Review: Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

This was my first time reading the full-length book but, like many Americans, I read the original short story as a child in school.  That was nearly thirty years ago, but I still remembered the basic story quite well.  Flowers for Algernon is the kind of story that makes an impression.  The premise, if anybody doesn’t already know it, is that Charlie, a mentally disabled man in his thirties, is given an experimental operation to increase his intelligence.  The story is told entirely through journal entries that Charlie writes before and throughout the experiment.

I doubt my review is going to reveal much about the story that people don’t already know.  I suspect most people know the general story, including its ending, even if they’ve never read it themselves.  However, there are definitely spoilers, and I think it’s going to be too hard for me to segregate them out into a shorter segment, so I’m just going to play it safe and put the rest of my review in spoiler tags.

As an adult, I focused on different aspects of the story than I had as a child.  As a child, my main focus was on Charlie’s journey from mentally disabled to genius and back again.  I felt terrible about the way people made fun of him, I was happy for him when he got smart, and I was devastated when he started to regress.  The main parts I remembered from reading it as a child were the beginning and the end.  Of course, I originally read a much shorter and more sanitized version, but I had remembered very little about the middle of the story.  I didn’t remember how many more problems he’d had after the operation due to his emotional maturity still being quite underdeveloped, and I didn’t remember how much difficulty he had in relating to other people.

As an adult, those middle parts made more of an impression and I was more frustrated with him.  I had to remind myself that his intelligence had increased at a rapid rate whereas his maturity needed more time to develop, and that his behavior was surely to be expected.  However, I hated to see him looking at other people in much the same way people had looked at him before his operation.  I hated seeing him transform from an open, likable, cheerful man into an angrier and more bitter man who didn’t understand how to relate to the people around him.  He also had some serious psychological issues, primarily due to the way he had been treated by his family as a child.  He did seem to find a better balance toward the end, but that was just before he started to regress.  I knew the end would be sad, but this time around I found the middle to be nearly as sad as the ending and that took me by surprise.  

As a 40-year-old, I also couldn’t help but draw some parallels with the inevitable (but hopefully much less drastic!) regression of intelligence that will occur when I get older.  Fortunately the older people in my family seem to stay reasonably sharp throughout their lives, so I hope that will be true of me as well, but I know that some loss is inevitable.  I hate even the temporary and easily resolved foggy feeling I get when I haven’t had sufficient sleep.

(show spoiler)

Although this book is considered science fiction, this is primarily because of the operation Charlie was given.  The story itself has a more contemporary feel to it and would appeal to people who don’t enjoy science fiction.  The short story was originally published in 1959 and the novel was published in 1966, but the story didn’t feel dated to me at all.