Flowers for Algernon is by far one of my favourite books I’ve read from my list. There are the obvious classics/favourites, such as 1984, Brave New World, I, Robot, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but Flowers for Algernon really takes the cake in terms of the most emotionally compelling novel I’ve read so far. From start to finish, this story was full of heart and I highly recommend it to absolutely everyone.
Plot & Narration
Flowers for Algernon is narrated by Charlie Gordon through his Progress Reports, which he writes to keep track of his progress before and after an experimental procedure to rapidly increase his intelligence. Charlie is mentally disabled, but he is still able to take care of himself and hold down a job as a janitor at a bakery. The thing about Charlie, however, is that he understands his condition and wishes very much to be smart and to be able to read and write properly. It’s this trait that makes him an ideal candidate for the experiment.
Indeed, at the start of the novel, his progress reports are riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, but after the experiment, his writing ability increases and the mistakes are fewer and far between until they disappear entirely and Charlie is writing his reports at a beautiful level.
It’s this style of narration that is key to the emotional connection between Charlie and the reader, because we really see his progress and get to know his deepest, innermost thoughts.
Flowers for Algernon is at times beautiful and at times completely heartbreaking.
“progris riport 1 martch 3
“Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir 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.”
Theme: The Ethical Treatment of Those with Special Needs
The high-level theme of Flowers for Algernon would be the ethical treatment of people with special needs, revealing itself in multiple layers throughout the story. For example, in the beginning Charlie believes his colleagues at the bakery are his friends because they’re always laughing with him. Later on, after the experiment and with his increased intelligence, he looks back on various memories and realizes his colleagues were actually laughing at him because of his disability. He realizes that people never really saw him as a person, and even now after the experiment still don’t see him as a person but rather as an oddity.
Professor Nemur: “You’re being unfair, as usual. You know we’ve always treated you well-done everything we could for you.”
Charlie: “Everything but treat me as a human being. You’ve boasted time and again that I was nothing before the experiment, and I know why. Because if I was nothing, then you were responsible for creating me, and that makes you my lord and master. You resent the fact that I don’t show my gratitude every hour of the day. Well, believe it or not, I am grateful. But what you did for me-wonderful as it is-doesn’t give you the right to treat me like an experimental animal. I’m an individual now, and so was Charlie before he ever walked into that lab.”
Of course, the ethics of the experiment itself can also be called into question. Was Charlie really capable of giving his consent to such an experiment? No, because the doctors had to ask his sister for permission, especially since he was the first human subject for it. The primary animal trial being the titular mouse, Algernon, who’s intelligence also rapidly increases and whom Charlie takes care of later in the story.
Flowers for Algernon is written entirely from Charlie’s perspective through his progress reports. This method of narration really allows the reader to get into Charlie as a person, see what he sees, and feel what he feels.
My one criticism of the novel would be that at a couple of points it dragged on a bit, so it maybe could have been a couple of pages shorter. This is also definitely a personal point for me, so I’m not sure how much others will mind.
Unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz, Flowers for Algernon is really only about Charlie, and for that reason, it’s great. I feel bad in a way that this review is so much shorter than my review for Canticle, but this isn’t a novel that has many different themes that each need unpacking and analyzing, etc. This is a story about a man named Charlie Gordon and that’s it. And that is why it’s great. The narration style of progress reports and the contents of the progress reports are so compelling that I cried at the end! Flowers for Algernon is a great novel.
At its heart, this is a story about wanting to be seen, to experience life, and to have friends. It’s about a man who wants so badly to be smart, then does become incredibly smart, and through that process learns so much about himself, about the world, and about what it means to be human. I would love to write more, but I really encourage everyone to read this breathtaking and heartbreaking story, so I won’t go into any spoilers. I know it’s quite a well-known novel and there have been several film adaptations, but I’m also surprised this story is not more famous. (Though it did co-win the Nebula Award for Best Novel when it was published, which is not at all surprising.)
It’s so incredibly human and a great example of a technically science fiction story that centers on (literal) character development.
It was so good I think I just might read it again.
And I highly recommend you do too.
Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Kindle edition. Mariner Books; First edition, 2007.
Author: Daniel Keyes
Published: 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; published in 1966 as a novel.