Rating: 4/5 stars.
How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes – how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I – like this boy – had foolishly played the clown.
And I had almost forgotten.
It’s been a long time since a book has sucker punched me in the stomach both intellectually and emotionally. Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon’s journal: he begins as a mentally disabled adult, but after a procedure designed to increase his intellect, his brainpower beats even those who created the experiment to change him. His transformation from mentally retarded to extraordinary genius models that of Algernon, a mouse given the same treatment. However, when Algernon starts to decline, Charlie realizes that he might follow in his footsteps.
Flowers for Algernon could have felt gimmicky, but Daniel Keyes pulls off Charlie’s voice with an amazing attention to detail and character development. I felt so much sympathy as he grew more aware of himself. Even as his smartness enlarged, he was alienated all the same. One of the best parts of this novel is how Keyes makes Charlie so flawed in every stage of the story – from ignorant to arrogant, from helpless to hurtful – and still captures his humanity in a way that makes us ache for him.
Part of me expected this book to appeal only to my intellect, but it reached me on an emotional level too. Flowers for Algernon asks difficult questions: why do we treat mentally disabled people so horribly? How does intelligence set us apart from our peers, both in good ways and bad? How does compassion factor into the human experience, and what makes us human? You can’t help but contemplate these topics as you witness Charlie struggling to address them through his progress reports. It makes me happy to see scientists and psychologists devoting their efforts to these issues nowadays, focusing more on ethics and emotional intelligence than they did before. Still, as Flowers for Algernon so poignantly points out, we have a long way to go, and Keyes deserves all of his accolades for pushing us in the right direction.
Highly recommended for fans of literary or science fiction, as well as to those who are interested in any of the questions I listed above. A finely-crafted, thought-provoking book.
*you can also check out my review of Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg here, if you wish