Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon has been reprinted more than twenty times and in numerous languages. The rest of his bibliography of novels has been eclipsed by the umbra of this award-winning work: The Touch (1968) and The Fifth Sally (1980). Aside from his novelette of the same name (1959), even Daniel Keyes’ short work has been lost to science fiction magazines and anthologies in the 1960s and 1970s. Reviewing the last three sentences, it becomes apparent that Flowers for Algernon is Daniel Keyes’ sole lasting contribution to the genre of science fiction. I’m always leery of what other people consider masterpieces, as in Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” (Flowers for Algernon being #25), but this novel is rightfully a great (meh, pretty darn good) work of science fiction.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.”
Algernon is a white mouse who has had an experimental done on his brain which involving “competitive inhibition enzymes” (102), which revitalizes brain proteins at a supernormal rate and leaves the mouse with an amazing intelligence for working our mazes. Seeing the benefit of such a procedure, Prof. Nemur and Dr. Strauss at Beekman University enlist a student from Center for Retarded Adults: Charlie Gordon. This simple man, abandoned by his family while still a teenager, works at a bakery doing menial tasks and shouldering demeaning jokes from his co-workers, who he childishly believes are his friends.
Charlie had begun to read and write while at the Center but goes on to start a diary when he is enlisted by Nemur and Beekman. His phonetics and spelling are terrible at first; however, he endures and continues his diary entries. Charlie meets with Algernon and is frustrated by the mouse’s innate ability to navigate mazes because the mouse beats Charlie every time. But once Charlie has his operation with permission from his sister (who thought Charlie dead after all those years), Charlie begins to read more, understand more, write more clearly, remember more, and even beat Algernon at his maze races.
Charlie once admired the students’ intellectual conversation on campus, but as his IQ ramps up through 85 and above 100 Charlie becomes more and more aware of his surroundings; however, his emotional intelligence isn’t on as steep as an incline as his IQ. Charlie is unable to understand moral dilemmas or understand the repercussions of his increasingly effervescent memories of his past where child neglect and child abuse were common. His childish anger at these ill social qualms doesn’t affect his study and he soon finds that all those conversations at the university mere so petty compared to the knowledge he now holds. Off campus at the bakery, his coworkers now distrust his sudden and unexplained burst of intelligence (Charlie was told not to tell them of the experiment). Aside from the doctors, Charlie has no friends except the one being who shares his experimental status—Algernon.
His information absorption still outpaces his social understanding when he confronts those butterflies in his stomach—a woman who tutored him at his old school, who now sits at the front row in his heart, Alice Kinnian. Emotionally approaching her takes time, but the physical and intimate approach proves to be impossible because of Charlie’s 65-IQ once self, who now lurks in the shadows. This internal turmoil within Charlie, between the Charlies, drives a deeper stake between himself and the rest of society who don’t understand him, besides Algernon.
When Charlie is taken to a symposium, his increasingly negative attitude to being treated as a test subject reaches a boiling point when Prof. Nemur takes the stage to speak about Charlie and Algernon. Charlie releases Algernon from the cage and the conference erupts in a collected attempt to capture the mouse, which is secretively snatched by Charlie who then elopes to New York to live a life by himself with the money he’s secured from the experiment’s stipends. Alone, he is able to forge a physical love life with his neighbor but his one friendship remains with Algernon, for whom he builds a large interactive maze for. Still keeping a diary from months ago, Charlie realizes that Algernon’s problem solving skills are being replaced by anger and fear, just as Charlie’s calmness is being replaced by alcoholism.
Eventually Charlie contacts Alice again and he’s convinced to return to the university where he shares his Algernon discoveries with the professor and the doctor. Using his still impressive intelligence, Charlie strives to understand Algernon’s mental collapse and whether he too is prone to the degradation which may smite him.
Charlie is a likable character when he has an IQ of 65; he’s determined, meek, non-judgmental, and accepting. His battle with illiteracy is witnessed by his childish spelling and surface level observations but as his IQ develops, so too does his writing ability and observational skills, yet he slowly becomes less and less likable. He gains a superiority complex and treats others with verbal spars as his disdainful co-workers had done to him. His own IQ absorbs him and socializing with people becomes a sort of sport which he lacks in equipment and skill. Best fortified with alcohol, Charlie turns from an awkward intellect to a scornful belligerent.
There’s little sympathy to impart to Charlie aside from his unfortunate upbringing where his teachers gave up on his slowness and his own mother fought to disown him because of the shame he brought to the family. Charlie eventually gathers the courage to confront his family and finds that his reflective memory doesn’t match the reality. He had been robbed or a prosperous childhood and is again robbed of coming to terms with the past.
Charlie’s intelligence didn’t define him; the reactions from the other characters that really made Charlie who he became. Where the professors and doctors treated him like an experiment, Charlie sees himself as a miracle of science equal in humanity to those below him and those above him. (“Even a feeble minded man wants to be like other men” .) Where his co-workers saw him inept, Charlie sees himself as super-capable. Where his teacher saw him as a motivated yet challenged man, Charlie sees himself as a perpetual machine of intelligence. This contrast of what others thought of him versus what he sees in himself is the crux of Charlie’s social division—the schism between expectations and reality—that ill-equips him to face society.
While high-IQ Charlie is able to largely live his own life without low-IQ Charlie’s menace, social awkwardness causes low-IQ Charlie to manifest as fear of rejection. Even when high-IQ Charlie combats this discomfort with alcohol, low-IQ Charlie eventually wins when his presence becomes corporeal, emotional. However, both high-IQ and low-IQ Charlies find comfort in befriending Algernon, something without expectations and without judgment.
So, the growth of intelligence is interesting (like Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave ) and also the reactions to Charlie’s change, but the 216-page novel is numbed by the factors of simplicity, predictability, and lack of engaging the reader—nothing had to mulled over. Just as Charlie’s understanding of society was superficial, so too is the gloss which makes Flowers for Algernon such an easy read. The novel shines pretty well when you’re reading it, but leave it set for a few days and it loses its luminosity.
It’s not quite a masterpiece as Gollancz makes it out to be with their “SF Masterwork” series, but it’s an interesting piece of psychology and study of IQ which makes it unique. It’d be interesting to read this with real science to back it up. This was actually done with the novelette in Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction (1974), a tantalizing conceptualization with twenty-six other stories involving the science of psychology in science fiction context and broken down into seven sections: (1) Psychobiology, (2) The Learning Process, (3) Sensation and Perception, (4) Social Processes, (5) Developmental Processes, (6) Personality, and (7) Abnormal Processes and Therapy. Enticing!