Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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“The problem, dear professor, is that you wanted someone who could be made intelligent but still be kept in a cage and displayed when necessary to reap the honors you seek. The hitch is that I’m a person.”

I last read this in high school. I haven’t read it since for the sorrow it still brings to the pit of my stomach. Charlie Gordon is so realistically created, so humble and gentle, that he reminds me of all of the students I went to school with, and all the students I’ve taught since then, who have special needs. How easy it is for some to forget that a person lies within, especially when the doctors want accolades for their skills and the mothers want everything to be all right.

What Charlie wanted more than anything was to be smart. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, saw that trait in him at the Beekman school he attended and nominated him for an experimental surgery such as the little white mouse, Algernon, had. The problem is that no one took into account the emotional and psychological side effects of messing about with intelligence. No one bothered to look past the hopes of a successful surgery into what might happen if it failed.

Which, of course, it does.

I think of the irony in this book, that Charlie’s mother was so caught up in the appearance of perfection that she could not accept him as he was. She sent him away to a home rather than loving him in hers, and when he visits her in a brief period of intellectual strength, she is the one who is feeble minded. Who we are, our frailty and imperfection, catches up with each one of us.

Daniel Keyes reminds us, through the powerful voice of Charlie, that intellect is nothing in and of itself. “Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

This is what makes the book so exquisite, the truths wrapped up within a mentally retarded man who has a bigger heart than anyone else around him.

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14 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes”

  1. This has gone directly to my little pile called “Someday I’ll read this.” I’m struck by how well it accords with my current post, and how interesting it is that I titled that post “Knowledge and Love.” I’m creeping my way toward a deeper understanding of these issues, and I think this book will help move me along.

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    1. I’ve heard of To Be Read piles, but never Someday I’ll Read This. 🙂 I’m glad you’re interested enough to think about picking it up one day.

      Isn’t it interesting how often our thoughts seem to flow back and forth? There’s this post, and Humphrey and your little green caterpillar, and I’m certain many other similarities in our hearts.

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    1. I read this in high school. In fact, I think it’s still required reading as I once saw it in my son’s backpack (or more likely his closet) years ago. This book struck me quite profoundly then, and even more so now. Before, I looked at the novel only through Charlie’s eyes. Today, I see the other points of view, although of course I don’t sympathize with them. It’s interesting how different parts of a book stick out according to the person we are when we read them. Just one of the joys of rereading…

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  2. I can never quite decide whether to read this or not as I fear it may be a bit too mawkish for me…but then there’s only one way to find out for sure.

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  3. I’m reading this one right now for a readalong and just crossed the halfway point. It is a really well-crafted book thus far – it’s making me think so much and making me feel alternately sad, annoyed, and irritated. There is really not much to be happy about in this, unless you count a tiny gratitude that Charlie got to be intelligent. But I know something dreadful is going to happen so I’m not too grateful yet.

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    1. I missed the read along for which you’re a part; I reread this for a book club I am in. Many of the women had never read it, which surprised me because it is so well known and loved. And, in my school system as a young adult, it was required reading for Sophomore literature.

      You’re right that something dreadful happens, but only what can be expected. Some would say Charlie is no worse off than before, although that is certainly a serious enough state of being by itself. It is his heart which is so endearing, which makes him overcome obstacles as mentally challenged that perhaps he couldn’t when he was “smart”.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts when you finiah the book.

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    1. I was surprised, although probably I shouldn’t have been, to be reminded that this book is Young Adult (by the glaring label on its spine). There are lots of adult topics in here, from sex to ethics, so eighth grade seems young to me. But, we’re never too young to learn compassion for one another, and that is one of the most important messages of this book in my opinion.

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