“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is a 1966 science fiction novel that follows the story of one Charlie Gordon, a 32-year old mentally disabled subject who undergoes a revolutionary surgery to increase his intelligence. The story is told through a series of progress reports by Charlie and touches on various ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled, intelligence versus happiness, and the nature of relationships.
Algernon, a laboratory mouse, is the titular character of the novel who is the first subject to undergo the intelligence altering surgery. Realizing the success of the surgery, the researchers of the program decide to move onto human trials and Charlie becomes their first human subject. The surgery proves to be a remarkable success as Charlie’s IQ reaches 185 from 68 and he becomes smarter than the doctors who operate on him.
But his increased intelligence comes at a cost.
As his intelligence, education, and understanding of the world increases, his relationships with people, emotional and mental stability starts to deteriorate and as the story progresses, Charlie discovers a serious flaw in the theory behind the researcher’s intelligence-enhancing procedure that causes him to revert to his original mental state.
Warm, heart-wrenching and decisively introspective, the novel promises its readers a roller-coaster emotional journey, and Keyes in this masterful writing, begs his readers to question if the world really is what it appears to be.
Ignorance, Intelligence, and Happiness
“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.” – Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
The apparent quid pro quo between intelligence and happiness is by far the most important theme explored by Keyes.
As the story begins, Keyes presents the notion that there really is a strict trade-off between happiness and intelligence. This is made apparent by the fact that Charlie, a mentally disabled employee of Mr. Donner’s bakery is shown to be a happy-go lucky individual brimming with confidence and relishing the fact that he has many friends. However, to the readers, it becomes apparent that his co-workers in fact treat him unkindly: they make fun of his stupidity, trip him, and force him to dance for their own cruel amusement. Charlie, blissfully unaware, is shown to be the happiest person in the book (At least in the beginning). Ignorance really is bliss.
But after Charlie’s surgery, his new-found intelligence brings him the truth. He realises wistfully that his co-workers have indeed been making fun of him all his life and it reminds him of how small and lonely his life really is, whether he’s a genius or not.
But Keyes doesn’t stop there.
He obscures the idea even further and presents the readers with the question: Is Intelligence also bliss (If only from time to time)?
As Charlie becomes a genius, he throws himself into acquiring knowledge about the world and participates in active research and discussions. He thoroughly enjoys it and derives immense pleasure from the experience. But Charlie realizes that his research doesn’t bring him total happiness. A dichotomy?
But what does he do? Charlie endures.
Charlie comes to the stark realization that his research will never make him happy, but he also knows that he can help millions like him by pursuing his research—and this is a far stronger mandate than mere personal bliss could ever be. Charlie makes the inherent choice to use his intelligence to help other people.
With that, Charlie and Keyes place the cherry on top with a really important moral question: should bliss be the only goal of the human race? Do we have a greater responsibility to help our fellow human beings and does intelligence pave the way for that realization?
“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.” –– Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
Cruelty and hope?
“How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.” – Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
Another important theme explored by Keyes is the unkind treatment of the mentally disabled (Remember, this novel was written in 1966 but maybe it is relevant even today?). Metaphorically, it is the unkind treatment of those who are weak and helpless.
At the bakery where Charlie works, Charlie’s co-workers continually subject him to a series of cruel pranks and jokes that reinforce Charlie’s stupidity, clumsiness, and gullibility. As Keyes points out (albeit metaphorically), the workers face an inferiority complex to prove they are smarter than their peers that drives them to treat Charlie so unkindly. This is corroborated by the fact that once Charlie becomes a genius, his co-workers start ignoring him completely. When confronted, they admit that they don’t want to hang around with someone who makes them feel stupid.
Keyes makes the disturbingly valid point that human beings have an inherent tendency to bully people who are weaker than they are, and fear those who are stronger.
Thankfully, Keyes does shine a ray of hope amidst all this pessimism. When Charlie returns to his job at the bakery, mentally disabled once again, his co-workers prove to be less sadistic than they initially seemed. Not only do they accept Charlie once again, but they also refrain from teasing him and playing pranks anymore. A change of heart perhaps?
Keyes shows that it is indeed possible to replace the tendency to be cruel with kindness and understanding.
Flowers for Algernon isn’t a traditional pop-culture infused, science-fiction novel. Far from it.
By begging the readers to questions ethical-moral standards about themselves and the world around them, Keyes presents the readers with a unique and rare learning opportunity. To enjoy fiction and learn something from it.
A tragedy to miss out on, isn’t it?