on 2 February 2000
Normally wary of books billed as "classics," I bought this on a whim, not realising that I was picking up what would become the most poignant and moving story I have ever read. From the first words, I was gripped by the tale of Charlie Gordon, a clinical moron who is given genius level intelligence through the intervention of science. The story of his rise from intellectual stupor, and his subsequent fall, is written with heartbreaking depth and emotion from his perspective, and we are treated to a discourse on what it means to be human. This is a book that should be read by everyone. A superb novel, well-deserving of the "Masterwork" label.
on 16 January 2006
Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a toilet cleaner at a bakery. After an experiment is done on him by the local University his IQ gradually increases in parallel with the test mouse, Algernon. However Algernon starts to display erratic behaviour which leads the super-intelligent Charlie to suggest both their intelligences will start to drop back to their previous levels.
Flowers for Algernon is in my opinion one of the greatest stories ever written. It is superbly told through Charlie’s diary entries which catalogue his days just before the experiment and the following months after it. We see the gradual improvement in his grammar, his spelling and punctuation and learn of his life through his dreams which he is instructed to write down. What is most compelling about the novel is the moral dilemma that is presented to the reader when Charlie becomes intelligent. In the beginning of the book he believes he has friends at the bakery whereas in actual fact they are gently mocking him. By the time he becomes intelligent however he is aloof and has no friends (make-believe or real). He also is incapable of certain emotions at this stage which poses the question at the end of the novel – at which stage was he better off?
This is rightly in the SF Masterwork series, it is my favourite book and has won the Hugo Award (as a short story) and Nebula award (as the full length novel).
on 14 November 2002
Charlie Gordon is a retard, but an operation boosts his intelligence so that he becomes a genius. However, it becomes clear that the operation might start regressing and he may end up as retarded as when he started. The story is skilfully told in diary form, with the writing accurately reflecting the mental ability of Gordon. We watch through Gordon’s eyes his mental ascent to unassailable heights; fumbling with his emotional development as it lags behind his intellect; coming to terms with his past….and brooding upon his eventual future. Although the story is sad on so many levels, the book is never depressing and always compelling. This is because Keyes is a writer of skill and subtlety, and deserves to be known to a wider audience than his narrow science fiction base. A minor 20th Century classic.
on 13 April 2007
Could have been mawkish and over-sentimental. Could have been overly simplistic in its message. Could easily be seen as an "ignorance is bliss" fable with little more to commend it than the fact that it asks us to be sympathetic toward those less fortunate than ourselves. It, to my mind, is none of those things.
Its genius lies in its narrative structure - at each dramatic turn it outwits any second-guessing you may have entered into regarding revelations about Charlie's past as well as any thoughts as to how his intelligence may progress. Charlie's progress is neither predictable nor ridiculously sentimental. Especially since - regardless of his eventual self-awareness - there is an all-pervasive naivety that (I can only imagine) must have been incredibly difficult for Keyes to convey as brilliantly as he does.
What's perhaps more important is not the emotional investment we get in the main character, but the depth and resonance found in the other key players - especially when this is given to us, at all times, by the (first) mentally challenged (then) emotionally awkward Charlie. It is perhaps best just to say that there are no real villains in the novel - just people being people. (I could write more here but it would spoil the plot).
Overall, it is a book that should make you think about your own mental and emotional development. Again, I don't want to plot-spoil but, if you ask me, one of the final comments regarding self-effacement is by far the most poignant and intelligent in the whole book.
on 30 December 2011
I have to say first off that I'm not a massive sci-fi fan, but that this is one of the best novels I have read in recent times. It had me engrossed all the way through and I can see why it is deservedly known as a classic. At times bittersweet, at other times dark, it is incredibly well-written and able to illicit all kinds of emotions from the reader. I think this is a book everyone should give a go at least once.
The story follows Charlie Gordon, a floor sweeper with an IQ of 68 who agrees to a scientific procedure that may enhance his brain power. Once the unknowing butt of everyone's jokes, Charlie gradually becomes a genius, even successfully triumphing over Algernon, the lab mouse who previously beat him in experiments. It is only when he sees the suffering that Algernon eventually undergoes, that Charlie realises that the same fate may possibly befall him.
The characters are so well crafted that I really felt that I knew Charlie and that he was a real person. I felt for his predicament and was moved by his trials and tribulations. Told through `progress reports' you really get a sense of how Charlie's brain power is developing through the spelling (or lack thereof) and grammar following the procedure. You feel his sense of isolation and longing to belong as well as his confusion. I felt so bad for him when he finally understood that people who he thought were his friends just saw him as a person to laugh it. It really does reflect on society's attitudes and how people are treated by others. The ending nearly had me in tears too- not overly sentimental but just fitting.
As I've said, if this novel can appeal to me, a real non-sci fi fan, then I think it could convert anyone to the genre! I will be passing this on to my boyfriend to read and then seeing who else hasn't tried it and will be reading more SF Masterworks books soon.
on 5 July 2011
I am currently in a state of shock having just read this novel for the first time, cover to cover, in a single sitting.
The story of a meek and humble baker's assistant selected to receive a revolutionary intelligence-boosting medical procedure, Daniel Keyes' masterful epistolary narrative examines the fine line between madness and genius, maintaining a deeply humane and compassionate focus throughout. This is science-fiction every bit as prescient and relevant as Orwell and Huxley, yet without ever resorting to grotesquery.
The interplay between darkness and light, hope and despair, warmth and austerity is what, in my view, makes Flowers for Algernon so absorbing. Balancing graphic and unsettling scenes of child abuse with the revelatory and euphoric discoveries of Charlie Gordon as he is lifted from the fog of mental retardation, the author puts his readers into the very centre of his story - an entitlement which feels as privileged as it does voyeuristic. With overtones of Mephistopheles and Frankenstein's monster, there is something classically gothic about the novel, while the modern medical context puts us in mind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Chief Bromden and Cathy from Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. One is also reminded of the schizophrenia of the protagonist in Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. By constantly emphasising that Charlie Gordon is the only person to ever experience such a mental journey, the effect is that we feel privy to a unique and complete historical record of the effects of the procedure.
For me, one of the biggest triumphs of the novel comes through the romantic subplot. It is where Charlie Gordon's intellect matches that of his former teacher, Alice, that he is at his most balanced and content. But therein lies a paradox, for both he and Alice are both painfully aware that this connection is ephemeral. Their brief unity is heartbreaking, and ties together what I think is the novel's central thesis: that self-awareness inevitably prohibits true happiness.
This is science-fiction at its very finest, and should be enjoyed by both fans and non-fans of the genre.
Flowers for Algernon is a largely forgotten masterpiece - despite being the inspiration for an oscar winning movie (Charly, 1968) and the 1992 hit The Lawnmower Man. I was forced to read this in school - as can be imagined, the fact that the learning was compulsory stripped any of the joy out of it. However, years later I bought myself a copy and read it again - and was blown away by the quality of the story-telling, and the emotional resonance of the character.
The premise is fairly simple - Charlie Gordon is a young man with a retarded intellect. He is selected for some revolutionary surgery that is aimed at greatly increasing his intellectual capacity. The experiment had been tried previously on a small white mouse (the eponymous Algernon), and had been nothing but a success. Spurred on by this and by the thought of gaining academic accolades, the team perform the experiment on Charlie.
Those who have recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time will be familiar with the theme - Charlie gains a staggering analytical intellect, but his emotional development is still retarded leaving him unable to relate to people on an empathic level. The main bulk of the book is about Charlie coming to terms with his past, his present, and his uncertain future. Unable to understand the emotional motivations behind the people he knew, he finds himself becoming self-centred, arrogant and dismissive of those around him.
His emotional development can never catch up with his intellectual development - the tension between the two drives the most memorable scenes throughout... whenever he is being a 'dirty' boy, his subconscious invents the image of Young Charlie watching him.
As Charlie's intelligence grows, so does his understanding of the research behind his surgery, and he starts to delve more deeply into what was actually done to him. In doing so, he discovers a taster of what his eventual fate is likely to be.
A secondary theme of the book, a complement to the emotional/intellectual disparity, lies in the underlying message that intelligence does not guarantee happiness - in fact, the greater Charlie's intelligence grows, the more distanced he becomes from the people he once thought of as friends. His increasing self-awareness leads him to understand that his friends were always very cruel to him, and that he was always the butt of their jokes.
Before his surgery, he believes that intelligence will make his friends like him more - that he will be able to join in with the discussions they have regarding the issues of the day. What actually happens is that his friends become distrustful of him, and resent his increased capacity for knowledge. They can no longer feel superior by virtue of his presence.
I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed The Curious Incident... in fact, I would go as far as to see that the Curious Incident is just Flowers for Algernon without the character development, the plot-arc and the emotional resonance. This is 'The Curious Incident' done first, and done better.
on 13 June 2002
I've been buying many of the books in this series (SF Masterworks), and while I have read most of them at one time or another I hadn't come across this tale. From the first page I was hooked, I couldn't read anything else, do anything else. After I finished it I cried: it is without doubt one of the most genuinely touching stories I have ever read. The exploration of society, the way we perceive each other within society, and ultimately how society shuns that which does not conform, is deft and emotional. A book everyone should read.
This is a story about a mentally subnormal man who is used in an experiment to try to increase intelligence. The book is very well written and is very powerful and moving towards the end. It is a story with universal appeal and has could be read by anyone with no interest in the science fiction genre. An interesting aspect is how character changes with intelligence (see if you can see yourself in there).
One of my all-time favourite novels.
on 2 February 2012
Flowers for Algernon explores the mind of Charlie Gordon a mentally retarded man who, by means of a scientific breakthrough, is transformed into a genius. The story is narrated by Charlie and told through a series of progress reports which relate his struggle to understand himself by confronting the ghosts of his troubled past and come to terms with a world which has rejected him. Issues such as the treatment of disability, the relationship of intelligence to emotion and the nature of friendship and loneliness are at the heart of the novel. Yet perhaps what is most striking is the compassion and humanity which shines through Daniel Keyes writing. It is a book which embodies the idea that nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.