Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Before it was an award-winning sci-fi novel, it was an award-winning sci-fi short story. It’s commonly studied, deep, and poignant. (I’m not really a fan of poignant.)

Flowers for Algernon tells the story of a retarded man named Charlie who undergoes an experimental surgical procedure to increase his intelligence. Algernon is the mouse whose success has convinced scientists that the procedure should be tried on a human test subject. It is clear early in the book, if not from the title of the book itself, that the procedure ultimately fails. Hence the poignancy.

For more on the format, plot and themes, continue reading.

The novel consists of a series of “progress reports” written by Charlie. I like the way readers are shown how Charlie changes through the way that he writes. It’s a clever idea and well executed.

The laboratory science is dated, but that doesn’t matter because equipment and technology don’t play a large role in this book. The references to tape recorders and record players weren’t distracting to me. The equally dated methodology of Freudian psychoanalysis, with its free association and inkblots, however, was.

I like the theme of seeking knowledge and self-improvement (Plato’s cave is mentioned more than once, as are Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge), but the book seems to say that such seeking is at best futile, that ignorance is bliss. Charlie seemed happier and more emotionally connected to those around him before he was smart.

When it becomes clear to Charlie that the results of the procedure will not last (and that the procedure will not benefit others like himself), he continues to assert that he does not regret the experiment, that it still contributes to the sum of human knowledge. Perhaps he’s only trying to convince himself that somehow it was still for the best.

When and why I read it

My husband randomly bought it for me. I think we had been talking about unreliable narrators.

Genre: Fiction (science fiction)

  • Date started / date finished: 24-Jan-2016 to 29-Jan-2016
  • Length: 311 pages
  • ISBN: 9780156030083 (2004 mass market paperback)
  • Originally published in: 1966
  • Amazon link: Flowers for Algernon

“Related” books

Flowers for Algernon reminds me vaguely of the John Travolta movie Phenomenon (which also deals with the gain and loss of extraordinary abilities) and the novel Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther (which is only related in the sense that it deals with someone’s brain and because I don’t read very many poignant books).