Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Following doctor’s orders, slow-witted Charlie Gordon begins to record his story through a series of “progris riports.” He wants to better himself – to “get smart” – but with an IQ of 68, he’s not even capable of beating Algernon, the lab mouse, at maze-solving.

But Algernon is no ordinary mouse. Thanks to an experimental brain operation that artificially boosts intelligence, he’s far cleverer than others of his species. So far, this operation has only been performed on animals. Now Charlie volunteers to be the first human subject. “If your smart,” he writes, “you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, the effects of Charlie’s operation begin to show, and his reports improve. But getting smarter brings with it some stinging shocks – like when Charlie figures out that many of his “friends” haven’t been laughing with him, but at him. As his IQ continues to increase, he rises past the human average to genius level and beyond. The irony, of course, is that he’s now just as intellectually alone as the old Charlie ever was – and cruelly aware of the fact. The people who once mocked him for his idiocy now hate him for his brilliance.

It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.

That’s when the lab mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate. And as everyone starts to realize that the effects of the operation might not be permanent after all, Charlie is left wondering how long he has before his own deterioration begins.

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1959 as work of short fiction, and was soon after expanded into a full-length novel. It went on to garner the prestigious Nebula award, and has since been regarded as somewhat of a classic. With good reason.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. The first progress reports have a simple, disarming appeal to them, but as Charlie begins to grow as a character, the story grows with him, gaining considerable depth and complexity. It’s about joy, pain, betrayal, friendship, beauty, wonder, and loss. It’s about the conflict between intellect and emotion; about what is true and what we desire to be true. It’s about one man’s craving for love and human companionship.

Intelligence is one of the the greatest human gifts. But all too often, a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can onlly lead to violence and pain.

In the end, Charlie’s intelligence is his own worst enemy. Whether great or small, it distances him emotionally and psychologically from the people he wants to be close to.

Flowers for Algernon also struggles with the question of what it means to be human. Charlie comes to resent the fact that his doctors view him as one of their creations – an experiment who owes everything, even his humanity, to the great god of science.

It may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things I hate here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig. Nemur’s constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings. How can I make him understand that he did not create me?

Part of the brilliance of the book lies in the writing. And the brilliance of the writing is that it evolves with Charlie’s character, developing (as his understanding increases) from barely literate scribbles into full-fledged epistles. It’s a fascinating and effective technique that lends even greater weight to an already weighty book.

Yet as much as I appreciated Flowers for Algernon, it’s hard to say I enjoyed it. It’s a compelling read, yes, but also a haunting one, with a terrifically painful emotional impact. Charlie’s story isn’t the kind you merely think about; it’s a story you feel.

And oh, how you feel it.

(By way of warning, this book is not for younger readers. Mature themes and sexual content make it something I’d only recommend for ages 17 and up. At least.)

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23 thoughts on “Book Review: Flowers for Algernon”

  1. I read this years ago — in fact, I think it may have been required reading in my public high school English class, I’m not sure (though I am appalled to think they’d require something with sexual content. I can’t remember that part of it, thankfully) I remember being fascinated and sad at Charlie’s progress and then regression, but it never occurred to me until reading your review what skilled writing that would have taken.

    1. I haven’t read the short story, but from what I’ve heard, most people like the novel even better, as it more fully develops the story and characters. Interesting that the short had no sexual content. I’ll have to give it a look.

  2. Thanks for posting this, young brother. I never got around to reading the book. Saw the movie Charlie, starring Cliff Robertson, I believe… wow, way back in the 60s (and that’s the 1960s in case my youngest daughter reads this, as she will typically ask if that wasn’t the 1660s… but I digress, forgive me). Liked the movie then. Would probably enjoy the book. Thanks again. [also, good to connect with you on the other social network as well ;) ]

  3. I read Flowers for Algernon back in the 70’s (1970’s), and I was in high school or college. I remember being somewhat shocked by the sexual content, but I was easily shocked back then (Thank the Lord!). I don’t know what I would think of it now. I still thought then that it was a very intriguing and thought-provoking book about how how people are evaluated and found worthy or not according to their intelligence.

      1. To be honest, I didn’t find the few sexual scenes all that bad. I’ll admit that a few of the scenes surprised me too, but I wouldn’t really call the book raunchy. The scene that is there to provide a look at sexual encounters with love is described in Mills and Boon-prose, the scene itself is beautiful and very touching thanks to the contrast is has with earlier scenes.

  4. I read about the movie based on this book. “Charlie” was the title, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not entirely sure why I decided against wanting to watch it, but I thought the story sounded intriguing, though sad.

    Good review! Not sure if I want to read it or not, but it really sounds interesting. One question: is it as sad a story as it sounds? (Yes, I do read sad stories, sometimes I just want to expect it ahead of time. :)

    To the KING be all the glory!
    Rebekah

      1. Fully agree there. I only just read it recently. I live in Sweden and this book isn’t required reading in English class. When I had finished reading it, I had manly tears in my eyes and had I not stopped myself I would probably have wept like a little girl.

  5. I remember reading this story when I was in school (don’t remember exactly how old I was, or if it was the short story or the full novel), but I remember really enjoying the concept… I think I might like to find it and read it again! Thanks for the review, Ink Slinger…
    p.s. I’ve still got it on my to-do list to do my own personal list of books on my to-read pile…

  6. I’m 16 and this was the first proper book I read. I read the short story in class (non-sexual) and full story outside of class (sexual). Both absolutly amazing! A lot of moral question’s in this!

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