Friday, March 1, 2019

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

This brilliant book by Keyes was written in 1966 and charts eight months in the life of Charlie Gordon. Charlie, age 32, has a very low IQ (68). He can write and spell minimally and keeps a job doing deliveries at a bakery. He attends the Beekman College Centre for retarded adults in the evenings, under the caring tutelage of his teacher Alice Kinnian.

Written in the form of daily diary entries or progress reports, Charlie reveals he is about to be the first human experiment for an operation to increase intelligence. A mouse, Algernon, has been successfully given this operation and now the trial is turning to humans.

The writing itself shows the pace of change, early entries have poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation with a clear demonstration that Charlie really does not know and understand much of what goes on around him. After the operation it is clear within days that changes are occurring; he is learning how to write, spell, and edit his entries. Within weeks he is mastering high-level theories, mathematics, numerous languages and has overtaken the experts who have subjected him to this experiment.

In addition, he is now recalling incidents in his past, childhood memories, and experiences, and is able to re-interpret them with a fuller understanding of what really happened. He develops romantic feelings and has to learn how to manage them.

Much of the book is really about what it means to be human and how much value we place on people with intelligence. Those who are performing the experiment seem to feel that they have created Charlie, forgetting to acknowledge that he was a man previously.
“it may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things that I resent here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig ... How can I make him understand that he did not create me?… He doesn’t realize that I was a person before I came here.”
Charlie’s personality also changes, he once was a friendly, happy man, but now he becomes proud with an air of superiority, unable to cope with all the people around him who cannot grasp everything on the level that he can.
“I’ve learned that intelligence alone doesn’t mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.”
As Algernon’s health decreases, Charlie begins to see what also may happen to him. It’s a very powerful description of both gains and losses and how that affects how we view ourselves.

This is a great book that will stay with you long after you finish it. Highly recommend for middle teens (Mr 15 found it) and up.

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