Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This began as a short story published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The novel came seven years later, but not before many obstacles in Keyes' path. At least five publishers asked him to change the ending to Flowers for Algernon, but he refused, and eventually placed it with Harcourt. He had a similar problem with the short story, with Galaxy editor Horace Gold requesting a happier ending, but F&SF accepted it as written. Both versions were award winners; the short story received a Hugo and the novel tied for the Nebula with Samuel Delany's Babel-17. It is about Charlie Gordon, a man with a very low IQ who gets a new lease on life through an operation to increase his ability to learn. It is told in first person, being a journal written by Charlie before and after the operation. The beginning chapters are full of spelling and grammatical errors, but later becomes more clear and precise as his intelligence grows. Algernon is a mouse who has had the same operation, and at first Charlie is angry because he feels less intelligent than the mouse. But he slowly gains knowledge and memory retention, and eventually is able to beat Algernon at running a maze, the mouse in a traditional wooden box maze, Charlie tracing an identical pattern with pencil and paper.
I've lost count of the number of times I've read the short story, but I'm sure this was just the second time for the novel. The longer version adds quite a bit of information about Charlie's childhood, as well as more detail about his personal life after the operation. As his intelligence increases he is also able to recall more incidents from his past, which he either could not remember before or else thought of as dreams. His mother had coddled him as a child, sure that his slowness was just a phase he would grow out of if she just had enough patience, but then when a daughter was born she was able to see the difference almost immediately. From that time on she paid little attention to Charlie, and kept demanding of her husband that their son be sent away to an institution. Charlie did spend some time in a state home, but when he became an adult an uncle was able to get him a janitorial job at a bakery, and after that he lived alone in a small apartment nearby. He had not seen his parents or sister for many years and wasn't sure they were still alive, and the situation was the same for them. Charlie was no longer a part of their life so they didn't think of him.
His intelligence increases at a rapid rate, so much so that he quickly surpasses the doctors and teachers conducting the experiment, and yet emotionally he is still a boy. He develops an infatuation with his night school teacher, Alice Kinnian, but he does not know how to handle the situation. His mother had given him a warped perspective on sex at a young age, a condition it is very difficult for him to shake even with his new capacity for understanding. Every time he gets close to Alice, or even thinks about her, he suffers a panic attack. Oddly enough, it is only when he is able to start a physical relationship with another woman that Alice realizes she has romantic feelings for Charlie as well. He rationalizes his actions because he realizes his new neighbor Fay is just a casual friend, so intimacy with her does not frighten him. Can he overcome his fears to have a meaningful relationship with Alice? Will he have the time? He first notices symptoms in Algernon, and then experiences some of them himself. His increased intelligence might not be permanent, and he spends many feverish days and nights trying to help the doctors solve the problem before it is too late.
There are many psychological elements in the story, from how society views the less intelligent (or handicapped of any nature), to the arrogance of scientists more concerned with their own prestige than they are with the subjects of their experiments; from the notion of self to the realization of our place in society; from the instinct for sex to the fulfillingness of love. I wouldn't try to dissuade anyone from reading the novel, but I still prefer the short story for its more emotional impact. In the novel, we learn a bit too much about Charlie post-operation, so much so that he becomes less of a sympathetic character, just as self-centered as anyone else. Before, he may have been dumb, but he was a kind and generous soul, and it's possible it was best that he return to that state. I don't believe that ignorance is bliss, but Charlie might.
Flowers for Algernon, the novel, has never been out of print, available from Amazon or wherever you normally get your books. If you want to read the short story instead, or in addition to the novel, it has been anthologized in dozens of collections over the years. I am sure the first time I read it was in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One which is also still in print, and its last appearance, as far as I know, was in 2009's The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology. The bonus in either of those two books is a wealth of other great stories. While I was reading I was also thinking of reviewing the movie adaptation, Charly (which garnered an Oscar win for Cliff Robertson), and/or the made for TV movie "Flowers for Algernon" with Matthew Modine. The DVD for Charly is out of production but was available from Netflix, and while the TV movie is available for purchase I got it through Netflix as well. I don't recommend either of them. They don't do the story justice, and change too many elements, most particularly Charlie's relationship with Alice, and the end of the movie also totally ignored his relationship with Algernon. Besides, Peter O'Toole should have won that year for The Lion in Winter.
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