‘Flowers for Algernon’: A book review.
‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes was first written as a short story in 1958 and published in ‘The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy’. It got the Hugo for best short story in 1960. The author spent several years expanding it into a novel which was published in 1966 by Harcourt.
I’ve said, as you, my faithful readers would know, that I am trying to expand my foundation of classic science fiction. I pretty much only read fantasy as a youth and adult. I’m sorry I missed so much good stuff. I went to a list of the top ten science fiction novels of all time. Somewhere in the middle was ‘Flowers for Algernon’. In the blurb about the story it referred to this book as probably the most quoted yet unread classic of science fiction. I will admit that I had heard the name many times since my son was diagnosed with autism, and hadn’t had a pressing desire to read it until I found it on that top ten list.
I’m glad that I read it, or should I say, listened to it. The recording I got from Audible.com was excellent, as usual. The narrator grasped the differences in Charlie as he changed in intelligence, and translated that into his diction and attitude as he recited the “progress reports” Charlie wrote.
The premise is Charlie, who had an IQ of 68, would have a surgery which could potentially increase his intelligence. He will be the first human subject. There is a mouse, Algernon, who has successfully had the surgery, and early on Charlie ‘races’ the mouse through a maze. He had a lot of respect for this very intelligent mouse, who beats him repeatedly through the maze.
There is sex in the book. I understand that this book has been banned from many schools in the U.S. and Canada. I think it would be appropriate for students in 11th and 12th grades, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a much younger audience.
Charlie writes progress reports which include his feelings, fears, and discoveries as he grows in intelligence. The growth in IQ is rapid and large, however, his emotional growth occurs at a much slower, normal rate. I felt the sex scenes were appropriate to the story and handled maturely. Unlike the sophomoric and gratuitous sex scene at the beginning of the second chapter of, “7th Son.”
If you plan on reading this story and don’t want any spoilers, stop here. I will tell you that I give it five stars for all the things I usually gush about in a story, characterization, pace, language, narration, etc. It was a fascinating look at how a man changes and his reaction to new experiences.
I will now say some things about the plot that I found interesting, so if you don’t want to hear them, take off, hoser.
I was surprised at how he was rejected for becoming smarter. Granted, the crowd at the bakery should have felt lower than snail slime for the way they treated the poor guy when he was too stupid to know better. Yet, even though he figured out how mean they had been to him before, he still counted them as his only friends. Then at the end, when they accept him back after his intelligence has dropped back to where it had been before, with loving arms, I’m surprised they could even look at him without feeling any kind of guilt. They should have gushed and apologized sufficiently for it to have sunk in enough to have made it into a progress report.
There were two other things that didn’t seem resolved to my satisfaction.
I’m not sure how he made his first couple progress reports. I didn’t think he could write at that point.
Also, Charlie borrows a car a couple times. I might be wrong, but I wouldn’t put a skill, like driving a car, on a scale with intelligence. While you may be able to understand how a person should drive a car and what the laws are concerning driving a car, I don’t think the eye-hand-road coordination would come to a genius any faster than learning to throw a baseball or the uneven parallel bars. They never talk about him learning to drive. (But that’s just me.)
As I read this book I often thought of my son who has autism. When we first got his diagnosis I figured it was something he would grow out of, or mature out off, or be educated out of. Six years later, he’s still not up to speed with the kids his age. In some ways he’s brighter; he has a fantastic memory. However, he’s big, difficult to understand, has difficulty expressing what he wants, and his writing is terrible. I don’t know if he will ever be main streamed into school, hold a job or have a relationship with a girl.
‘Flowers for Algernon’ gave me a lot to think about.
Again, I would recommend this book to anyone, well most anyone, over the age of sixteen as a valuable example of how a person faces new environments and how to treat people with disabilities with respect and understanding.