Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club here on Goodreads, and also for the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge.

This novel won both the Hugo (1967) and Nebula (1966) Awards for Best Novel.

Did you read this novella in school? (There’s both a novella and a novel version). I remember it keenly as part of the curriculum, and it made a huge impression on me. In addition to being a fantastic science fiction tale that was part of the curriculum (something that made me jump for joy as a child,) its intensity left lasting marks. I learned so many things: how endings aren’t always happy, how people are sometimes cruel and there’s not much you can do about it, and how it’s important to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I took that lesson to heart and have never forgotten it. It has shaped much of my choice in actions and behaviour and, indeed, my personal ethics.

Which is why it shocked me to find out when I was researching this that this book was challenged for its sexual content by the Cranbrook school board in British Columbia. In Canada, schooling is the providence of the Provinces, and the BC Board of Education apparently removed Flowers for Algernon from its school library and curriculum! It was eventually restored to the library, but not the curriculum. I think this is a horrible thing. This seminal and important story is no longer taught to the children who go to the same schools that I went to. I think this is a mistake, and should anyone with influence on BC education read this review, I beg them to reconsider this.

Much of the rest of this review will involve spoilers, so don’t continue if you don’t want them.

I think that it’s clear from the blurb that this is not a happy ending. Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man, volunteers to be the subject of an experimental operation to “make him smart.” There is a loose scientific explanation of how this is done later in the book. It involves brain surgery and hormone treatment to encourage a damaged part of Charlie’s brain to redevelop normally, and even to develop a superior, genius-level intelligence. I imagine this surgery would only be applicable to certain types of intellectual disability. Algernon is a mouse who was a previous experimental subject, and their success with him is what encourages them to try human trials. Of course, it turns out that the results are only temporarily successful.

Why this book is so powerful and moving is because it is told entirely from Charlie’s perspective as “progress reports” (diary entries relevant to mental ability and the experiment). You start by seeing the world from the perspective of a man whose mind is in many ways child-like, who wants badly to please and who believes that getting smart will make people like him. He does not understand why people often get angry at him and isn’t sure what he’s doing wrong. And the fact is, often people are downright mocking and cruel, and it makes me angry to read about his treatment.

As he progresses, and is taught the skills he never before could grasp and retain, Charlie learns about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and also, about subtle emotional nuance. He begins to realize that people he thought were having fun with him are mocking him. He begins to understand that people have been cruel to him, not because he has done anything wrong, but because they like to feel superior to others. At one point, when he realizes that others are mistreating an intellectually disabled boy, whom he initially started laughing at himself, he cries to a restaurant full of people, “For God’s sake stop it! He can’t help what he is, but he’s a human being!” I wanted to yell with him.

I can’t help but identify. I suffer from a certain social awkwardness whose source has never been diagnosed. It could be mild autism (I have some of the symptoms of Asperger’s in particular) or it could be C-PTSD. I have often been mocked because something that seems perfectly obvious to everyone else is lost on me, and I don’t understand what I have done that’s wrong. It’s usually in the unintentional breaking of some unwritten social code.

This is one of many reasons I think children should read this novel. It makes you think about how we treat people who do not act the same as others; the mentally disabled, the physically disabled (especially those whose disability affects their verbal capabilities,) people with brain injuries and disorders, the neurodivergent. They need patience and sometimes, help, not condemnation, and they, too, have value as people on their own terms.

The initial results of the experiment are so successful that Charlie quickly surpasses his teachers and the scientists and psychologists conducting the experiment in his intelligence quotient. It rockets from his starting point of 68 to more than 180. Now he realizes other truths about life. These are things that often face intelligent people that do not face others, and they never get to discuss it, because claiming to be an intelligent person, even if it is a measurable thing, is strictly taboo in our culture. Why this is regarded any differently that someone who has a talent as an artist or an athlete or even as a charismatic person with presence baffles me. It’s just another way of knowing.

I also identified with this aspect strongly because I am one of those people who happens to score highly on IQ tests. One of the struggles that intelligent people have is that intelligence is alienating. People do not enjoy feeling that someone else might be smarter than they are. They treat them as arrogant and self-centered, even if they’re not — although becoming arrogant and self-centered can indeed be one of the pitfalls of intelligence, as Keyes so masterfully points out.

I learned as a child to speak deliberately with slang, because someone once told me that they honestly felt that people didn’t like me because I used big words that made them feel stupid. Similarly, Charlie’s newfound intellect is a threat to the people who conducted the experiment, especially the experiment’s head, who achieved his position in great part through nepotism, and therefore carries a great deal of self-doubt. I struggle to maintain ordinary jobs because I often come up with suggestions to try to improve efficiency, which middle management sorts tend to regard as a challenge to their authority. I should learn to just shut my mouth.

Now, before you tell me that this sounds arrogant, suppose that you were working with a bunch of teenagers. But one of the older teens is your boss. As a mature adult, you are aware of things that the teenagers are not, and sometimes that means knowing more efficient ways of doing things. But the older teen feels threatened by you when you suggest improvements, and so nothing you suggest is ever implemented, even as an experiment. You don’t want to be the boss, you just don’t want to waste time and energy when you know ways to improve the situation.

Charlie also faces this situation. He loses his job at a bakery because he makes a moral decision to stop one of the employees from skimming off the boss; though he doesn’t turn this long-time employee in, knowing that he wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. Said employee promptly works to turn the rest of the staff against Charlie, who has been acting strangely, and he is fired, not the thief.

Yeah, been there.

Conversely, however, just as older people can become stuck in their ways and refuse to see the merits in new ideas, intelligent people sometimes become enamoured of their own perceived “superiority,” and they don’t listen to insightful and practical ideas from people they have decided aren’t as “smart” as they are. Sometimes this sense of superiority extends itself into sociopathy or psychosis. For instance, schizophrenics are almost all geniuses. More simply put, there’s a fine line between genius and madness.

Or, intelligent people sometimes think they see through things that average people are “too stupid” to see past. For example, university graduates are more likely to be anti-vaccers than non-university graduates (shocking, right? But true!) Another example is that racism, colonialism, and sexism are firmly entrenched in intellectual circles, because many white male intellectuals educated in British or American-influenced schools have received the subconscious message that they are brighter than other races, cultures, or genders, and because they think they’re smarter than everyone else, you can’t tell them otherwise. Something that I, as a bright woman, find a constant source of rage.

Charlie doesn’t display any overt attitudes like that, but he does become convinced of his own superiority. He is frustrated when these educated university professors do not understand as many languages as he does, and therefore, miss a key piece of information that refutes their experimental results because it was written in Hindi. He is frustrated that these people, who seemed gods to him and who have so much control over his fate, are mere mortals; clever mortals, but mortals. He gets impatient with the subjects that the woman he falls in love with wants to discuss with him.

I’m not nearly as intelligent as Charlie at his genius level. But I do get bored of discussing job, sports, and kids at every party. I want to have debates (not arguments) about politics, culture, and literature. I want to discuss new scientific developments and their implications, not always be explaining them to people. As a result, I don’t make new friends easily. Neither does Charlie.

On the other hand, he simply cannot make the professor in charge of the experimental team, Dr. Nemur, see him as a genuine human being. He certainly did not regard Charlie as fully human when he was mentally disabled — he said as much — and now he regards him something like a particularly interesting lab rat. Which is poignantly compared to Algernon, the experimental mouse, who is kept in cages and must run complex mazes that challenge his newfound intelligence in order to be fed. This fact fills Charlie with rage as he identifies strongly with Algernon, who is sharing this otherwise unique journey.

This is not something I considered much as a child reader. Intelligent mice are a staple in children’s literature and I didn’t think much of it, other than I was happy and sad for the mouse at intervals. As an adult it’s worth pondering. At what point in this experiment did Algernon become a sentient, self-aware being? Because he certainly did; Charlie’s communications with him illustrate that. And at that point, did it not become absolutely immoral by anyone’s reckoning to experiment on him? Eventually, Charlie takes Algernon and goes AWOL from the experiment. I cheered for both of them.

Charlie’s intelligence is both a blessing and a curse because of the insights it gives him into people. The fact is that intelligent people usually have fewer friends than the average person (many studies back this up). Many of the reasons I think have already been suggested; impatience with ordinary conversation, a feeling of superiority that is all too common, others feeling that the intelligent person is lording things over them even when they’re not. But another factor is that intelligent people see the flaws in others more easily, and they also often become aware of secrets that others are trying to hide. Then they begin to recognize patterns of behaviour in others that they know will end badly, and so they become less likely to extend themselves. Intelligent people are often lonely and must content themselves with their own company.

But, it also allows them to extrapolate reasons for behaviour that are understandable. There are no studies I know of to back this up, but I think that while intelligent people have less close friendships, they also find it easier to empathize (at least, if they have not crossed over the sociopath threshold.) It is difficult to assign blame when you know that every choice of behaviour is the result of numerous extenuating circumstances, some that are beyond one’s control, and some that are not.

In particular, this dichotomy applies to Charlie’s analysis of his relationship with his family, which has been troubled for reasons he didn’t understand before the boost to his intellect. Charlie’s disability was a constant source of stress for his father, shame for his mother, and embarrassment for his sister. When we first meet him, we know he is isolated from his family but we don’t know why. As Charlie’s therapy begins to bring out memories he is now able to grasp and process, we learn that his mother, who wondered if Charlie’s disability was her fault, tried to force him to be normal as a young child, sometimes beating him for things he could not control or didn’t understand, and then she tried to get him put away and out of her life to protect the perfectly-normal daughter who was born after him. His father argued constantly with his mother about the way she chose to treat him, and worked like a dog at a job he loathed to pay for the expensive medical treatments, quackery or otherwise, his wife chose to try. Norma, his sister, saw him as a constant impediment that kept her from having the things she wanted.

And the truth is, Charlie’s disability did put such a strain on the family, and these feelings were not unjustified, as cruel to Charlie as they were. Even now, society often frowns on Mom when a child is not seen as “perfect,” and sometimes the pressure is too much. Siblings who are not disabled often sacrifice much to provide for the needs of their disabled sibling, and some resentment, especially as a child who does not yet understand, is normal. And especially in the United States, a child with a disability is a terrible financial burden that, in the 60s, was a father’s duty to struggle with.

We’ve come a long way in our care of the disabled, and we try to find supportive programs that aid parents and siblings in the home. But it’s by no means perfect yet. I know quite a few families who, in particular, are struggling with a teenager who is severely autistic and sometimes violent. There is no good support system. We need to do better.

Eventually, Charlie’s family succumbed to the pressure and sent him to a state-run care home. He chose to exist on the outside, however, and managed to get himself a job at a bakery through a friend of his dad’s, which he was capable of doing, and rent a simple room. This was Charlie at the beginning of the novel.

As Charlie begins to realize that the results of his improved intelligence are possibly not permanent, he tracks down his family. He finds that his mother and father have finally separated. He comes to see his father as a customer, but since he is not recognized, does not reveal his identity. His father has moved on and Charlie is no longer a part of his life.

The confrontation and discussion we might have hoped to have with Charlie’s sometimes-abusive mother is thwarted, ironically because she is now suffering from dementia, and no longer has the capacity to understand. She has a moment of lucidity in which Charlie tells her that he is no longer disabled, and he gives her an academic paper he has written, but that moment is brief. Furthermore, the result that he hoped for — that, in being smart, she would finally love him — does not materialize. She is concerned only of what people who no longer exist will think.

He does end up having a good, cleansing conversation with his sister, who is glad to see him, and does not remember resenting him in the way that he found so damaging. Kids do often accidentally hurt each other. However, this too is brief, because she asks him for help caring for their mother, and he knows that his condition will not last and he can’t fulfill the request.

In other words, though Charlie does not find the answers he hoped for, he does find closure.
Intense stuff. A powerful statement of the human condition.

Throughout the novel, emotional blocks prevent Charlie from pursuing a sexual/romantic relationship with the young teacher who originally encouraged him to sign up for the experiment. Here we confront the complex issue of sexuality in mentally disabled adults. Sometimes, because they do not understand complex emotional issues, sexuality is expressed inappropriately, possibly even as assault. This is a genuine concern, because we must carefully balance personal autonomy and the public good. Charlie has a block against sex that has been deliberately induced by his mother due to trauma. Working to overcome this, now that he is more self-aware, is a central issue, and I suppose that’s what upset the Cranbrook and Calgary school boards. I don’t have a good solution, but I think it’s something worth thinking about.

Not long after that, Algernon begins to deteriorate, and eventually, after clearly being horrified and frustrated by his deterioration, dies. Charlie digs him a grave and puts flowers on it, hence the title. It’s very emotional.

Then we witness Charlie’s own deterioration, and his horror at the experience. And now one confronts the existential horror of mortality and loss of identity. It is perhaps not unlike Alzheimer’s or dementia. The awareness that you are losing your mind, and knowing that you are powerless to stop it. Charlie uses his decline to find the fault in the original experiment, in the hopes it may be corrected, and to document his decline for future generations, thus, making his mark on the world.

Sad, poignant, yet powerful and ultimately heroic. Don’t read this novel if you can’t handle an emotional shock right now — but please, read it. And think about all of these things. And maybe learn how to be kinder to your fellow human beings, regardless of who you, or they, are. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

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