Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I was so surprised by this book. Flowers For Algernon was one of the best books I’ve read this year and I really wasn’t expecting it.

It is the story of Charlie Gordon, a man in his thirties with mental retardation. Charlie is the subject of a psychological research project at a university that is examining the effects of a new surgical procedure on mental retardation. Charlie’s estranged sister gives the university permission to perform the procedure on Charlie. The procedure proves to be at least a temporary success and Charlie goes from having mental retardation to having an IQ of 185 in a manner of weeks.

The experiment is initially tried on a white mouse named Algernon. Algernon is tested through a complex maze where he is rewarded by food after reaching the end. Charlie races Algernon with a maze of his own and receives a shock if he goes the wrong way. At the beginning of the book, Algernon beats Charlie to the finish line every time. But Charlie soon soars past Algernon and through the process grows close to the mouse.

The book is written in the form of journal entries kept by Charlie for the experiment. At the beginning of the book, words are misspelled, ideas are vague, and relationships are simple. As the book progresses, so does Charlie’s thought process and so do his relationships. Charlie learns what true love is as he falls in love with his teacher, Alice. He learns what physical love is as he comes into contact with his artistic and eccentric neighbor, Fay. And he learns the pains of relational love as he relives memories of his family and friends.

What was most touching to me about this book were these flashbacks and moments of recognition. When Charlie was still mentally retarded, he didn’t realize when people were laughing at him or making fun of him. He didn’t realize that when his mother was crying it was because she was ashamed to have him as a son. But now that he has had this operation he is able to look back on these situations and realize what was going on. You can imagine the pain of this.

Charlie is initially excited about “becoming smart”. He’s been teased throughout his life for “being a moron” and has been the subject of people’s amusement. What Charlie soon finds is that acceptance is a hard thing to come by. Charlie goes straight from mentally retarded to genius. As a genius, he is seen as arrogant and absurd and is once again estranged by his peers.

I’ve worked with people with disabilities for the past 6 years and a large number of the people I’ve worked with are people with mental retardation. I’ve always enjoyed it and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world. It’s the reason I’m in the helping profession. I’ve been in public with people so many times when parents allow their children to stare or to laugh or to point without taking the time to educate. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a child staring or pointing, because they do look different. BUT I do feel that it is the parent’s duty to educate the child about differences so that the child doesn’t continue to stare and point like the person with a disability is not human.

I think that Flowers For Algernon is a wonderful book that sheds light on the thought process and experiences of a person with mental retardation and should be required reading for everyone. Why this book was ever banned is beyond me and I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that someone would ban this book. I highly recommend this one to anyone who hasn’t read it.


17 Responses

  1. I read this book in High School (that would be the 1970s, Chris, for me) and I’ll never forget it. It is an incrediably powerful and moving book. I literally cried when Charlie resumed his disabilities. Perhaps it was banned due to the medical “messing around with someone’s brain”? I have no idea, but I did love it. In a way, I’m reminded of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, too, because they have similar endings of despair while being beautifully written.

  2. I read this book in school too. It’s seems like a million years ago, but it brought me to tears in the end. Excellent book. Hmmm…mabye it’s time to pick it up again!

  3. Bellezza, I’d agree with you. The only thing that I can see it being banned for is the fact that they altered his brain. I’ve never read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m telling you, I must have gone to school under a rock! I haven’t read half of these classics!

    Stephanie, The ending was very sad. I wanted to jump into the book and give Charlie a hug. Definitely a book that will stay with me for a long time.

  4. I also think this is a fabulous story. I do know someone (his name starts with an “A”), who doesn’t like it, but not because it isn’t a well-written story. It’s more an aesthetic choice–the book is moving, it makes you uncomfortable, it makes you confront human nature in a tragic way. That’s why I like it, but it’s not why everyone looks to literature… I enjoyed reading your particular perspective!

    Now, as to the reason it was “banned,” it seems they are using the term “banned” in the challenge rather loosely. I had the same question with Farenheit 451, but all a Google search would reveal is that some religious wackos in a suburb of Houston objected to the child having to read it in high school because there waz cus’ words in it. Truly. The child complained, the parent didn’t read it and brought a complaint. Sad. So it really could have been something similar. This isn’t quite the same to me as a book being “banned,” but perhaps it happened other places too and I just didn’t find the stories…

  5. O.K.–revelation. I knew it was a novella, but I didn’t realize it was expanded to a novel Evidently the big complaint is sex. Go figure.

  6. N, Ok, that makes sense. I’m too lazy to google these things :p. Sex, politics, and religion seem to be the main reason for banning books. What these 3 are doing in the same category, I’ll never know. The book definitely makes you uncomfortable at times, but that’s part of the reason I liked it. Keyes gave excellent insight into his character’s mind. I loved it and I’m sure I’ll revisit it again.

  7. This is one I’d like to read. Have made sure it is on the list!

    I have One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on my shelf to read soon. I love the film – if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it, Jack Nicholson is brilliant in it.

  8. Quix, You’d like Flowers for Algernon. Such a touching book. Really great one…I was surprised.

  9. I’ve got this one on the giant, toppling stacks. Long, long ago I saw the movie and I’ve been wanting to read it but . . . shoot, do you have to make every book sound so darned wonderful? Now, I’m dying to read it but I’ve got so much already on the agenda. Darn, darn. I love your perspective – such a different review from the others that I’ve read about this same book, recently, because of your training. Thanks so much for the terrific review!

  10. Bookfool, I think this one was so special to me because of the population I work with. I’d recommend it to anyone. You have to get around to it one day. As long as it’s on one of those stacks ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. So glad you like it, Chris. I read the novella instead of the expanded novel version. But I love it.

    Does it end the same way though? In the novella version, after he loses his genius IQ, one day he comes to class, and his teacher just cries. And it was so sad in the way everything was written filtered through Charlie’s point of view.

  12. Chris, I recently read this book and loved it. Have you watched the movie yet? The movie is called “Charlie”. It’s a bit dated, but still worthwhile.

  13. Dark Orpheus, It does end that way. He goes to class, the teacher cries, and he goes back to work at the bakery. He ends the book with the final entry letting her know that he’s going to live at Warren home. Such a great book!

    Booklogged, I haven’t seen the movie. I’m dying to! I just recently discovered that there was a movie done on it. I’m looking forward to it.

  14. You didn’t go to school under a rock; you just didn’t go with a bunch of hippies! I’m thinking of you as you wrap up your year. Remember, it’s as hard for the students as it is for the teachers: all that paperwork. Yikes!

  15. Oh Bellezza, I can only imagine. I turned in two 10 page papers and a 4 page essay final to my teacher on the last day of class and I was just one student! Poor man. Good luck!

  16. Yeah, but reading anything you wrote should be a pleasure to him.

  17. ๐Ÿ˜€ Thanks!

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