“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
The story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance–until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
I remember the first time I heard about this book. Chandler Bing, one of my favorite characters from FRIENDS, made a reference to it. “But we can’t live in the small apartment after we’ve lived here! Didn’t you ever read Flowers for Algernon?” To which, Joey made a not-so-witty reply (being Joey of course).
When I started reading this novel, I did not expect the level of emotional attachment I would form with the characters to be so deep and truly, in a sense, profound. This story isn’t about some mouse on the cover (as some people believed it to be) but a tale of humanity, hope and the strength of the human spirit. This novel being classified as part of the ‘science-fiction’ genre, I did not expect it to explore the human condition in the way that it does.
I am afraid. Not of life, or death, of nothingness, but of wasting it as if I had never been.
Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68. Everyone sees him as a retard, a moron. No one sees him for what he truly is: a human being. In his pursuit for normalcy and social acceptance, Charlie is admitted into an experiment designed to increase his intelligence to a nearly ‘super-human’ level. Of course, such endeavors come at a price. With self-actualization comes the bitter truth that the sheltered life he leads is not what it seems.
Now I understand that one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.
The book examines a number of things and ultimately raises the philosophical question of the meaning of life. Everything you think you know is put under the lens. In the process of examining several themes such as mental disabilities, kindness, intelligence and human nature (and how often those three things overlap), Flowers for Algernon begs the question of what it means to be human. Should our self-worth be measured through our IQ, or through the capacity we have for love?
How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes – how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.
I do not wish to prattle on about my love for this novella too much but I sincerely urge each of you to go read it. Flowers for Algernon is a godsend for those of us who have lost our appreciation for the simpler things in life.
The human civilization continues to seek ways to expand its’ intelligence and in turn, dominance over this world. In this journey, we have to make sacrifices to achieve such greatness but at what cost? At what point in our search for fulfillment will we have lost too much of our essence? At what point will we think to stop, breathe and reconsider what it means to be human?