Synopsis: Intellectually impaired factory cleaner undergoes experimental surgery to triple his IQ, dramatically changing his inner-life, his relationships and his outlook on the world. “Of Mice and Men” meets “Frankenstein”.
My Take: You know you’ve written a story that has really had an impact on popular culture when it forms the basis of not one, but two episodes of The Simpsons. Throw in an Academy Award winning movie adaptation, a Hugo Award for Best Short Story and a Nebula Award for Best Novel and you’ve got a real cultural icon.
“Flowers for Algernon” (first published as a short story in 1959 and as a novelisation in 1966) tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a middle aged intellectually disabled man, and Algernon, a laboratory mouse, who both undergo experimental surgery to triple their IQ. Told in the first person via contemporaneous entries in Charlie’s personal journal (an ‘epistolary novel’ for the pedants), Keyes’ story explores a number of complex moral and philosophical questions through his protagonist’s intellectual awakening. Given that “Flowers for Algernon” tackles subjects as significant as the meaning of happiness, the relationship between the intellectual and the emotional and the proper role of science in an engaging and accessible way, it’s easy to see why it has had such an impact.
The central dramatic engine of “Flowers for Algernon” is provided by Charlie’s growing understanding of the world around him. This knowledge opens up new worlds and opportunities for Charlie – both intellectual and emotional, but it also destroys many of his simpler pleasures as well as the naïve illusions that have protected him from hurt in the past. Most challengingly, his ever increasing IQ allows Charlie to understand both what has been done to him in the past – by family, friends and his doctors – as well as what lies in his future. In light of Charlie’s tormented sentience, the reader is left to ask whether he would have been better off remaining in blissful ignorance. Thought-provoking and engaging reading.
“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 life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.”