Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (New York: Harcourt, 1994. 311 pp)
Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York, and received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Brooklyn College. He has worked as a merchant seaman, fiction editor, high school teacher, and university professor. The author of eight books, he lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Every once and a while, I come across a book that everyone knew about and failed to tell me how wonderful it is. This is one of those books. I am saddened I didn’t find it earlier, though grateful I had the pleasure of reading it. Flowers for Algernon is simply beautiful. Through wonderful writing and the use of great character development, author Daniel Keys tells a wonderful, saddening, and eye-opening tale.
Our main character and narrator, Charlie, starts the book as mentally challenged. With an IQ of less than 70, he desires nothing more than to be intelligent. However, nothing seems as though it will change. Charlie eventually finds out that he can have an operation that will change his life and enable him to become intelligent. Algernon, a mouse, has already proven that the operation works on animals. He takes the doctors up on their offer and, with his family’s permission, undergoes the operation.
At first, Charlie notices nothing, but later, finds that his intelligence is slowly increasing.
“Today, I learned, the comma, this is, a comma (,) a period, with a tail, Miss Kinnian, says its, importent, because, it makes writing, better, she said, somebody, could lose, a lot of money, if a comma, isnt in, the right, place, I got, some money, that I, saved from, my job, and what, the foundation, pays me, but not, much and, I dont, see how, a comma, keeps, you from, losing it,” (38).
Charlie’s journal entries are still flawed with poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But, Charlie’s progress moves rather quickly and soon is transformed into a genius. But, what Keyes does with Charlie’s newfound intelligence is what makes the novel thought provoking. Charlie’s lack of intelligence made him a trustworthy and friendly man, as he assumed his coworkers and others in his life were as well intentioned as he. However, with his newfound genius, Charlie gains perspective about both his past and present. His intelligence has become just as much a barrier toward interpersonal relationships as his past condition did.
“Somehow I’ve become separated emotionally from everyone and everything. And what I was really searching for out there in the dark streets—the last damned place I could ever find it—was a way to make myself a part of people again emotionally, while still retaining my freedom intellectually. I’ve got to grow up. For me it means everything…” (202-203).
Emotionally, he feels affection for Alice Kinnian, his former teacher. She has never abandoned him, and has always believed in him. But, as his intelligence grows, he convinces himself that even a relationship with her cannot work.
A Slow Decline
The crux of the story happens as Charlie and the other professors notice that the mouse, Algernon, who underwent the same surgery as Charlie, has begun to decline. Charlie and the professors who performed the experiment realize that Charlie’s condition is not viable, and he may very well decline. Charlie begins to struggle with himself, the “old Charlie”.
“As I lie here waiting, the moment passes during which I am myself in myself, and again I lose all feeling of body or sensation. Charlie is drawing me down into myself. I stare inward in the center of my unseeing eye at the red spot that transforms itself into a multi-petaled flower—the shimmering, swirling, luminescent flower that lies deep in the core of my unconscious. I am shrinking. Not in the sense of the atoms of my body becoming closer and more dense, but a fusion—as the atoms of my-self merge into microcosm” (283).
Charlie’s decline is nothing if not saddening. He prays to God that he may keep some of his intelligence, but to no avail. Charlie finds that perhaps he was happier without his intelligence, that the grass is truly not greener in the fields of genius. Because Daniel Keys chose to use the journal entries of Charlie to track character development, the reader becomes emotionally involved rather quickly. It’s a roller coaster of a read, as you easily identify with Charlie. Flowers for Algernon is a truly fantastic book.
Verdict: 5 out of 5