Classics of sci-fi: Flowers for Algernon

by Tom Grundy

Classics of sci-fi: Flowers for Algernon
June 29, 2020 Tom Grundy

This is the semi-regular feature in which we look back at the seminal works of science fiction. The stories that outraged, baffled, and appalled; the books that posited answers a generation before anyone thought to ask the questions; the novels that bent society’s collective consciousness around them and seeded popular culture and humanity’s vision of itself to this day. From Frankenstein to Foundation, these are the books that blew our minds and created our genre. 

Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68 and is an edge case for institutionalisation. Thanks to his father, he holds a job at a bakery as a menial assistant, which he enjoys. He attends classes at the Beekman Institute for Retarded Adults, where he is put forward for an experimental new surgery by his teacher, who is impressed by his desire to learn. The experiment builds upon radical new research in improving brain power — a rat called Algernon has already received it, with dramatic results. Charlie’s surgery is ostensibly a success and, over the next few months, Charlie’s IQ doubles. At the peak of his powers, however, Algernon’s begin to precipitously decline. Charlie must come to terms with the ephemerality of his expanded horizons. 

Flowers for Algernon is an epistolary novel told through Charlie’s diary entries. It is an example of this format done superbly; the narrator’s lens gives tragic weight to the events recounted, and his developing ability to do so sets the pace of the story’s arc. The early chapters are childlike: 

“When I waked up this morning rite away I thot I was gone to be smart but Im not. Evry morning I think Im gone to be smart but nothing happins.”

As the novel progresses, Charlie’s “progris riports” become more lucid; he starts using punctuation, and his spelling improves. He begins to see that his “friends” at the bakery largely see him as a figure of fun, and remembers events from his childhood with new clarity and insight. 

Flowers for Algernon is Daniel Keyes’ most famous work. It was first published in 1959 as a short story for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, winning that year’s Hugo Award. It was later expanded into a novel, developing Charlie’s memories and relationships, and was printed in 1966, winning that year’s Nebula Award. 

Sometimes I read a novel that, when the last page is turned, demands I just sit with it and reflect for a while. This is one of those. It is short, tight, and near-perfect; with a handful of characters, a short timeframe, and few events. Within that narrow scope a dramatic range of themes are masterfully explored. 

The changing ways those around Charlie treat him spark interesting questions. How ‘blissful’ is ignorance? How easy is it to be friendly with someone you’re intimidated by? How much does our intelligence shape our character? As his intellect peaks, these questions become achingly poignant. 

The novel is pitiless. Charlie is triple-cursed; his intelligence too far below that of his peers to belong amongst them, and he yearns to be like them. Cruelly, the surgery elevates him to heights far beyond them; a position he finds just as isolated, but is now painfully aware of. But it’s his degradation that is truly agonising; his last interaction with the person closest to him is an angry altercation and, despite his overtures, there is no beautiful reconciliation with his parents. The shadow of the Warren State Home hangs over the book; at the peak of his powers Charlie visits it, anticipating his future incarceration. His voluntary seclusion there at the novel’s close marks the end of his diaries and his tragic story. 

Keyes has an adroit grasp of human nature and psychology. Charlie’s consistent, defining feature throughout the book (and why he is selected for the experiment) is his ardent craving to better himself. As his intelligence increases and he reflects upon his upbringing more clearly, a cause for this desire emerges: his mother spent his early years dabbling with quackery to ‘fix’ him, then washed her hands of him and insisted on his being institutionalised when it becomes clear that his learning difficulties could not be ‘cured’. For a novel written in the middle of the 20th century, in which social attitudes to learning disabilities were mostly dismissive or unhelpful, Keyes’ treatment of them is sensitive (though the language used in the book reflects the norms of its times). 

It’s difficult to think of a flaw in the book. Perhaps ‘ascended’ Charlie seems too different to original Charlie — he shares none of his affability or goodwill — but how intelligence changes character is an open question. The separation between the two versions of the narrator come to a point in the last act, in which he begins to ‘see’ his former self, mutely watching him. This subplot arguably doesn’t add much, and separating the two versions of the character to this extent perhaps undermines the importance of the transition. 

But these are mean, desperate criticisms. Flowers for Algernon is as close to perfection as novels achieve. It is a masterpiece of the first-person format and handles its clutch of characters deftly. But more than this, it’s an achingly sad study in decay, and how terrible the knowledge is that we are diminishing. 

Since the novel was written, we’ve mastered many of the things that formerly cut short human life. Dementia is now a shadow that hangs over many people’s futures, far more so than in 1966. In this light, Flowers for Algernon feels like an important book. If we diminish, is it better to be ignorant of it? Is it possible to manage the decline? 

Is it better not to know?