Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I read this novel in grade school, so for years I put off revisiting it as an adult. I loved it when I read it as a seventh grader, but sometimes rereading novels later in life can result in a thoroughly different experience. I did have a different experience; mainly because I did not read Flowers for Algernon in its entirety as a middle schooler. The edition I read was a very, very short story, less than twenty pages. As it turns out, the full-length version reveals that Charlie Gordon had more than a few sexual exploits that would not have been appropriate for young and impressionable Catholic School students.Flowers for Algernon is the story of a retarded man in his thirties who undergoes a life-altering operation to increase his intelligence. When we first meet Charlie, he has an IQ of 68 and works sweeping up floors in a bakery. After undergoing the surgery, Charlie recounts his progress in a series of journal entries through which we can see his intellectual progression. His IQ ultimately hits 185, but in spite of having the intellect that he always desired, it brings with it a loss of innocence which causes a level of emotional turmoil that the retarded Charlie never experienced. Moreover, the experimental procedure was first completed on Algernon the lab rat, and the sudden regression in the seemingly successful surgery reveals Charlie’s worst fears.

This story is heart-wrenching. That term is overused in films and novels, but it really is the case here. Or maybe I’m just more susceptible to crying jags lately. Regardless, Flowers for Algernon is a great little novel. With elements of Frankenstein and Paradise Lost, Keyes skillfully incorporates the suffering that comes along with gaining knowledge. Charlie experiences the pain of realizing that the co-workers that he thought were his friends had really been mocking him for years. He becomes a human guinea pig to be showed off by the surgeons, and the rapid acquisition of a genius-level intellect leaves him more alienated than he ever was pre-surgery. As Algernon begins to falter, Charlie must accept the fact that he, too, will lose all that he has gained. It’s devastating. I need to read happier novels, but why is it that the sad ones are just so good?

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