Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
Published: 13 January 2002
The presence of intelligence defines humanity as a species. It’s what separates us from animals, and what allows us to dominate the planet. But when it’s missing, when someone lacks intelligence to the extent that they are stupid, then humanity can be as base as any other species. The individual is treated differently and cast to the outside. The bullies bully and the compassionate tread carefully, but everyone treats this someone differently, and not like a person at all.
Daniel Keyes’s Flowers For Algernon puts the dunce cap on Charlie Gordon, whose IQ is 68. He works in a bakery where he’s treated like a fool by almost everyone, and lives in a single solitary room, on his own, alone. Charlie is a moron, make no bones about that. The novel was written in 1968, when ‘moron’ and ‘retard’ were used regularly to describe the mentally disabled. Charlie lives in a harsh time, when his condition is not understood or tolerated.
It is his own persistence to “get smart” that puts him on the radar of scientists who have developed a technique involving enzymes that promises to not only cure Charlie, but turn him into a genius. His rise to genius is masterfully played by Keyes using an epistolary style. Stupid Charlie writes his “progris riports” phonetically, until his intelligence leaps forward, allowing him to retain information, eloquently express himself and employ imagery that is as smooth as butter.
The story turns on his treatment by others, and his realisation that stupid Charlie was a joke and intelligent Charlie is resented, and the fall of the mouse, Algernon, which underwent the same operation and soon shows that the results are not permanent. It is with incredible sadness that Charlie slides back into stupidity, as he implores God to let him just remember how to read or write, or retain anything of his new self. It is particularly sad because stupid Charlie is ever-present after the operation, waiting in the window of his mind to take back control of his body, once the new and improved Charlie is no more.
The novel also casts a incredibly critical light on the science behind such a technique, with Charlie used by scientists in much the same way as Algernon. They are mediocre men who want to be remembered rather than contribute to scientific understanding. Their failures, the novel makes clear, will show others what not to do, which is all they can ever really achieve. Science will never offer quick fixes and will punish those who claim otherwise.
Flowers For Algernon is strikingly sad in its portrayal of Charlie’s rise and fall, and his realisation that to know is not the same as to understand.