Wise but not preachy

Image of laboratory mouse by Pixabay (Pexels)

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes.
SF Masterworks, Gollancz 2000 (1966)

We all want you to remember that you got friends here and dont you ever forget it. I said thanks Gimpy. That makes me feel good.

Its good to have friends . . .

This SF classic has lost none of its power in the sixty-odd years since its first incarnation as an award-winning short story, followed a few years later by this novel, before being adapted for television and film. Knowing that some of the science of its ‘hard SF’ approach may have dated badly I approached it with some trepidation, but I needn’t have worried because the science really was incidental to the psychological and moral aspects of this absorbing tale.

Charlie Gordon’s story, told as a series of self-penned progress reports, may form a perfect bell curve in its year-long trajectory, but rather than simply seeing its progress as triumph followed by tragedy one could argue that it works as a meditation on what constitutes the essence of being human. Whether or not Flowers for Algernon was deliberately planned to echo certain other literary classics it does share their lofty themes and ideals, posing some universal questions which continue to linger in my mind.

We meet Charlie, a thirty-something with an IQ of 68 working in a bakery as a gofer or general dogsbody, who has been put forward as a guinea pig for a psychophysiological operation designed to improve his cognitive abilities. A similar operation seems to have worked on a white mouse called Algernon, and somehow (ethics committees, historically speaking, being in their infancy at this time) Charlie has been persuaded to agree to being “made smart”. Algernon has proved to become smarter at negotiating more and more complex mazes, and it’s hoped that his human counterpart will show a similar improvement in cognitive skills.

At first progress is slow: Charlie’s writing remains littered with mistakes, his comprehension is limited and literal, his work colleagues still regard him as an easy target to trick and tease. But by degrees, and day by day, there are changes: spelling and grammar become more orthodox, he overtakes Algernon’s facility of getting round mazes, he starts to understand what the Rorschach inkblot tests are asking. As he progresses intellectually it seems as if the experiment is a success. And then he becomes even smarter than the scientists themselves: where will it end?

Given when it was first conceived and published, this novel remains relevant and has surprisingly aged very little. It convincingly conveys Charlie’s gradual and then rapid intellectual development in the space of a few months, but also portrays the emotional cost: issues concerning his upbringing prove next to impossible to resolve, especially anxieties about repressed sexual feelings which led to rejection by his mother and betrayal by his sister, compounded by a weak father and by abuse at work. Periods of high achievement alternate with episodes of irritability, over-indulgence, impatience and other negative behaviours.

Women form a key component and leitmotif in the narrative — his mother Rose, sister Norma, neighbour Fay and, especially, teacher Alice — as he tries to establish appropriate relationships; but it’s a constant struggle, which may explain why his most consistent relationship is with Algernon the mouse, whose progress is so bound up with his own. The oddest relationship, though, comes from a disassociation between Charles Gordon the genius and his alter ego Charlie with learning difficulties, especially whenever the latter reasserts himself or seems to be watching the former through a window.

The disassociation in Flowers for Algernon reminds me strongly of the central theme of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with its suggestion of Jekyll’s schizophrenic personality brought on by experimentation. But because the change in Charlie is effected by scientists, this novel also draws on the Frankenstein narrative: in both fictions experimenters attempt to create intelligent life either from ‘resurrected’ bodies or from someone with learning difficulties, though in Keyes’ novel the disassociation is between Charlie’s two personae and not between Frankenstein and his Creature.

I found this a moving and affective novel, especially when it addressed responsibility issues, either on an individual or parental level as well as those responsibilities owed by the body scientific. Narrated entirely by Charlie in his various embodiments, the inevitability of its direction and conclusion in no way spoil the way it encourages readers to empathise with Charlie’s predicaments and challenges, while also possibly reflecting on how they themselves would respond in his position. Flowers for Algernon is as engaging a morality tale as one would wish to come across, wise without being preachy.

And, as Charlie emphasises, it’s good to have friends.


Read as part of January’s Vintage Scifi Month, moderated by Andrea at Little Red Reviewer

35 thoughts on “Wise but not preachy

    1. You’re welcome, Isobel. For a work of speculative fiction there’s precious little SF gobbledegook in it, and it comes across more as a first person psychological study than anything else.

      Interestingly, I’ve since looked at a couple of trailers for the two films made based on it and, frankly, I think the book captures the mood and the themes best; with films I think I’d spend most of the time getting distracted by the performance of the central character and less about the tragedy behind it.

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    1. It never really appealed to me either, Bart, but the emotional ‘journey’ (hate that cliché but it’s apt) Charlie goes through, plus the unfolding revelations about his life and his upbringing made it an absorbing read. As ever, I’d be interested in your take on it as you often pick out aspects in shared reading that had never occurred to me.

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  1. This is one of my favourite SF novels ever, I’ve read it three times and it is an absolute classic. I love your thoughtful and insightful review, and agree the SF is secondary to the psychological story and Charlie’s E(motional)Q vs his changed IQ.

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    1. The emotional arc is indeed the focus and, while the very title (if not the blurb in my edition) gives the trajectory away, I as a reader was happy to follow the twists and turns. I think that, as time has gone on and we learn more about the brain’s biology and psychology, such attempts to make people ‘smarter’ seem both more credible but also more elusive — certainly in terms of the ethics involved. Pleased you enjoyed the review though, Annabel!

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    1. Glad this resonated with your assessment of it. I’m not sure that I’d want to read it again — I think I’ve got as much as I can out of it — but it does feel to me like a literary classic and not a run-of-the-mill title in what was regarded as a niche genre.

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    1. I know that feeling, Deb, except in my case I often think, Is this actually the same book I read before?! because the details and atmosphere often don’t meld with my memories! Let me know if and when you get round to your own reread. 😊

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    1. My mind is working overtime: is the Dumbo Factor the thing where you are disappointed in what charmed you all those years ago, or the other thing where you feel you’ve been manipulated into feeling both sorry and superior? Or have I got that completely wrong?

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    1. Clearly the school you were in hadn’t banned it on spurious grounds of protecting innocent young minds, as I gather so many States did! I think 13 and 14yo students are perfectly able to take it all in their stride and consider the ethical, issues it raises. After all, so many fantasy and SF movies raise the same questions about alienation in their storylines about mutant superheroes and the like…

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  2. JJ Lothin

    What an interesting concept! In searching for a Kindle sample to download (as is my wont, prior to buying a proper book if I like something), I see that there’s also been a made-for-TV movie (currently free to watch on Amazon Prime), a Japanese TV series as well as another movie listed on IMDB as ‘in development’ …

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    1. The book became a stage play, Charly, and then a film in 1968, with Cliff Robertson starring as the protagonist in both. I haven’t watched the whole film but it looks interesting, if of its time, with music by Ravi Shankar (whom I heard at a concert at uni around the same time, after George Harrison had had lessons on sitar from him). The whole movie’s on YouTube:

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  3. Gosh, what a wonderful review! I read this book about 30 years ago and remember enjoying it very much although SciFi is not usually my thing. Your review has prompted me to go and find it for my youngest who is currently reading the Dune series, thank you 😊

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    1. Thanks very much, Veronica, my review seems to have spurred many readers to think about digging out their copies read many years ago—is that a good thing?!—and your comment has reinforced my view that this is less about the SF and more about people, as most fine literature is.

      Hope your youngest gets a lot out of it: the themes about alienation, potential, bullying, difference, existentialism and so on, as well as the accessible writing, ensure this remains contemporary and relevant.

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      1. Yes, you are absolutely correct, it is a very fine piece of writing and highlights the dangers of sometimes being too eager to categorise books rather than just being open to all great stories (I know that I am very guilty of this!)

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        1. I’m sure you must do yourself a disservice for most people read more widely than they think they do! I’m nearly always convinced I only read fantasy, very reluctantly going outside my comfort zone, but when I look back on a year’s reading I find I’ve been more wide-ranging than I’d thought. (That probably says more about my flibbertigibbert mind and a reluctance to commit to a plan!)

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  4. This is a great review, and I particularly loved your Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Frankenstein comparative analyses. You made me want to re-read this one of my favourites. It is really fascinating to follow Charlie’s maturity and intellectual growth throughout the story, and the point is of course how the society perceives him before and after too.

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    1. Thanks, Diana. The novel is about individuals and particularly about Charlie as a kind of Everyman and about the nature and dynamics of his relationships. And of course the theme of Man playing God (which Shelley and Stevenson used) is one of the universal questions which is always of interest and concern.

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  5. Followed you over from #VintageSciFi meme. Great review, as always. Interesting link with Jekyll and Hyde too.

    To think I’d never even heard of this meme before! So excited about it! I just finished reviewing Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967) and I’m already trying to figure out my next book. See you around 🙂

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    1. Yes, I missed out on doing this meme last year—too much else committed to—but it’s a good focus, and good for reminding us where good modern novels have their roots. I’ll have a look at your Zelazny review presently!

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  6. What a beautiful review! I like that you mentioned how the book made you think about disassociation, parental responsibility, and how scientists like to mess with things because they can, not because they should. Innovations in the sciences is wonderful and all . . . but not from your human guinea pig’s point of view.

    I had read Flowers for Algernon when I was a teen, and at the time I was far too immature to understand or appreciate it. I need to spend some time with this book, even thought I’m pretty sure it will make me cry.

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    1. Thanks, Andrea, I agree, an extraordinary story with lots to think about, posing moral questions that remain relevant. And moving too — I felt tremendous empathy for somebody who, on the face of it, wasn’t an easy or even a nice character, entirely thanks to not having given informed consent to a life-changing procedure.

      I felt for the loss of all that potential that Charlie felt he had in him; and his treatment reminded me so much of all the controversial opinions about ‘curing’ autism, and the iniquitous and cruel practice of Applied Behavioural Analysis or ABA. As someone who’s self-diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, with a partner who’s formally diagnosed, the attitudes that regard the potential (if often unknown) advantages of being autistic as somehow worth disregarding and eradicating through ABA are beliefs that I find both horrific and inhumane.

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