So I know that this isn’t a new book – in fact, the novel was published in 1966 I believe. It originally started out as a short story that was published in 1958. But I’ve never read it, and it somehow came to my attention recently, so I picked it up. I listened to the audiobook version of this, which was narrated by Jeff Woodman and I really ended up loving his narration – he did a fantastic job of telling the story through our protagonist’s voice.
So if you haven’t read it, the story takes place in the mid–1960’s and follows a developmentally disabled 32-year-old man named Charlie Gordon, who has an IQ of 68. But Charlie is given the opportunity to undergo a surgical procedure that will supposedly dramatically increase his intelligence. This procedure has already been performed on a laboratory mouse named Algernon with amazing results. Charlie, however, is the first human subject. So the story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie, in which he chronicles everything that happens to him. Via these reports, we see Charlie’s intelligence reach genius levels as evidenced by these progress reports. It was interesting to note slow changes and Charlie’s writing ability increased slowly.
Before and after the operation, Charlie competes against Algernon to complete a maze and initially, Algernon beats him because of course, he is extra-clever thanks to the experimental brain operation. But Charlie is determined to beat Algernon and eventually, he does.
But getting smarter brings some cruel realizations along with it. For instance, slowly, Charlie is able to remember past events in his life and realizes that those people whom he called friends — his coworkers at the bakery where Charlie works sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets — have been making fun of and laughing at Charlie all along. Disturbing memories of his parents and his home life also resurfaced during this time. And as more of his past become clear, it’s sad when Charlie becomes anti-social, bitter and even resentful, especially toward those who he felt had taken advantage of him. Throughout this story, it was interesting to ponder what affect Charlie’s intelligence had on his own humanity, especially in his treatment of others. It was also worth noting how Charlie’s intelligence negatively affected his personal relationships.
What follows is a sort of emotional reckoning of sorts, as Charlie tries to come to terms with who he was and who he his now, as he attempts to balance his constantly changing worldview and throughout all, Charlies learns that high intelligence is not without its problems and challenges.
So, finally, because of his genius-level intelligence, Charlie eventually even surpasses the scientists in charge of the experiment and is able to discover what he refers to as the experiment’s fatal flaw.
WHAT I LIKED
I really liked the diary entry format of the story, told completely from Charlie’s point of view. I also felt that the author did an excellent job of first making us feel sorry for Charlie, then happy for him following the experiment’s success, with those feelings then turning into anger toward him as he lost his innocence, and his kindness — and all of this was done via the progress reports, which I thought was a brilliant device.
In fact, the whole premise of the novel intrigued me. I loved the idea of asking: “What would the life of an intellectually disabled man be like if he could be given genius intellectual capacity?” – and the result as envisioned by the author was not only gripping and mesmerizing but also disturbing if not slightly terrifying.
Another thing that really resonated with me during the story was how Charlie struggled to be seen as a person and not as an experiment. This need of Charlie’s was responsible for his sudden rudeness and ungracious-like behavior in the novel. It was almost horrifying as Charlie discovered that before the operation, people barely considered him a person. This made me think of how often people dehumanize those who are different than themselves in order to justify their mistreatment or hatred of those people, which lead me at one point to conclude that as a society, in some ways we haven’t come all that far since 1958. This was especially evident when – I believe it was Dr. Nemur — stated something to the effect that he “created” Charlie when they operated on him, implying that he wasn’t a legitimate person before the operation.
In this way, this novel makes the reader perhaps stop and take a serious look at how we treat the other people in our lives or simply people we come across in day to day life.
I also enjoyed the exploration of different levels or kinds of intelligence. For instance, though Charlie’s IQ may have been at genius levels, his emotional intelligence lagged, leading to difficulties in his relationships with women. So while the story was kind of a coming of age or coming into oneself, in many ways it also went hand in hand with the loss of Charlie’s innocence.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
Though I felt that this novel aged well since 1966, there are some parts of it that feel kind of dated. For instance, people constantly referring to Charlie as “mentally retarded” which is considered a derogatory expression today.
In fact, I remember a few years ago when the words “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” were stripped from federal health, education and labor policy and replaced with “Intellectual disability.” In any case, today those words are considered not only politically incorrect today but also hurtful and dehumanizing.
What was also jarring was how everyone in the novel smoked, which isn’t a negative of the novel itself — just that in some ways, it was a novel of its time period. Another thing was that the book was more or less predictable. I pretty much figured out from the get-go what was going to happen though I didn’t know when or how.
Another niggle was that some of the characters could have been developed a little better — namely Fay and Alice. They felt a little flat to me.
I did feel that the novel went out of its way to illustrate how shitty and broken people are. Yes, I realized that it was meant to show society’s bad side, but maybe it went a little overboard in places.
Flowers for Algernon was powerful and absolutely amazing, and I’m so so glad it finally came to my attention. Though the book was easy to read, it was at the same time heart wrenching and thought-provoking. It leads the reader to take a step back and ponder several important questions, such as what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to “fit in”? Though it was heartbreaking and difficult to read in some places, it was insightful and a book that will no doubt stay with me for a long time to come. I really loved this book and ended up giving four stars.