There are only a handful of books that have stuck with me even years after reading them. This is one of them. Flowers for Algernon is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. It was originally written as a short story in 1960 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, then it was adapted into a novel which went on to tie for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966. There have been dozens of references to the story, including one on the Simpsons on the 2001 episode “HOMR.”
Charlie Gordon is a 32 year old with an IQ of 68. He begins the story working menial jobs at a bakery to keep from needing to live at a state institution. From the beginning, he has this drive to better himself and to do so takes reading and writing classes at a special school. Two researchers have discovered a way to increase intelligence through a surgical procedure and Charlie’s teacher, Alice, recommends he try the procedure.
Over the course of three months, Charlie’s IQ shoots to 185. Suddenly he no longer fits into the world he’s always been part of. He realizes that his coworkers at the bakery, who he always thought were his best friends, have been mocking him all along. The researchers continue to treat him the same way they’d treat a child, even when his intelligence exceeds theirs. He tries to fix broken ties with his parents only to learn that they no longer recognize him.
Determined to further the research that made his new intelligence possible, he continues writing reports and caring for the mouse they first experimented on, Algernon. However, he discovers a flaw in the theory that could cause the procedure to revert. This flaw is confirmed when Algernon starts behaving erratically and eventually dies.
He knows he will lose his new found abilities as well, but now has a much greater understanding of what that means. After he regresses, he remembers that he was once a genius. He can’t stand being pitied and so chooses to live in a state-sponsored home for the mentally handicapped where no one knows about his past.
His last writing is asking someone to put flowers on Algernon’s grave behind his old apartment.
The story itself is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be changed in a fundamental way only to have it taken away. But, what makes it powerful is how it’s delivered. The story is written in a series of letters that Charlie writes as part of a continuing assignment to his teacher Alice. In the beginning, we see that he struggles with putting together even the simplest of sentences and spelling is a huge challenge. But, even through that, we see his drive to be better, to be smarter.
Through each letter we see first hand how the procedure is changing him. The sentences become more complicated and the thoughts behind them more nuanced. The spelling issues disappear. As we reach the pinnacle of his intelligence, we see him pass into the language of complicated academia as he starts understanding the research behind his procedure in a much more detailed and granular way.
And then he starts to slip, and what’s so heartbreaking about it is that he can feel it happening. He knows what life was like before and he is terrified to return to what he once was. The sentences grow simpler and the structure and spelling decline until we return back to the beginning, but with one fundamental change. He remembers what it was like when he was smart and knows he can never go back.
Where many books rely on the artistry of the wordsmithing paired with the story to make them powerful, this one is powerful because it strips that away and lets us see pure character and how this huge change affects him.
It’s a beautiful work and deserving of the awards it’s received along the way.
This book is emotionally hard hitting. It touches on important themes such as the treatment of mentally disabled, the conflict between intellect and emotion, and how past events affect someone later in life. I’d only recommend this to readers who like stretching the boundaries of their experience. It hits many of the same notes as the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, when it comes to capturing the experience of the mentally disabled, and does an admirable job.
If you like digging deeply into another person’s world, even when that world is fraught with very real challenges, then this book is for you. But, if you are sensitive (like at all) to any of the issues already discussed, then this book might be too painful to read.
I give Flowers for Algernon a rare 5/5 for challenging my world view and sticking with me.
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