Dan Sandman

33: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 15/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel KeyesDaniel Keyes died this year in June, aged 86, and will be mostly remembered as the writer of Flowers for Algernon, now a classic science fiction novel. According to his obituary, he delivered bagels for a bakery and worked in factories whilst still a young man. He went on to have a long career as a novelist, editor and university lecturer. Following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946), who started life in a draper’s shop, Daniel Keyes educated himself and gained popularity as a science fiction writer. In some ways, the rise of both writers from humble roots to literary heights was the result of hard study and a focused mind.

Flowers for Algernon was first published as a short story in 1959 and expanded to full size in 1966. It is about Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, who has his intelligence increased by taking part in a scientific experiment which turns him into a genius. As he records his progress in diary form, his language gradually becomes more sophisticated as his intelligence increases. Charlie’s writing starts out with many miss spellings, using simple words and only full stops. First he learns to look words up in the dictionary in order to spell them correctly, then he discovers punctuation, and soon he is describing the complex developments of a lucid and troubled mind. This is when the novel really starts to get interesting, suddenly Charlie is experiencing emotions for the first time and going through a late adolescence of sorts. In a struggle for identity, he is split between past memory and present experience.

As Charlie outgrows his colleagues in terms of intellect, learning new languages and musical instruments within weeks of study, his newly discovered emotional intelligence is dumbfounded by love. He is not ready to handle his true feelings towards the sensible scientist Alice, seeing his former self as an obstacle, and so he turns to the wild artist Fay for answers. In addition, he begins to develop a superior attitude when dealing with the academics who begun the experiments on both himself and a mouse called Algernon. Charlie becomes anti-social, drinking too much and discrediting his peers. As the story evolves, Charlie deduces that Algernon’s increased intelligence is fading and rushes to write a scientific paper before it’s too late. Sensing that he might suffer the same fate, Charlie attempts to reconcile familial relationships that have come to light since the experiment. The novel’s climax is both touching and thought provoking.

The literary weight of this masterful story is further proof that science fiction deserves the respect of scholars.

  1. Ah, this is one of my favorite books ever! So happy to see you enjoyed and reviewed it 🙂

  2. Which version do you prefer? The original short story or novel?

    • I haven’t read the original. Would you recommend it?

      • Of course — I read it as a kid so I can’t actually remember how much was different from the novel.

      • That makes sense, and strangely enough remembering things from childhood is a theme of the novel. According to a couple of articles, it misses out much of the parts from Charlie’s formative years. Personally, I thought those bits added to the depth of the novel.

  3. Warning: Charlie is a really average to bad movie. Stick with the book 🙂

    • Ah, just found it on youtube, it has a good cast, might have to persevere and get back to you. In my in experience though, books are nearly always better than films – but I would say that! 🙂

  4. I’ve only read the short story which is my all time favorite. If the book is even better I should definitely check that out.

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