Flowers for Algernon and the humbling experience

In the first year of secondary school, it was my habit, with some friends, to visit the library during our lunch break and read. Nothing terribly erudite – mostly Doctor Who, for me. But, one day, I noticed the chap opposite reading something called Flowers for Algernon. What a dumb title, I thought. My book was called the talons of Weng-Chiang, which I guess showed him. Afterwards, I asked him about the book and he said – a little defensively – it was very good. The book, he claimed, was based on A Clockwork Orange. Now, I’d heard of A Clockwork Orange; it was a Stanley Kubrick film laced with so much sex and violence that it had been banned by the Queen. Suddenly, ‘Flowers for Algernon’ didn’t seem like such a wimpy book after all. But then a second friend corrected the first. The film of A Clockwork Orange had been adapted from the book of the same name. This one was different. So I forgot all about the book and it’s girly title.

About twenty years later, I’ve just finished it. And damn if this isn’t one of the best science fiction works I’ve ever read. There are better books, I’m sure. But as an example of the potential of science fiction – of the heights the genre can reach – this book is one in a million. Daniel Keyes, I tip my hat, sir.

Charlie is a retarded (to use the 1966-era term) adult who volunteers to be the subject in an extraordinary piece of psychological research. He will undergo brain surgery and subliminal re-programming in hope that his IQ – currently 68 – can be doubled. (Shades of A Clockwork Orange right there, I guess.) The procedure has already been performed on a laboratory mouse called Algernon. This mighty mouse can learn much faster than his conspecifics, and even beats Charlie in early maze-escaping tasks.

The book is written in a diary format that purports to be Charlie’s first-person ‘progris riport’. As the report develops, Charlie blooms into an intelligent human being, coming to realise that the people he had regarded as friends in his life (spent mostly as a cleaner in a bakery) were making fun of him. His regular Freudian therapy sessions reveal, too, deep-seated psychological trauma rooted a rejection by his mother and the struggle between his identity as a ‘retard’ in a world created and run by ‘normal people’.

Soon, Charlie starts to ponder the world of ‘normal’ people as he becomes, briefly, ‘normal’ himself – before surpassing them all to master second languages, mathematics, economics, and any other field of endeavour he turns his attention towards. A dislocation occurs between his present self – an erudite, cynical and lonely man – and his past self – a naive, unintelligent, happy person. Who owns his new identity? Is it governed by the scientists who gave it to him? Is it his own? How can it be his own when he feels schizophrenically dissociated from his previous life, the ‘real’ Charlie?

In time, the experimental nature of the intelligence treatment, together with the increasingly erratic behaviour of Algernon, puts a limit on Charlie’s new life. Soon he will revert to previous self. Will that mean a death, or a return to what is right and God-given?

In sum, this is a great work of American literature. It works simultaneously on a number of levels. It made me consider scientific ethics to a greater degree than I ever have before. And it’s a whirlwind of a story. The scene in which Charlie decides to ‘kidnap’ Algernon from the podium of a scientific conference and run away had me punching the air. And the last lines put a tear in my eye. Why aren’t all books like this one? Why aren’t mine?

Published by

Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

11 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon and the humbling experience”

  1. Your review has just reminded me of why I fell in love with this book five years ago. I really must reread it.

  2. It’s a stunner, isn’t it? I only read it a few years ago myself, and it was a real revelation.

  3. John D – definitely. That’s an interesting idea, and a good one for a blog post. What would my dream anthology be? Hmm…

    Thanks, Shaun. What a book…

    Paul, you’re right. I might even be able to get my girlfriend to read it.

  4. This was made into a movie, called “Charly” and starred Cliff Robertson. As I recall the movie wasn’t too bad either.

  5. Haven’t read it, but I do recall the movie.

    I also recall The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Especially the bit where Leela got trapped in the sewer in rather wet underwear. Crikey.

  6. Crikey, I remember that rat. Not much chance of today’s Doctor giving a creature both barrels. Though he might be tempted with the new assistant…

  7. A great book makes you think and feel. This book works on so many levels which is why it is still memorable even 40 years after it was written. Cliff Robertson won the Oscar for best actor in Charly. It was released in 1968.

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