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