the contextual life

thoughts without borders

retro reads :: flowers for algernon

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flowers for algernon / daniel keyes

after reading the entry for flowers for algernon in read this next, a book of literary recommendations, i moved the 1957 classic by daniel keyes to the top of my list. i remembered the book from grade school but other than a murky mental image of the cover and an even cloudier recollection of the main characters, it remained largely forgotten. the intriguing entry made me think it was time to revisit:

Flowers for Algernon is a SF [science fiction] tale about a mentally retarded narrator whose intelligence is experimentally increased to genius levels. Daniel Keyes takes his hero from almost complete incomprehension of his world through the gradual dawning of understanding, speculation, brilliance—and the consequences.

lately, “quasi sci-fi” novels have been creeping onto my bookshelf. they’re not set in space; they have nothing to do with martians; and they don’t feature men in rocket suits. instead, they’re often set in the future and use speculation to question scientific exploration and advancement—a surefire hit for techy people.

while writing flowers for algernon, a process that spanned 14 years, keyes was both a fiction editor at marvel science fiction and a high school teacher working with mentally disabled students, which, at the time, was far from common. it was only in the early 1950s that volunteer organizations began setting up workshops for special education teachers and running day camps for the mentally disabled. prior to that, care for the disabled was placed on the church and family. the influence of keyes’s experience with the disabled, as well as his knowledge of psychology from an undergraduate degree, never feels dogmatic or overwhelming.

the book opens with a gripping introduction to the main character who will be the narrator for the next 310 pages. it’s the first journal entry of charlie gordon, a 32-year-old mentally disabled man living in new york city:

progris riport 1 martch 3

Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday. I tolld Dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk and like I rite compushishens in Miss Kinnians class at the beekman collidge center for retarded adults where I go to lern 3 times a week on my time off. Dr. Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and evrything that happins to me but i cant think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today . . . yrs truly Charlie Gordon

highly motivated, charlie earns the admiration of his teacher, miss kinnian. she hears of an experiment taking place at the local university and recommends him, albeit with great trepidation. head scientist, professor nemur and dr. strauss, acting as both the neurologist and psychiatrist, had a breakthrough with the most recent brain surgery of a lab mouse, algernon. the team, with a shot of confidence, speeded along to the next step, a human test subject.

with his long-lost sister’s approval, charlie undergoes surgery and within a few days begins to show rapid intellectual growth. the book, composed solely of progress reports from charlie’s point of view, puts it on the reader to catch clues: correct spelling, proper use of grammar, and greater comprehension of the world around him. the vivid images of newly-recalled memories are expertly merged with dialogue. in one scene young charlie is cowering  on the kitchen floor of his childhood home; his mother is shouting and lunging while his father tries to calm her down. a more chilling episode is when the father is coaxing a knife out of her hands, promising to take charlie away. we witness the brutality of the neighborhood kids and cruel mockery of the bakery staff.

the  intellectual gains charlie makes are astonishing; he quickly surpasses an average IQ, demonstrated by entries about doctorate level texts and self-taught multilingualism. and yet, his emotional maturity lags, making for cringe-worthy sexual situations and an uncomfortable relationship. the few racier parts of the story made me think my teacher had only read excerpts to us from the book. among the unfolding drama, significant themes weave their way throughout the storyline. aside from the question of morality in science and medicine, there is the growing sense of alienation. as charlie’s IQ increases beyond normal levels, his ability to relate to people decreases, along with his geniality. he’s irritable, distrustful, and contemptuous of the few people around him. it’s an interesting—if not overly simplified—question: which way of life is better?

the fuel for flowers for algernon‘s engine is suspense. from the beginning, algernon is set up as a parallel to charlie; it’s assumed that what happens to the lab mouse is what’s to become of the person. as charlie begins to understand his connection to algernon, his journal entries mark the mouse’s behavior. they tend to be highly-focused and anxious. along with physical reactions, charlie assigns algernon feelings, which could reasonably be projected onto charlie. just as the reader begins the story looking for improvements, there’s a sense of doom that forces one to also look for deterioration.

those with enough self-control to keep from flipping to the last entry will be rewarded.

[bonus] ::
flowers for algernon on sparknotes
allegory of the cave // plato :: keyes prefaces his novel with a quote from plato’s republic and then goes on to mention the story of the cave near the end. this is a staple of philosophy 101 classes everywhere. if you havent read it yet, you should.

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Written by Gabrielle

January 2, 2011 at 9:44 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

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