Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1966, and is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for some time. At its centre is Charlie Gordon, who has an IQ of 68 and who spends his days cleaning at a bakery. Charlie wants nothing more than to learn and be clever, and he takes night classes in order to improve his reading and writing, both of which he finds extremely difficult.
When he’s given the chance to undergo experimental surgery that will increase his IQ, he agrees, albeit with limited understanding of what it entails, what the impact might be and the risks involved.
The experiment is deemed a success, and Charlie begins to absorb knowledge at a phenomenal rate as his IQ increases dramatically. Soon, he has surpassed all of those around him, including the professors behind the surgery.
When Algernon, a mouse who was an early test subject for the same surgery, begins to exhibit some regressive behaviour, Charlie begins to contemplate what it might mean for him to lose everything that he has gained during that time.
Flowers for Algernon is an absolutely heartbreaking read! At the outset of the novel, Charlie is a really likeable character – gentle, kind and completely incapable of malicious thoughts and deeds. He doesn’t always understand much of what goes on around him, but he always has a smile on his face. With the surgery comes the understanding that he has for some time been the butt of everyone’s jokes:
Only a short time ago, I learned that people laughed at me. Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts the most.
And I felt very sympathetic towards him and his plight. Maybe ignorance is bliss after all.
I say that he is a likeable character at the outset because he does become a little insufferable through the course of the novel. He is impatient with those who can’t keep up with him and his thoughts processes, and it doesn’t seem to register that this is a very recent reversal in roles. That said, his anger at the scientists behind the experiment is understandable, as they regularly refer to him as their creation, as though he was something less than human prior to the surgery and I think that that would frustrate anyone.
Charlie does find that being a genius isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, however. Emotionally, he is little more than a child, and there are some problems that no amount of reading or knowledge can help you with. He also finds himself to be increasingly isolated from those around him, with whom he has very little in common:
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.
Flowers for Algernon is a novel that is, in some ways, of its time, and there are terms used throughout that aren’t as widely used or accepted today. But while it has aged somewhat, this is still an excellent novel with an absolutely heartbreaking ending that I would recommend to anyone, even those who’ve sworn themselves off science fiction.