Flowers for Algernon - by Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon

"the consequences of playing God are not always what they seem"

The idea of man tampering with God’s creation is not a new one.  From  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to movies like “The Boys from Brazil” and “Multiplicity,”  and“The Bionic Woman” on TV, we are surrounded with images of test tube babies, cloning, and “improved” body parts.  There is something prideful about man thinking that he can improve on God’s plan.

In Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, an entire scientific program is designed to improve upon the natural intelligence of people who don’t measure up to normal standards.  Charlie Gordon, a retarded man, is very motivated to become smart because he thinks this will win him friends he has longed for his entire life.  “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”  Doctors are hopeful that their surgery will give him a better shot at success.  Even though some of them worry about whether it is right to put Charlie t hrough everything, they also want the fame that that their discoveries will bring. Sometimes they forget that he is a person and not merely an experiment.

Following the surgery we watch Charlie struggle with the fact that, though he is no longer intellectually retarded, he is still emotionally handicapped.  He is thoroughly naïve towards girls; as the story progresses, his actions become more and more erratic and uncontrollable. He struggles with his past as he sees childhood memories differently with his advanced intellectual abilities.

Charlie’s journey is told in first person by means of the progress reports he is required to submit during the experiment.  In the beginning Keyes uses Charlie’s misspelling of words and his superstitious nature to show Charlie’s simple mindedness.  “I was very skared even tho I got my rabbits foot in my pokit.” As he is transformed from a simple minded “moron” into a genius, his dialect and writing style change dramatically.

Charlie’s fate is tied to the lab rat Algernon who has had the same operation. How is Charlie’s fate predicted by Algernon’s actions?  Is the prize for intelligence a big group of friends?  When is Charlie truly happy?  The author uses Charlie’s own words to explore the answers to these questions and others.  I recommend that readers go on Charlie’s journey and learn that the consequences of playing God are not always what they seem.

    - Stahler H.

"a depressing read about neuroscience and experimentation"

Flowers for Algernon is indeed a great commentary on the author’s part as to how far genetic research should go, but all in all the novel is rather depressing. Any book that chronicles a descent into depression should, and most of the time does, take the reader along with it. This novel is no exception.

The protagonist, Charlie, is a mentally retarded man who has an experimental operation performed on his mind to make him more intelligent. The experiment has not been tested on any other living thing, except for a white lab rat named Algernon, who seems to be faring well in the experiment. Charlie rapidly becomes smarter and smarter, until he reaches the point where seasoned college professors and doctors seem completely unintelligent to him. In the world of his extremely high intelligence, he becomes increasingly lonely and begins to feel depressed. Algernon begins to have problems that Charlie witnesses and interprets as prophecies for his own fate. I won’t tell you what happens, but I do have to say that the ending is not necessarily satisfying.

The book is a quick and easy read, but is not the book to be read for an escape from everyday life. It takes the reader down into the depths of depression with it, almost as much as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The novel does raise legitimate questions about how much humans should be altered in the pursuit of a perfect society. The results of the experimental operation do not turn out as the scientists predicted. Also, the scientists did not allow enough time between starting the experiment on Algernon and beginning with Charlie, illustrating the impatience that sometimes accompanies scientific achievement. If you enjoy reading about things such as neuroscience and how experimentation affects the human mind, this is definitely the book for you. But if you are, as I was, looking for something to enjoy without thinking too hard about it, you would be better off reading a different book.

    - Trevor G.

"My eyes were opened to the mistreatment of the handicapped."

Some people think the way God made us is how we are supposed to be, but two scientists in search of wealth and praise, Strauss and Nemur ,make an attempt in this book at transforming the human mind into an infinite abyss of knowledge with no learning boundaries. Hastily developed, their brain operation could do things to the human mind that many people never thought possible.

The operation had proven to make one special mouse, Algernon, into a maze-running, mouse-genius, but had never been tried on a human. Here enters Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped adult who tells the story from his perspective through daily “progris riports,” as he so titles them. Early reports show Charlie’s eagerness to learn and vividly display his interactions with Algernon as they form a bond for each other.

Eventually, Charlie’s expanding knowledge surpasses his ability to cope with the emotional side of himself. He doesn’t understand why the college students he argues with for hours and Miss Kinnian, his teacher and first love, soon turn away from him. Charlie is faced with the harsh realization that even though he desired to be smart, maybe it wasn’t how he was made to be.

When Algernon begins to have problems, Charlie wonders if his path will follow that of Algernon. What will be the final result of his experimental operation? The ending will surprise you and, depending on your ability to keep it together, may leave you in tears- or at least with watery eyes.

I was impressed with the style Keyes uses to portray Charlie’s progress. Throughout Flowers for Algernon, the great improvement in grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure show just how quickly Charlie progresses. In the brief four-month period of intellectual growth, Charlie learns concepts that take normal humans twelve years of schooling to master, and Keyes’ daily progress reports clearly show this improvement even from one day to the next. After the operation, Charlie often has flashbacks to his childhood where he finally has his eyes opened to the mistreatment he received. Before he thought his coworkers from the bakery were friends and paid him attention because they liked him and thought he was funny but after the flashbacks, he realizes that they weren’t laughing with him, yet laughing at his incompetence to do any normal task.

My eyes were opened to some of this mistreatment displayed towards the mentally handicapped through this book and if you are up for a thrilling page-turner that will open your eyes, broaden your horizons, and make you realize things you never knew as you accompany Charlie on his intellectual journey, then I strongly recommend Keyes’ novel.

    - Logan R.