Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Publishing House: Harcourt, Brace & World (US), YoungArt (Ro)
Publishing Date: May 2015
Initial Publising Date: March 1966
Genre: Sciene Fiction, Pshychological
Number Of Pages: 312
“Flowers for Algernon” is a Science Fiction novel that is focused on the human psychology, which discusses the consequences of artificial increasing of the human intelligence.
The story revolves around Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled person with an IQ of 68, which decides to suffer a surgery for increasing his intellect. Throughout his journey, he is accompanied by a mouse called Algernon, which was the subject of the research, before they started to perform the operation on humans.
Charlie is a happy man at around 30, with a short memory and who lives to make the others happy. He is satisfied when the others laugh, this proving to him that they are his friends. But in this happy little world of his, he has an intense desire: to be smart for his mother, to go show her that he can be great, that she can be proud of him and, most important, to gain her love.
Before performing the surgery, his only role model is the mouse he competes with. He wants to be as smart as Algernon, to finish the tasks as quick as him. After the surgery, he starts to understand what is really important. He starts to see who are his friends and who are not but, most important, he remembers. He remembers his childhood, his mother screaming and ignoring him, his father, his sister, and all the things he lost. He also discovers love and hate, and discovers that the people he considered a model are not as great as he thought. He discoveres that being smart brings suffering. He no longer finds happiness in small things, but he wants more and more, until the greed of information and unrealistic expectations from him and from the others consume every bit of his soul.
The book is, beside a science fiction novel, a psychological introspection that shows us the aftermath of wanting to overcome our condition. The question is: would we really be happy with being smarter? Was Charlie happy with being smarter? There is no clear answer in the book. On one hand, he knows that, when he had no idea about what was happening around him, he had no reason to be sad. On the other hand, the knowledge creates addiction and, beside that, knowing that you will come back to what you once were means knowing what you will come back to, what you will lose. So now you are not happy with what you have, but you are not happy with what you were. It is a one way ticket to hell, and you must learn to get out of that hell.
The book also exposes the traps of science, the baseness a scientists can refer to in order to reach their goal, if they are not careful to keep their integrity. They are incapable of understanding the fact that not all people are the same. The doctors sae the Charlie before the surgery as a non-human, a sub-person not worthy of attention, and they treat the actual Charlie as their own creation. They try to play God and see themselves as so, without realising that they are falling into their own trap and that there will be a point when the hunter will be the huntee. The evolution of Charlie brings him to the point where he is much higher on the knowledge ladder, making the scientists that “created” him look like a bunch of unexperimented. This fact sends to the old saying, that the student becomes the master, which shows the nothingness in which the human race actually lives. No matter how smart and powerfull you are, there will always be someone who is smarter and more powerful than you.
Something that also caught my attention was the fact that people generally search for other people of their kind to spend time, to love, to have fun. You can see the evolution of Charlie in report to his teacher, Miss Kinnian. Before having the surgery, he sees her as a pretty woman who is nice to him. After performing the surgery he starts to see that she is beautiful, and after he learns to read and reaches a given level of IQ, he realises that he is in love with her. But after he overpasses that level of IQ and becomes a genius while he reaches 180, he no longer loves her, and realises that what he was feeling was nothing but a form of duty. Or was it? Sometimes I think that the smarter the people, the more alone they are. Being smart implies that you know what you want, that you see more clearly other’s defects, that you are not satisified with less. And when you are no longer satisfied with less, you start having unrealistic expectations which lead to dissapointment.
I liked the name play in this book. First of all, Charlie is of Old German origin, meaning “free man”, and Gordon seems to be an Anglicised form of the Irish language Mag Mhuirneacháin, which is a patronymic form of the personal name Muirneachán. This personal name is derived from the Irish language word muirneach, meaning “beloved“. So basically his name means a “beloved free man”. Free man is sort of an irony, cause he was never free. While his IQ was low, he was trapped under his desire to be smart and, after becoming a genius, he was trapped under the dissapointment that the people he previously worshiped are not as wonderful as he thought. He realises that the entire world is a dissapointment, making him unable to find happiness. Beloved is also some sort of irony in my opinion, because nobody actually loved him, except for maybe a couple of women. His parents never trully loved him because of his condition, his work colleagues in the bakery were only having fun with him, and the scientists that helped him raise his intelligence only saw him first as a non-human, and then as a threat. So he did not feel true love and friendship.
Algernon also is an interesting name for a mouse. The name, even if it was inspired by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, it is of Arab origins, and it means “The one that left Alger” or “The one that left his country“. Algernon is an evolved mouse, a mouse not like any other. He can think, solve complex exercises and fight for his food. So he basically left his origins as a normal mouse to become an evolved mouse, one that is capable of superior intelligence.
The book is written in the form of a progress journal that starts before Charlie has his experimental surgical technique to increase his intelligence, and continues throughout his intellectual evolution journey. Although the story is written in a symetrical way, I find the ending completely different from the beginning, at least from Charlie’s perspective. His life has changed irreversibly and he will have to learn to live with this.
The novel reveals to us the dangers of not accepting the others for who they are, of trying to make your children other than what they are, of undermining the persons that do not comply with the general accepted norms of the society. These things can lead to social exclusion, outgrowing fury and irresponsible acts that in the best case scenario can lead to the individual harming himself, and in the worst case scenario harming others. Not accepting the others creates a gap between people that can never be filled untill we start to create love and tolerance. It is like an alarm signal for awakening towards the human race, it tells the story of people who are considered under-humans
The idea for Flowers for Algernon was inspired by Keyes’s life, who seems to have been in conflict with his parents starting 1945, when he was pushed to pursue a pre-medical education, although he wanted to become a writer. This conflict made him think about the possibility of increasing the human intelligence and to the idea of exploiting this possibility.
The original story won the Hugo Award for the best story in 1960, and the novel won the Nebula Award for the best novel in 1966. It was also nominated for the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1967.
The book had passed through various controversy, most of the reasons being based on Charlie’s discovery of his sexuality and his desires toward a women, which was thought to be immoral. The book was removed from the school curriculum in British Columbia and Alberta, following complaints from various parents.
The book was twice adapted for screen, once in 1968 under the title of Charly, and second time in 2000 under the title of Flowers for Algernon. This double screening only confirms the value of the book, both in the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Being one of the first books of the author, it marked the beginning of a long and successful career of Daniel Keyes.