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Flowers for Algernon



Daniel Keyes

Rating: PG

Coffee Beans: 4/5

Spoiler: Big time

I’ve been doing this thing lately, where my brain remembers books that I’ve read back in Jr. high or high school, and I recall them being very good. I can’t remember every detail, but the overall impression I got from those books has stuck with me through the years, which makes me want to relive the experience. The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, Hatchet, Shiloh, and Flowers for Algernon, just to name a few. I just finished the last one because I remember it being amazing. While I reading it, I asked everyone I met about the book.

“Remember reading Flowers for Algernon back in Jr. High?” I would ask. I’d get a curious look or an arched eyebrow. Something about what I had said was familiar. “The story about the guy who’s mentally retarded, he has an operation and is made smart?” I would prompt. “Is there a white mouse in it?”

“Yes!” I would exclaim with a clap. “Algernon was the name of the mouse.”

“Yeah! I remember reading that!” Then their voice takes on a hint of melancholy. “That was a good book.”

It’s funny that everyone remembers the mouse the most. It’s not like he has a huge part (page count wise) in the book, but the symbolism he carries with him is gargantuan. No one remembers Charlie Gordon’s name, but everyone remembers the white mouse.

The book was first published back in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. From there, Keyes worked on expanding the story to novel length and had it published by Harcourt in 1966. It’s funny to mention that the first magazine Keyes wanted to sell the story to, as well as several publishers, wanted him to change the ending of the book. I am so glad that he held fast to what was true. In all honesty, the story couldn’t have ended any other way than the way Keyes had written it.

Charlie Gordon is a 32-year-old adult that lives on his own, works at a bakery and takes special-ed classes from Miss Kinnian at a local school for mentally challenged adults. In a time where mentally retarded children were to be hidden away, his parents abandoned him at about the age of 12, sending him to live and the Warren State Home for mentally retarded children and adults. When Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss approach Alice Kinnian for a human test subject for an intelligence experiment, she suggests Charlie. After getting permission from Charlie’s estranged sister, he begins the experiment.

The story is told through Charlie’s journal entries. What he’s going through, experiencing, feeling, noticing, etc. The tests he’s going through, the mazes he races against Algernon, and the inkblot cards. Prof. Nemur and Dr. Strauss tell Charlie that the mouse, Algernon, had a surgery to make him smart, and now he’s the smartest mouse around. They tell Charlie that he’s going to have the same surgery, and hopefully, he’ll be smarter too.

The way Keyes shows us Charlie’s transformation is seamless. In the beginning of his journal entries, there is no punctuation, sentence structure, and misspellings abound. But, as his intelligence increases, the reader starts to notice commas, apostrophes, and bigger words. Although he hasn’t gained emotional intelligence yet, his IQ has increased. He continues to be tested and race Algernon (whom he soon beats), and eventually surpasses the professors in the experiment and Alice, who he’s discovered he loves and who loves him back.

He becomes so smart as to be condescending to others and looses common ground with Alice. As he strives to know all he can and answer all his questions about himself and his sorted past with his mother (who, in flashbacks and dreams, we learn is a horrid woman), something happens to Algernon. He starts behaving erratically and is aggressive. Charlie knows that this, too, will happen to him. With the time he last left, he tries to find where the operation and experiment went wrong, so that future procedures can be flawless. He also tries to put to rest the mixed feelings he has towards his mother, father, and sister.

Telling Nemur and Strauss, and Alice about what is going to happen with him, he tries to have as normal of a life as possible for whatever time is left. He goes to see the Warren State Home to see where he will be living, if the decline of the operation leaves him any functioning ability at all. Then, Algernon dies, and Charlie knows what will become of him. The decline is as subtle as the ascent. Besides Charlie telling us in his journal entries what he’s experiencing, the punctuation is the first to go. Then the big words, then the spelling. Finally, emotional intelligence is all but gone. To spare those around him the pain of seeing him lose what he had become, he secludes himself in his apartment. He can remember bits and pieces of his experience of being a genius, but it’s a ghost of a memory. He knows that he has to leave and go to the Warren State Home, but he can’t fully remember by, but he’s okay with it. The book ends with him leaving a note to Nemur and Strauss to tell Alice none of this is her fault and asks that someone put flowers on Algernon’s grave for him.

The ending is moving and heart wrenching. But it is perfect. To think that someone wanted Keyes to change it to Daniel staying smart, marrying Alice, and having a family is absurd. Sure, we all like happy endings, but this is the true ending. The overall book is amazing and truly a classic. But, it is rather dry in parts. Because it’s in the field of science, there is a lot of science speak and details of things and procedures that felt like filler. In fact, there were a couple parts in the middle and towards the end that I skipped over because they were boring. But I highly recommend that anyone who wants to read a great book, start with this one. There was a movie made in the 70’s (I believe) called Charly that I want to try and find on Nextflix, although, I’m not sure if I want to subject myself to seeing his sad story on screen.

–Me

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