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?

Author: 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.

  8. Thanks for your com­ment, Tom. I’ll def­in­itely have to check out that movie now…

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