Flowers for Algernon was one of those books I’ve been aware of for a long time and has flirted on the edges of my to-read list. It didn’t really settle there however until Boyfriend told me he was reading it. (Boyfriend is a reader, by the way. Can I brag about that a little? In addition to all the work he does trying to get his doctorate, he makes sure he has time to read other things. That was one of the first things that drew me to him back when we were just friends *happy sigh*…ok, back on track) I have this thing with wanting to read what my friends are reading, and think of that multiplied by ten and that’s how I am with things Boyfriend is reading. I immediately requested Flowers for Algernon from the Library.
Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped young man, selected for his desire to learn, to be a part of a scientific endeavor. He undergoes some form of brain surgery (we aren’t really told what) to correct what was wrong with his brain. The book is written in “progress reports” by Charlie, and the reader watches as his spelling and comprehension and power of recall improves as Charlie moves from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 180. It’s actually quite fascinating. I thought the narrative voice sounded very authentic. As Charlie’s intelligence grows, he begins to struggle with things he never understood until now. He’s swiftly outpacing his co-workers who used to laugh at his slowness, and now resent his intelligence. He has moved from wanting to please his teacher, Ms Kinnion, to falling in love with her, to moving so far past her that she feels dull in comparison to him. He begins to notice cruelty and deception and posturing and hypocrisy.
I didn’t realize until today, that the book was originally written as a Science-Fiction Short story and later turned into a novel. I also learned that Daniel Keyes taught a class of mentally handicapped students, which explains his compassion for Charlie and his interest in this often overlooked people group.
First, let me just get the usual warning out of the way. This book was written in the late sixties so it’s fairly modern. (Carrie has a nice scolding of the modern novel that you might want to see.) There are two sex scenes that are about a six on a one to ten explicit scale. They don’t leave you any doubt as to what is happening, let’s put it that way. There is some cursing and sexual allusions. Also, there is some implied child abuse in Charlie Gordon’s flashbacks.
The appeal of Charlie Gordon’s story lies partly in the compelling character of Charlie himself and partly in the question of the worth of knowledge. The story begins and ends with a reference to Adam and Eve and their tasting the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. At the beginning of Charlie’s surgery, a nurse suggests that what the doctors are doing is wrong and she links it to Adam and Eve’s grasping after knowledge. Later at the end of the story, the last book reference Charlie makes is to Paradise Lost by Milton. Yet another link to this unlawful seeking of knowledge. Now, as a believer, we know that it wasn’t that Adam and Eve wanted knowledge, it was that they sought to be like God. But they did eat from the tree that gave them the knowledge of good and evil. When the surgery is successful and Charlie begins to acquire knowledge, he also starts to understand evil. Up until this moment he believes the people laughing at him are his friends. He has lived a fairly content life, not remembering his stormy unloved childhood, but his intellect brings the conscience of evil into his life. So, the major question is, is it better to know and know the evil in the world, then never to have known at all?
The treatment of the mentally handicapped is also an easily noticed theme. It’s a topic I admit I don’t spend much time thinking about, but it is pretty important. Charlie spends much of his time trying to remind the scientists and professors working with him, that he was a person before the surgery too. At one point in the story, Charlie goes to tour the home he used to stay in as a teenager. The “boys” in the home are handled by the author with great respect and compassion, but with honesty as well. It wasn’t easy for me to read it, but I’m glad there are books that deal with people like this. In case you were looking for another book with a mentally handicapped character who I felt was also handled with dignity, you could read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. (Insert same modern novel cautions here.) I like to read things like this because it keeps the mentally handicapped in our cultural conscience and gives them a place beside any other story’s protagonist. It helps us think of them as people too.
Anyway, I can’t say this was a pleasant read, but it was a good one. I don’t regret reading it, and I’d tentatively recommend it, while making sure to attach all my “Reader Beware” warnings. It certainly made me consider what knowledge means to me and to others. And it made me think about a section of humanity, I don’t often consider, and that is always good.
Lastly, I think some of the reviews and ratings on Goodreads are kind of hilarious. I think from now on if I review a book I’ll try and include a “helpful” comment from the good people of the Goodreads community. This is what an unnamed person had to say about Flowers for Algernon. This is the review in its entirety: “I liked this book because I too have a filthy rat for a friend.” Fair enough, fellow reader, fair enough.