Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a remarkable story about taking a below average man and turning him into a genius within weeks. Charlie Gordon is a “mental retard”, using the vernacular of the time, who is able to maintain his own apartment and job with the assistance of his uncle’s long time friend. Charlie agrees to participate in an experiment where his intelligence should increase by at least 3x, which is what has happened to the only living participant to have undergone the treatment, a white mouse named Algernon. Even before the operation, Keyes makes clear that Charlie wants to be smart and he’s willing to work really hard at it. In testing, Charlie gets very frustrated that a mouse is smarter than him and hopes with the experiment that he will be able to beat the mouse. He has no greater understanding of potential complications or the societal impacts from the surgery. He has a simple understanding of his world and very little to no understanding of what the experiment might do to him.
The format of this novel are the diary entries that Charlie Gordon writes from the beginning of the experiment until the end. We witness the spelling and grammar changes as well as the comprehension and knowledge gains as time goes on. As Charlie’s intelligence increases he is able to recall scenes from his childhood and understand them from an outside and new perspective as to where his family is and how he ended up at a bakery working for his uncle’s friend. As his intelligence increases he slowly loses the life he had and gains new friends from the experiment. But as his intelligence surpasses those around him, Charlie becomes bitter and alone as he tries to unravel his past and use his new intelligence to protect his future.
This is a very modern look at the complications behind intelligence and for most of the novel I felt like this could have been written about today. Today we very rarely lock people in institutions, but when we look at someone who is mentally slow, do we see the person behind the blank stare? Or are they still treated like secondary citizens not worthy of our time and attention? Maybe we’re a little better than Charlie’s bakery friends and we don’t taunt and tease, but are we treating them humanely?
Very compelling story and made me question how I treat those who are not on the same level of intelligence. Just as Charlie treated the doctors when he was had a high IQ so he was treated when he had his low IQ. We should always look behind the eyes and see the person behind them and treat everyone with more empathy. Great novel and very thought provoking.
Read October 2013