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.
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?