charlie has taken Algernon and is hiding out from the scientists, the crowded urban landscape of New York City becomes an important part of Charlie's attempts to come to terms with his situation: "on a hot night when everyone is out walking, or sitting in a theater, there is a rustling, and for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection between the branch and trunk and the deep root."
Irony—the difference between the way things appear to be and the way they really are—plays an important part in Flowers for Algernon. Early in the novel, we see that Charlie's coworkers at the bakery, especially Joe Carp and Frank Reilly, are condescending and abusive towards him, insulting him to his face and playing cruel tricks on him. Charlie, however, writes that "Lots of people laff at me and their my friends and we have fun.… I cant wait to be smart like my best friends Joe Carp and Frank Reilly." Once Charlie becomes smart, he realizes that these people are not his friends, but he is then faced with another irony. Before the operation, he wanted "to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me." But his increased IQ causes the bakery workers to be afraid of him, the scientists who had been kindly and wise figures turn out to be limited human beings who see Charlie more as a laboratory experiment than a human being, and heightened intelligence is no help when he falls in love with Alice Kinnian. As Charlie the genius notes, "Ironic that all my intelligence doesn't help me solve a problem like this." And in a final irony, when Charlie returns to his IQ of 68 and seeks his old job back, Joe and Frank, the men who had persecuted him before, defend him against an attack from a new worker.
In literature, tragedy refers to works where a person, often of great achievement, is destroyed through a character flaw that he or she possesses. In classic tragedy, this "fall" is often from a great height (Oedipus and Hamlet were both royalty, for example) and is inevitable, given the character's character flaw. Flowers for Algernon is certainly about a fall from a height, and Charlie's descent from genius to subnormal intelligence is inevitable. Charlie does have character flaws—an arrogance and impatience which appear when he becomes a genius— but these do not lead to his fall. Instead, the "flaw" is outside of Charlie, in the technology which raises him to a great height and then allows him to fall back down. In this way, Keyes is able to use the devices of tragedy to make a very modern point: that our technology is as imperfect as we are.
Civil Rights in the 1960s
The issue which lies at the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon's struggle to be recognized and treated as a human being. Prior to his operation, he was regarded as somehow less than fully human because of his subnormal intelligence. After the operation, he is discriminated against in a different way, as ordinary people shun him and the scientists who raised his IQ treat him as little more than another laboratory specimen. It should come as no surprise that this story of a person who manages to be a member of two different minorities—the mentally handicapped and the mentally superior—should have appeared during a time of growing awareness of the problems and the rights of minority groups.
The period from the first publication of Flowers for Algernon as a short story to its publication as a novel, the period from 1959 to 1966, saw the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. Although most immediately and dramatically focused on the task of securing equal rights for African Americans, the civil rights movement was accompanied by increasing attention to the issue of fair and equal treatment for all. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill prohibited racial discrimination; 1966, the year Flowers for Algernon was published, saw the founding of the National Organization for Women. The rights of the mentally handicapped were also addressed during this time: in 1962 the President's Panel on Mental Retardation was organized, leading in 1968 to the Declaration of the General and Specific Rights of the Mentally Retarded. By the 1970s, the term "retardation" was replaced with "developmental disability," and specific provisions for the protection of the mentally handicapped from violence and discrimination became law. Flowers for Algernon's message of tolerance and understanding for the mentally handicapped reflects the social and political struggles of its day, and the years following the novel's publication saw many of these issues regarding developmental disability finally addressed in the legislature and the courts.
Compare & Contrast
1960s: The civil rights movement was in full force, with passage of legislation addressing discrimination against African Americans and increasing awareness of the rights of other oppressed groups, including the mentally handicapped. However, prejudice was still widespread, and there was as yet little to no legal protection for mentally handicapped persons.
Today: Legislative and legal protection for the mentally handicapped is extensive, while public sensitivity to the rights of the handicapped has increased markedly. Terms such as "retarded" and "feeble-minded" have been replaced with less negatively-charged terms such as "mentally challenged" and "developmentally disabled." However, civil rights as a whole is in a volatile period, as the public at large seems increasingly resistant to the demands of minority groups.
1960s: Psychoanalysis is increasingly accepted as a means of dealing with mental illness, while the theories of Sigmund Freud enjoy widespread public awareness and acceptance.
Today: The treatment of emotional disorders is increasingly diverse, with traditional psychoanalysis complemented by various holistic, Eastern, and "New Age" approaches, as well as by the development of increasingly effective antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs. However, the theories of Sigmund Freud are not as widely accepted as in the past, and the public at large appears impatient with what it sees as abnormal or dangerous behavior "excused" because of past trauma.
1960s: The pressures of the Cold War lead to an unprecedented amount of spending on scientific research by both the U.S. government and private foundations and corporations.
Today: With the Cold War over and budgets shrinking, competition for research funding is more intense than ever, and funding agencies are increasingly reluctant to support research that does not have immediate, practical results.
Psychology and the Rise of Scientific Research
In addition to the Civil Rights movement, the 1950s and 1960s also saw the rise of psychoanalysis as a generally accepted method of dealing with emotional disorders. The theories of Sigmund Freud, which saw human motivation as stemming largely from unconscious desires which are often traceable to childhood experiences and which frequently center on sex, were particularly influential during this time. Freud's theories were so widely discussed that most people, even if they were not trained in psychoanalysis, probably had some familiarity with concepts such as repression, neurosis, and the unconscious. Accordingly, the novel's focus on psychological themes, especially Charlie's emotional problems stemming from the abuse he suffered from his mother, was immediately familiar to the readers of the 1960s.
Also on the rise in the 1950s and 1960s was funding for scientific research. Locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and still remembering Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets and the terrifying success of the atomic bomb, the United States during this era spent an unprecedented amount of money on scientific research. Government organizations such as the National Science Foundation, as well as private foundations and corporations, poured millions of dollars into scientific research. This included "basic" research that would not necessarily yield immediate practical applications. With so much money available, competition for funding intensified and universities became increasingly focused on obtaining and keeping research funding. In Flowers for Algernon, Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss's funding from the "Welburg Foundation," as well as the pressure Nemur feels to publish his results and secure his professional reputation, directly reflect this trend.
There is not as much critical commentary on Flowers for Algernon as there is on some other contemporary novels. What criticism does exist has occasionally found fault with the novel on the grounds of sentimentality or predictability, but on the whole the critical response has been favorable. Critics have also noted the novel's status as a work of science fiction.
Typical of the critical response to Keyes's novel is Mark R. Hillegas' 1966 Saturday Review essay, which ranks Flowers for Algernon with Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a "work of quality science fiction," although Hillegas finds the novel "considerably less powerful" than Vonnegut's or Miller's novels. Hillegas also notes that Keyes's novel is occasionally "marred by a cliched dialogue or a too predictable description." Nonetheless, he finds that the novel "offers compassionate insight into the situation of the mentally retarded" and is "profoundly moving."
Other contemporary reviews sounded much the same note. Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing in the New York Times in 1966, states that Keyes "has taken the obvious, treated it in a most obvious fashion, and succeeded in creating a tale that is convincing, suspenseful, and touching—all in modest degree, but it is enough." Despite the many potential problems, such as how to convincingly show Charlie as a genius, "the skill shown here is awesome," and "affecting, too—how otherwise explain the tears that come to one's eyes at the novel's end?" Similarly, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement finds some of the minor characters "less successfully created" but praises the novel as "a far more intelligent book than the vast majority of 'straight' novels."
What critical attention Flowers from Algernon has received since its original publication has come mostly from scholars discussing the novel as a work of science fiction. In his 1975 book Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future, Robert Scholes discusses the novel as "minimal SF' that, unlike some works of science fiction, "establishes only one discontinuity between its world and our own"—in other words, the experiment which raises Charlie's intelligence. Scholes finds the novel "beautifully problematic" and asserts that its power derives largely from the fact that the results of the operation are impermanent. While "Keyes has fleshed out his idea with great skill," Scholes also sees the novel as "deficient in artistic integrity" because of its existence as both a short story and a novel.
More recently, the noted British SF writer and critic Brian W. Aldiss, in his 1986 book Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, compares Charlie to the character of Lenny in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Unlike other critics, Aldiss prefers the original short story to the novel: "This moving story lost something of its power when expanded to novel length." And in his 1990 study Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction, Thomas D. Clareson claims that Keyes "revitalized the myth of Frankenstein by introducing a fresh narrative perspective" and combining "Mary Shelley's nameless creature and the crazed scientist into the single figure of Charlie." Clareson further notes that the novel's "narrative perspective" makes it "unique in the science fiction pantheon."
F. Brett Cox
F. Brett Cox is an assistant professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia. In the following essay, he explores how Flowers for Algernon both works as and transcends science fiction, particularly in its exploration of themes of alienation and humanity.
Like Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger, Daniel Keyes is an author whose reputation rests on a single remarkable novel. Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, like Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, is a powerful story of alienation, of an individual who is at odds with his society and who struggles to have satisfactory relationships with others. Unlike Lee's and Salinger's novels, however, Flowers for Algernon is also a work of science fiction: the type of science fiction, according to Saturday Review critic Mark R. Hillegas, that "deals with moral, social, psychological, theological, or philosophical problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses." While firmly within the "literary" tradition of Lee and Salinger, therefore, Flowers for Algernon also stands in the tradition of such classic science fiction novels as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Player Piano, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Keyes' story is also noteworthy for its success in many different forms. It was originally published as a short story, which was adapted in 1961 as a television play entitled The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon. The full-length novel version was adapted in 1968 as the feature film Charly. The short story won the World Science Fiction Convention Hugo Award for best story of 1959, the novel won the Science Fiction Writers of America Nebula Award as best novel of 1966, and Cliff Robertson, the actor who portrayed Charlie Gordon in the feature film, won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The science fiction idea of Flowers for Algernon is simple: what if people could undergo a surgical procedure that would raise their IQ's? The first person to undergo such an operation is Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. Unlike many other mentally handicapped adults, Charlie is highly motivated to learn. He goes to night school at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults and repeatedly states his desire to be smarter than he is. It is this level of motivation, finally, that convinces the scientists in charge of the project to accept him as the second subject for the procedure, the first having been a mouse named Algernon.
Much of the novel's power comes from Keyes' remarkable use of first-person point of view. Flowers for Algernon is told in the form of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the project. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in nonstandard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult:
Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next month is my birthday.
As Charlie's intelligence grows, his Progress Reports become more and more literate and sophisticated. Three months after the operation, he writes:
I've got to realize that when they continually admonish me to speak and write simply so that people who read these reports will be able to understand me, they are talking about themselves as well. But still it's frightening to realize that my fate is in the hands of men who are not the giants I once thought them to be, men who don't know all the answers.
The striking contrasts between the earlier and later entries, both in style and content, dramatize both the changes Charlie undergoes and the obstacles he must overcome. Keyes' deft handling of point of view helps to ensure that, unlike in many science fiction novels, the ideas in Flowers for Algernon are expressed through the novel's characters, and not the other way around.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Minds of Billy Milligan is Daniel Keyes's 1981 nonfiction study of the case of Billy Milligan. When Milligan was arrested and charged with rape in 1977, he was found to have at least twenty-four distinct personalities. Milligan became the first person in U.S. history to be acquitted of a major felony by reason of multiple personality.
- The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I, edited by Robert Silverberg, is a 1970 anthology of classic science fiction stories which contains Keyes's original short story version of "Flowers for Algernon."
- Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, published in 1953, is a classic science fiction novel which, like Flowers for Algernon, is based on psychology and deals with the alienation of unusual individuals.
- The character of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, published in 1960, is another example of an emotionally disabled victim of childhood abuse who is shunned by society.
- Novelist and critic Brian W. Aldiss has compared Charlie Gordon to Lenny, one of the main characters in John Steinbeck's classic American novel Of Mice and Men (1940).
- Flowers for Algernon has been compared to A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1959 novel of the world after a nuclear holocaust, as an example of "quality" science fiction.
The two quotes above also represent the central conflict of the novel: the difference between Charlie's, and the scientists', expectations of what can be accomplished through increased intelligence, and the reality of what intelligence alone can and cannot do. Before the operation, Charlie wants to be smart, not to gain power or advancement, but to improve his relationships with other people: "I dont care so much about beeing famus. I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of friends who like me." However, as Charlie's IQ increases, so does his disillusionment. When his "friends" make fun of him, he understands their true motivations: "Now I know what they mean when they say 'to pull a Charlie Gordon.'" He steadily advances at work, but "all of the pleasure is gone because the others resent me." He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the night school teacher who originally recommended him for the operation, and is devastated by her rejection. Charlie is becoming aware that factual knowledge and intellectual ability alone do not prepare a person to deal with all of life's problems: "Ironic that all my intelligence doesn't help me solve a problem like this."
As Charlie learns more about the people in his life, he also learns more about himself. The postoperative sleep learning he undergoes to increase his store of factual knowledge also triggers his recovery of long-suppressed memories. These memories, recorded in the Progress Reports as they occur, reveal the harrowing details of Charlie's early life, especially concerning his abusive mother, Rose. At first, she denied there was anything "wrong" with Charlie and beat him when he was unable to learn like other children. However, after Charlie's sister Norma was born with normal intelligence, Rose turned against Charlie. Obsessively (and needlessly) fearful of Charlie molesting Norma, Rose reacted with particular violence to any behavior that showed evidence of his normally developing sexuality. Charlie's extraordinary motivation to learn, therefore, as well as his difficulty in expressing his sexual desires for women, are rooted in how he was treated by his mother. Keyes thus places the novel's emphasis on psychology firmly within the tradition of Freudian analysis, which sees human motivation as stemming largely from unconscious desires which are often traceable to childhood experiences and which frequently center on sex.
By the time Charlie's IQ peaks at nearly triple its original level, he realizes he was mistaken to think, as he did before the operation, that with increased intelligence "you can have lots of friends to talk to and you never get lonely." His relationship with Alice has deepened, but when she is finally able to return his feelings, he is unable to make love to her. More importantly, the gap between their respective IQs makes it harder and harder for them to communicate, a problem Charlie now has with almost everyone. As Burt, the graduate student who administers Charlie's psychological tests, points out to him, "You've got a superb mind now.… But you're lopsided. You know things. You see things. But you haven't developed understanding or—I have to use the word—tolerance." In particular, Charlie has come to regard Nemur and Strauss, the scientists in charge of the project, as narrowly-focused specialists more interested in acquiring fame and power than they are in increasing knowledge and helping others. His disappointment with them turns into fear when he discovers that there is a flaw in Professor Nemur's analysis of the "waiting period" following the operation, a flaw which may indicate that the results of the operation are not permanent. By this point in the novel, Keyes has firmly established what critic Thomas D. Clareson has called Flowers for Algernon's "double-edged theme: the unthinking brutality with which society treats the mentally retarded and the terrible isolation of soaring intellect."
After walking out on a psychology conference where the scientists "talk[edl about me as if I were some kind of newly-created thing," Charlie turns his back on both Alice and the project scientists. But despite his genius-level IQ and newfound personal freedom, his sense of isolation increases. He forms a relationship with Fay Lillman, an artist who knows nothing of Charlie's "former" life and whose uninhibited, free-spirited lifestyle is a sharp contrast to both the earnest and responsible Alice and the demanding, controlling project scientists. But, as with Alice, he is unable to have a sexual relationship with her. Yearning for meaningful contact with others, he walks the streets of New York feeling an "unbearable hunger" for contact with others. He even goes to visit his father, who left his mother several years earlier. His father fails to recognize him, and Charlie, sensing himself about to be disappointed yet again, does not reveal his identity: "I wasn't his son. That was another Charlie. Intelligence and knowledge had changed me, and he would resent me—as the others from the bakery resented me—because my growth diminished him."
There follows one of the key moments in the novel when, while dining alone in a restaurant, Charlie witnesses an obviously slow-witted young man drop a stack of dishes. Seeing his earlier self in this young man, Charlie is outraged by the abusive response of the young man's boss and the condescension of the customers, doubly so because "at first I had been amused along with the rest." After this incident, Charlie decides to return to Beekman University and begin his own research to try and perfect the procedure that raised his IQ.
The Progress Reports Charlie writes while engaged in his own research reveal a Charlie Gordon who is, for the first time, a fully functional adult. He works feverishly, driven by his fear of reverting back to his former self—Algernon is beginning to show signs of instability and decline. However, Charlie is also driven by his desire to help others like himself: "if [my research] adds even one jot of information to whatever else has been discovered about mental retardation and the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied," and by the sheer joy of discovery: "I'm living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed." He is finally able to distance himself from his childhood traumas and make love to Fay. Most importantly, he begins to achieve a more mature insight into his own nature and that of other people. In a violent argument with Nemur, Charlie declares that "intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn.… But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love."
Eventually, Charlie discovers the flaw in the experiment, and his worst fear is realized. His raised intelligence is not permanent; within a few months, he will return to his former mental state. How Charlie faces this devastating news shows that, beyond his increased IQ, he has learned far more important lessons of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. "No one is in any way to blame for what has happened," he writes shortly before he enters his final decline. "I don't want anyone to suffer because of what happens to me." After visiting his mother, who has fallen into senility and only sporadically recognizes her son, Charlie realizes that she is no longer a target for hatred: "I must understand the way she saw it. Unless I forgive her, I will have nothing." He finally is able to make love to Alice, the only person he has truly loved, and for a brief period they have a complete and fulfilling relationship.
But Charlie's decline is even more rapid than his ascent. He leaves Alice and the others of the project rather than have them witness his return to subnormal intelligence, a process depicted in agonizing detail as his Progress Reports return to the broken English and lack of awareness they exhibited before the operation. Charlie's return to his former state is all the more poignant because, although he has lost his intelligence, he has not lost all of the insights he gained: "if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were." At the end of the novel, Charlie prepares to go voluntarily to the Warren State Home for the mentally handicapped, leaving a final request regarding Algernon, who had died two months earlier: "please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard."
Keyes has published two other novels and three nonfiction books, all of which also deal with themes of psychology and the structure of the human personality, but Flowers for Algernon remains his most famous work. Although critics have been largely positive about the novel, their praise has sometimes been accompanied by negative comments, usually along the lines of Mark R. Hillegas' suggestion that the novel is occasionally "marred by a cliched dialogue or a too predictable description." These reservations, however, have not kept critics from acknowledging Flowers for Algernon as an unusually powerful and moving work of literature, or kept two generations of readers from keeping it in print. In the words of a Times Literary Supplement critic, although the novel is "painful," it is also "important and moving.… Mr. Keyes has the technical equipment to prevent us from shrugging off the pain."
Source: F. Brett Cox, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Robert Small, Jr.
In the following excerpt, Small traces Flowers for Algernon through several incarnations, and praises it as a successful example of fiction that answers the question "what if?"
Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon appeared first in the form of a long short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in 1960 received from the World Science Fiction Society the Hugo Award for the Best Novelette of that year. It seems to have been immediately recognized as a piece of literature well above the routine, for it was anthologized in the next two years in Fifth Annual of the Year's Best Science Fiction, Best Articles and Stories, and Literary Cavalcade. In the years that followed, it re-appeared as a television play by the Theater Guild under the title, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, in 1966 in an expanded version as a novel, and later still in 1968 as a film with the title Charly. The film's star, Cliff Robertson, received an Oscar for his performance. The novel version received the Nebula Award for the Best Novel of 1966 from the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Reviews of the novel on its first appearance were generally very favorable and tended to praise its treatment of mental retardation. For example, the Times Literary Supplement said the following:
a good example of that kind of science fiction which uses a persuasive hypothesis to explore emotional and moral issues. By doing more justice than is common to the complexity of the central character's responses it gives body to its speculations. In its ideas, especially in its speculations about the relationship between I.Q. and maturity, this is a far more intelligent book than the vast majority of "straight" novels. Moreover, the intelligence is displayed in a treatment of subject-matter which is bound to affect us as both important and moving.
It has, then, achieved literary success in an unusual variety of forms, and may well be the best known work of science fiction to the general public, that is, to non-science fiction fans. This success has come about because, as Robert Scholes puts it, "it was based on a powerful concept which worked well in all those forms."
Although it originally appeared in a magazine devoted to science fiction, fictional science is used sparingly, allowing the author, with one exception to the ordinary and real, to answer the "What if?" that is the trade mark of this literary genre. Keyes raises the question, What if an operation could be discovered that allowed a retarded person to develop not only average intelligence but to become the world's most brilliant man? The author answers that question by inventing such a procedure and then allowing the reader to follow that development stage by stage as the subject of the experiment, Charlie Gordon, a slow-witted but pleasant and kind man, becomes [as Robert Scholes describes him in Structural Tabulation] increasingly "an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase, inspiring envy, jealousy, and even fear in others." Aware of what is happening to him, Charlie fights the negative change in his personality, but fails to overcome his contempt for the ordinary individuals around him. Here is a quotation from his journal when he is at his most arrogant:
But there were other kinds of papers too—P. T. Zellerman's study on the difference in the length of time it took white rats to learn a maze when the corners were curved rather than angular, or Worfel's paper on the effect of intelligence level on the reactiontime of rhesus monkeys. Papers like these made me angry. Money, time, and energy squandered on the detailed analysis of the trivial.
Keyes "what if" question is one that might occur to any reader, for who would not wish to become a genius? But the story is not merely a pleasant fantasy. Rather, Keyes returns the reader to reality by having the effects of the operation gradually reverse themselves. Charlie, who has been the butt of jokes by the "normal" people he works with, gradually regains their friendship as his mind returns to its retarded state and he returns mostly but not fully to his more pleasant personality, "affection grounded in pity" Scholes calls it. Charlie is retarded at the beginning of the story, and he is not aware that the friends he has are not real friends, that they treat him with disrespect, look down upon him, and enjoy a sense of superiority because they are not like him:
Gimpy hollered at me because I droppd a tray full of rolles I was carrying over to the oven. They got derty and he had to wipe them off before he put them in to bake. Gimpy hollers at me all the time when I do something rong, but he reely likes me because hes my frend. Boy if I get smart wont he be serprised.
At the end, when these former friends begin to treat him as they formerly had, he accepts them but with more understanding of who they are and why they act as they do. He comments:
Evrybody looked at me when I came downstairs and started working in the toilet sweeping it out like I use to do. I said to myself Charlie if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were.
Writing in Library Journal [February 1, 1966] shortly after the story appeared in its novel form, Keyes described his story this way:
Flowers for Algernon is the story of a man's inner journey from a world of retardation to a world of high intelligence. Charlie Gordon lives through comic, sad, and ironic experiences as he emerges from his mental darkness, through the various stages of perceiving and understanding levels of knowledge, into the light of complex awareness of the world, of people, and of himself.
A major contributor to the success of the work in novelette and novel form is the fact that the author tells the story by means of a notebook that Charlie begins to keep at the behest of the doctor involved. Thus we see both the low level of literacy and thought that marks Charlie at the start of the adventure, as well as the sweetness of his character, by means of those journal entries. And we like him and yet feel the contempt that Scholes tells us is the basis for pity. At the same time, the story as told through Charlie's own journal, effectively carries out one of the main qualities that proponents of literature claim for it, immediacy of experience, that is, empathetic power. In Scholes' words, "It conveys to us the deprivation involved in mental retardation as no amount of reports or exhortations could possibly do." For example, Charlie writes, "If your smart you can have lots of friends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time." And later, reflecting on his former state when he encounters a retarded boy, he writes,
It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I—like this boy—had foolishly played the clown.
And I had almost forgotten.
Only a short time ago, I learned that people laughed at me. Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts most of all.
As the effects of the operation appear, the entries in the notebook parallel those changes. Charlie's style evolves from short, awkward sentences and partial sentences cluttered with misspellings and marked by a limited vocabulary into, first, what Scholes calls "a rich, vigorous syntax." Then, as Charlie's mind begins its retreat to its former state, his style gradually reflects that change, though it can be argued at the end of the novel he has retained perhaps a bit of the grasp of language that he had at the height of his mental powers..
At first, Charlie is not aware that he is losing the intelligence that he has gained. Soon, however, his still superior mind realizes what is happening, and he struggles to keep what he has gained. As he goes over what he still knows, as he practices and practices what he has learned, each entry in the notebook showing yet further loss, Charlie takes on an heroic stature as someone who has seen the marvelous, lost it, but remains determined at least to keep its memory alive. And Charlie is not bitter. Rather, after a first bout with anger and frustration, as he works to retain what he is losing, he regains the sweetness of his temper, his kindness, tolerance, and generosity. Here he is in the midst of his struggle to keep what he is gradually losing:
I dont no why Im dumb agen or what I did rong. Mabye its because I dint try hard enuf or just some body put the evel eye on me. But if I try and practis very hard mabye Ill get a littel smarter and no what all the words are. I remembir a littel bit how nice I had a feeling with the blue book that I red with the toren cover. And when I close my eyes I think about the man who tored the book [the smart Charlie] and he looks like me only he looks different and he talks different but I dont think its me because its like I see him from the window.
Anyway thats why Im gone to keep trying to get smart so I can have that feeling agen. Its good to no things and be smart and I wish I new evrything in the hole world. I wish I could be smart agen rite now. If I could I would sit down and reed all the time.
The story, then, has much to offer a reader, and it seems especially well suited to a young reader. The premise is easy to understand and one that most of us, including children, can identify with—the desirability of becoming smarter. Keyes's "what if question is, in fact, probably one that most students have wished for in the competitive world of the school. At the same time, young readers can be helped through Charlie's entries at the beginning and close of the story to see into the world of someone like Charlie and understand that it is he, not the false friends around him, who is worthy of respect. As the story progresses, they can identify with his exultation over his growing intellect; but they can also see that the arrogance and cruelty resulting from his superior intellect make him less than he could be, less in some ways than the earlier Charlie was. As the process reverses itself and Charlie becomes less smart, young readers can surely feel the terrible sense of loss that Charlie feels and realize that he faces that loss far better than they might. They can admire the determination that he displays to the very end of the story to hold on to what he can of his new found understanding.
Many teachers have recognized the fact that Flowers for Algernon would make an effective focus for reading and discussing in an English class, and so it has been used extensively with middle and high school classes. It appears on many recommended reading lists for these grades, including the National Council of Teachers of English Books for You, the American Library Association's Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and the H. W. Wilson company's Senior High School Library Catalog. The Perfection Form company has prepared a set of work sheets to accompany its study, and versions of it have appeared in school literature anthologies.
But its use has not been without censorship problems. Two of the most common points of objection to literature by would-be censors have been aimed at it: sex and religion. Charlie is, of course, a young man. As such, he would realistically have an interest in sex; and Keyes does devote a few passages to rather tame sexual encounters. As a result it has been called pornographic and sexually explicit, although it surely is neither. In addition, because the operation changes Charlie from the man that some readers feel their God meant Charlie to be, it has been accused of tampering with the will of God, of turning men—the doctors, that is— into gods, and of supernaturalism, although the story clearly dwells in the world of science fiction rather than fantasy. It is, these critics argue, only for God to give mankind intellect. It was Satan who aspired to such power; and so if a work of literature shows a human possessing such powers, that work is clearly irreligious and perhaps Satanic. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association and People for the American Way have documented numerous recent cases; it is listed in ALA's Hit List as one of the most frequent targets of censorship.
The power of Flowers for Algernon lies partly in the original concept, the "what if that Keyes asks and then answers. More important, the novel gives its readers profound insights into people, retarded, average, brilliant, kind and cruel, and it does so with stylistic brilliance and control. Perhaps most important, it creates one of those rare truly round fictional characters, to use Forester's term, who surprise convincingly, who have lives before and after the story is told, who seem to possess free will. Keyes' accomplishment is all the more impressive because his character changes so drastically during the course of the novel, yet remains for the reader one human, and one we continue to care about past the end of the novel. Toward that end, Charlie writes in his last entry,
If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian [his former teacher] dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembird about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone.
Source: Robert Small, Jr.," Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 249-255.
Scholes is an American scholar and critic who has written widely on postmodern realistic fiction. In the following excerpt, he discusses Flowers for Algernon as a work of science fiction, dividing its main idea into two halves: the operation to develop Charlie's intelligence—a familiar motif in science fiction—and the impermanence of the operation, which distinguishes the novel as an original and powerful work. Additionally Scholes observes that the book's packaging circumvents questions about its genre.
Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon might be called minimal SF. It establishes only one discontinuity between its world and our own, and this discontinuity requires no appreciable reorientation of our assumptions about man, nature, or society. Yet this break with the normal lifts the whole story out of our familiar experiential situation. It is the thing which enables everything else in the novel, and it is thus crucial to the generation of this narrative and to its affect on readers. How crucial this idea is can be seen in the story's history, which, as it happens, makes an interesting fable in itself. It first appeared as a long story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 1959. It received a Hugo award in 1960 for the best science fiction novelette of the year. It was then reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction and in the Fifth Annual of the Year's Best Science Fiction, both published in 1960, and in Best Articles and Stories and Literary Cavalcade in 1961. It was made into a television drama and then rewritten to appear as a full-length novel in 1966. Then it was made into a movie and given, of course, a new title: CHARLY (with the R childishly reversed). In 1967 it appeared in paperback and has now been through more than thirty printings. My paperback copy, which is from the thirty-second printing (1972), has a scene from the film on the cover, with the word CHARLY prominently displayed, and a bundle of "rave" quotations from reviewers on the back cover. Nowhere on the cover of this book does the expression "science fiction" appear. Even the Hugo award (which is at least as reliable an indicator of quality as, say, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) goes unmentioned. Inside, in very fine print, the ultra-snoopy purchaser may find in the back pages some words about the author, which indicate that this work first appeared as a "magazine story" (but the name of the magazine is suppressed) and that it won a Hugo award as the "best science novelette" in 1960. Even there, the cautious editors have managed to avoid the stigmatizing expression. Flowers for Algernon has gone straight, folks; it has passed the line around the SF ghetto, and to remind us of its sordid history would be downright impolite. And it might chase away a lot of potential customers who "hate science fiction."
An interesting fable, is it not, from which a number of conclusions may be drawn. It certainly reveals something about attitudes toward SF in various quarters, and this is instructive as well as amusing. But it also reveals something about the genre itself. Flowers for Algernon could succeed in four distinct forms (novelette, TV drama, fulllength film, and full-length novel) because it was based on a powerful concept which worked well in all those forms. Daniel Keyes had an exceptionally good idea for a work of fiction, and the idea is what made it originally and still makes it a work of SF. The idea is simply that an operation might be performed on a severely retarded adult male, which would enable his mind not merely to catch up with those of his peers but actually to surpass theirs. That is half of the idea. The other half, which completes and justifies this idea, is that the effects of the operation would prove impermanent, so that the story involves our watching the protagonist grow into a genius unconsciously, and then consciously but helplessly slip back toward a state of semi-literacy. When this mental voyage has come full circle, the story is over.
For many people, I suspect, the first half of this idea constitutes the domain of SF, a land of inconsequential wish-fulfillment in which the natural laws that constitute the boundaries of human life are playfully suspended. But the best writers of structural fabulation do not settle for mere imaginative play. Daniel Keyes completed the circuit of his idea, and the beauty and power of the resulting story were acknowledged by his readers at the eighteenth World Science Fiction Convention, where he was awarded the Hugo. It should be added that Keyes's execution of his idea was fully adequate to the original conception. He undertook to present the story through a journal kept by the protagonist himself, at the request of his doctor. Thus, we see the growth of Charlie Gordon's mind through the evolution of his prose style as well as in the events narrated. (Mr. Keyes, we might note, happens to be an English teacher.) Charlie acquires a competence in grammar, an extensive lexicon, and a rich, vigorous syntax—and then gradually loses all these, as his mental powers fade. He also becomes an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase, inspiring envy, jealousy, and even fear in others. But as he loses his mental competence he regains the affection of those around him—an affection grounded in pity, which is, as Joseph Conrad knew, a form of contempt.
This tale is beautifully problematic. It conveys to us the deprivation involved in mental retardation as no amount of reports or exhortations could possibly do it. And it does this by the fabulative device of an apparently miraculous scientific discovery. It is fabulation that promotes speculation, and speculation that is embodied in an emotionally powerful fable. The intensity of our emotional commitment to the events of any fiction, of course, is a function of countless esthetic choices made by the author—at the level of the word, the sentence, the episode, the character, the ordering of events, and the manner of the presentation. These aspects of Flowers for Algernon cannot be dismissed without devoting much more space-time to this story than is available here. I must assert, merely, that Keyes has fleshed out his idea with great skill, and I invite those interested to investigate the text for themselves.…
I should like to use this occasion to examine an aspect of this story which is typical of the genre as a whole, and of the special qualities which seem to differentiate it from other kinds of fiction. Like many works of SF, Flowers for Algernon appeared first as a story and then was "expanded" into a novel. Now all of our training in esthetics and all of our background in the critical thought of Flaubert and James, for instance, must lead us to believe that a work of verbal art consists of one set of words in one particular order. Thus, this idea of expansion seems to have more to do with packaging and merchandising than it can do with art. To some extent this must be admitted. The shapes of genres have always had something to do with the means of their communication and the needs of their audiences. But if the "same" story can appear in two different versions just to suit the exigencies of commercial publication as a magazine story and a book, then we may rightfully feel that the work must be deficient in artistic integrity.
Source: Robert Scholes, "Structural Fabulation," in Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future, University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pp. 45-76.
Brian W. Aldiss, with David Wingrove, in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Gollancz, 1986.
Thomas D. Clareson, Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 231-33.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "The Message and the Maze," in New York Times, March 7, 1966, p. 25.
Mark R. Hillegas, "Other Worlds to Conquer," in Saturday Review, Vol. 49, March 26, 1966, pp. 33-4.
"Making up a Mind" (review of Flowers for Algernon), in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3360, July 21, 1966, p. 629.
Robert Scholes, "Structural Fabulation," in his Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future, University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pp. 45-76.
For Further Study
DISCovering Most-Studied Authors, Gale, 1996.
Offers biographical and critical information about Keyes.