Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Posted 3 June, 2015 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 12 Comments

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Flowers for Algernon CoverTitle: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Published: 1966 | Pages: 311
Genre: Fiction (Science)
Rating: Thought-provoking on many levels

On Amazon | On Indiebound | On Goodreads | On Audible

In Short: In his early 30s, Charlie Gordon undergoes a surgery that increases his 68 IQ to an unlimited potential. Algernon is the lab mouse who first underwent the experimental surgery to increase intelligence.

Why I Read: It’s been on my shelf for years–Care and Athira were casually reading together in May so I decided to join them.

Thoughts in General: I remember being assigned to read the short story of Flowers for Algernon in 8th grade but I didn’t recall anything about the actual story (it’s entirely possible that I didn’t actually read the story…am I the only bookworm who turned her nose up at assigned readings? Bad Trish!). The story is told through Charlie Gordon’s diary/report entries–beginning from before he has the surgery all the way through the end of the story. Through the journal entries, we see the changes in Charlie’s mental capacity and his continual intellectual growth throughout the novel. Witnessing the first hand account of these developments was fascinating and also incredibly heartbreaking.

Going to go into a little bit more detail here (no blatant spoilers, but fair warning). I was surprised by how much emotion Flowers for Algernon stirred up within me–in the beginning I felt for Charlie’s ignorance and innocence as he clearly does not understand so much of the goings on around him. His writing is cursory and riddled with phonetic spellings, but it is so easy to see Charlie’s humanity. As he gains intelligence and thus awareness of how he was treated by his “friends” my heart constantly wanted to break for Charlie. Reading through this book was a fantastic reminder of how simple gestures of kindness…or unkindess…can truly affect someone. Not only that, but Charlie’s narrative showed how inhumanely those with less are treated or ignored.

Still being a bit detailed… I appreciated the way that different types of intelligence were handled within the book–even though Charlie became incredibly book smart very easily, he quickly learned that he could not gain all of the knowledge that he needed about life from books. Because he missed out on many experiences throughout this life, he had very little social skills upon which to rely. Throughout most of the novel I felt sad for Charlie–sad for his realizations about his past and his family, sad for his inability to fit in both when he had a very low IQ and when he was beyond genius. Sad that even though his surgery opened so many doors for him, he was unable to navigate the new waters effectively. And the ending was heartbreaking just because.

“I was furious at her, myself, and the world, but by the time I got home, I realized she was right. Now, I don’t know whether she cares for me or if she was just being kind. What could she possibly see in me? What makes it so awkward is that I’ve never experienced anything like this before. How does a person go about learning how to act toward another person? How does a man learn how to behave toward a woman?  // The books don’t help much” 82.

“Now I can see where I got the unusual motivation for becoming smart that so amazed everyone at first. It was something Rose Gordon (mother) lived with day and night. Her fear, her guilt, her shame that Charlies was a moron. Her dream was something could be done. The urgent question always: whose fault was it, hers or Matt’s? Only after Norma (younger sister) proved to her that she was capable of having normal children, and that I was a freak, did she stop trying to make me over. But I guess I never stopped wanting to be the smart boy she wanted me to be, so that she would love me” 144.

“Am I a genius? I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. As Burt would put it, mocking the euphemisms of educational jargon, I’m exceptional–a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of gifted and deprived (which used to mean bright and retarded) and as soon as exceptional begins to mean anything to anyone they’ll change it. The idea seems to be: use an expression only as long as it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. Exceptional refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my life I’ve been exceptional” 153. 

Bottom Line: I’m glad that I was able to finally read this little book. It’s a quick read (do epistolary novels seem to read quicker to you?) and provides a lot of food for thought. I’d definitely recommend it.

It’s funny, because as I was typing up the quotes I realized that I never told y’all about my thoughts on The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. In several ways, the emotions and thoughts that were stirred up by Flowers for Algernon were the same I experienced while reading The Rosie Project (a quirky little love story about a man on the Autism Spectrum). How we learn from books versus experiences is a theme that runs through both. Though perhaps The Rosie Project was a bit more hopeful…

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?

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12 Responses to “Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes”

  1. Andrea (aka rokinrev)

    I read “Charley:Flowers for Algernon” more years ago than I’d admit too. I think I saw the film with Cliff Robertson before I actually read the book. I also think its the reason I was so taken with Oliver Saks’ Awakenings. I am glad you liked the book Trish

  2. I read this way back in high school and unfortunately much of the story didn’t stick with me but I do remember fondly watching the movie adaptation on tv a couple of times: Charly– from the late 1960s with Cliff Robertson (I didn’t see it until the 70s though). If anyone find it, I highly recommend it! One of the rare times that the movie surpassed my enjoyment of a book.
    An aside: my son is on the high-functioning end of the spectrum living with Aspergers, and while he is a wonderfully gifted law student in his mid-20s, he lacks close friends and a girlfriend. I tend to shy away from fictionalized books dealing with the condition; they either stereotype poorly or, rarely, get it right and then it is not comfortable reading for me– either way I lose.

  3. We had to read this book in middle school, and I actually did my assigned reading. :P I absolutely loved the book then. But I reread it just last year, and I couldn’t believe how disappointed I was. I actually remembered the story fairly well (which is odd for me), so it wasn’t that. I honestly haven’t quite been able to figure out why I just wasn’t feeling it this time.

  4. Perhaps??! A BIT more hopeful?! lol! I read FLOWERS in 10th grade and it still haunts me as one of the most heartbreaking and depressing novels I’ve ever read. Glad I read it, but oh my heart!

  5. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this! Flowers for Algernon is one of my all-time favourites. I also loved The Rosie Project and agree that they share many of the same topics. The two books are almost at opposite ends of the same spectrum – in a good way. One hopeful and one so sad.

  6. I hated reading assigned reading as well. Flowers for Algernon must be universal jr high material. Wish I would have grabbed the book when I found it at the hostel in Roatan. Now I want to read it.

  7. Susan in TX

    I had almost forgotten about this book. I saw the title and remembered that I read it way back in junior high, but couldn’t remember the story line. I’m guessing I was too immature at that point in my life to have fully appreciated the emotional punch that this one packs. Thanks for putting it back on my radar.

  8. I read this years ago (I want to say I was inspired to do so by another blogger but really my memory is fuzzy) and had a lot of the same thoughts as you. I definitely can see it being a book I’ll go back to eventually, as there’s a TON of food for thought, especially for such a slim novel.