Flowers for Algernon is the first novel by American author Daniel Keyes. Originally published in 1959 as a short story, it was later expanded into a full-length novel, which was published in 1966. It has since become renowned as a classic, both of the science-fiction genre and of American literature in general.
The story is told through diary entries and “progress reports” from Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject of a newly discovered method of artificially increasing intelligence. The experiment has been successfully carried out on a mouse named Algernon, who navigates a series of mazes, a metaphor explored by Charlie as the story progresses. Charlie starts the novel with an IQ of 62, his diary entries full of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as childlike misunderstandings of simple concepts. In early scenes we see Charlie fall for simple and cruel pranks from his peers, the tragic irony being that the reader can understand fully what is going on while Charlie himself cannot. As his intelligence increases, not only does his writing improve drastically, but he begins to come to realisations of his own mistreatment over the years, which is hardly any happier to read. With intelligence often comes suffering, which we go on to see in great detail.
Seeing Charlie’s intelligence increase page by page makes the book incredibly engaging in a unique way, as we see a person’s brain developing more over the course of a few short months than most would do in a lifetime, until Charlie surpasses even the scientists who helped transform him. Inevitably, his emotional intelligence cannot possibly hope to keep pace with the rapid ascent of his IQ. However many books he reads, languages he learns, and piano concertos he composes, the complexities of human emotions and adult relationships remain beyond his grasp, and his awareness of this sad fact only grows. His failed attempts at romance with his one-time teacher are heartbreaking to read.
What’s so fascinating about this book is that although the concept is simple, it explores a huge number of themes in a complex and relevant way. The story throws up questions about the ethical treatment of the mentally disabled, the links between intelligence and happiness, and the morals of scientific experimentation on people and animals.
If you’re looking for a light and easy read, escapism, or a “pick-me-up”, I would steer clear of this book. This is one of the most tragic stories I have ever read, and its depictions of loneliness and alienation (which for Charlie are very similar at both extremes of the intelligence spectrum) are painfully sad and relatable. However, if you’re looking to read an incredible and thought-provoking insight into society, the mind, and human relationships, I can’t recommend Flowers for Algernon enough.
“Intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…”