Charlie Gordon is slow on everything, and has the astonishing IQ of 68, when the average IQ of a human is above 100 (let’s say 90 is also considered normal). Although he can (only) clean floors and toilets, Charlie does not let his IQ slow him down. He enters the Beekmen Collage Center for Retarded Adults, and is described as ‘the student most eager to learn’ by Alice Kinnian, the teacher teaching Charlie and his other classmates. Then Charlie is chosen to be part of an experiment on his eagerness to be smart, that is tested on animals with success, for example, a white mice named Algernon.
The version of the book that I read is a novel, and rather than a short story. It’s important to note that Flowers for Algernon was originally conceived and published as a short story, and was later expanded into a novel. The novel is narrated by Charlie’s progress reports, which was before the operation, and after the operation (when his IQ goes up really high). Charlie is deeply retarded man, who can barely be considered literate. His writing is full of bad grammar and spelling mistakes, but after he goes through experimental brain surgery, he changes his intelligence to a genius. It’s beautifully conveyed by his improved spelling, grammar, sentence constructions, and the way he relates to his surrondings.
When Charlie finds out that there is flaws in the experiment, he is determined to know what it is, and figures out something that could change things for the worse. One of the fascinating things about this story, I realized, is seeing the way the attitudes of others towards Charlie change as he became more intelligent (not always for the better). What follows the surgery is a speeded-up journey towards enlightenment: within weeks Charlie’s initial IQ first doubles, then triple. Charlie is shocked to learn that the life he led before the operation was far from the cozy existence he always thought it to be, and that the people whom he always considered to be his friends might have been not been as friendly as he thought they were.
“Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men.” This is my favorite quote from this story. I think what (almost) everyone wants in the world is to be normal. For me, this story is one of the most touching stories ever written. And no, it’s not romance, it’s Sci-Fi. This book explores such themes as the nature of intelligence, the effects of intelligence on the way you see others and the world around you, as well as social attitudes towards people with mental problems.
“Intelligence is one of 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 mental and 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 only lead to violence and pain.”
After pondering a little about this quote, I come to this final question: should we be thankful that humans are “intelligent”, as it is one of our race greatest victory? Or not?
Nobody, including Daniel Keyes editor, likes the ending. That’s why Daniel Keyes was rejected by many editors to get it published, as Daniel refused to change the ending. But why would they suggest about changing the ending? Not everyone has happy endings in reality. Flowers for Algernon is an emotional roller coaster, mostly sad, but with happy and bittersweet moments as well. It’s not a fairy tale, and it’s not necessarily happily ever after. But like I said, neither is life.
Daniel Keyes struggled hard to write this book, forteen years to be exact! Now, there are more then 5 million copies sold world wide, and transelated to many different languages. Flowers for Algernon is the winner of Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel 1967 and a nominee of Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Award. It’s cool, isn’t it? And oh, I am amazed that this book is written in the 1960’s.