"Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is a short story that is, in many ways, painful to read.
The story is told, to great effect, through a collection of first-person diary entries called “progress reports,” which chronicle Charlie’s changing level of intelligence and consequently his awareness of social cues and emotions. At the beginning of the story, Charlie writes with noticeably poor grammar and spelling.
He admits, “all my life I wantid to be smart and not dumb.” This opportunity comes for Charlie when his teacher, Miss Kinnian, recommends him for an experimental surgery designed to artificially increase his intelligence. Charlie meets his doctors Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, along with the mouse Algernon.
The author throws an emotional wrench at readers by having Charlie reveal particular details about what’s happening to him that he doesn’t understand. For example, before his operation he overhears his doctors saying “I know Charlie is not what you had in mind as the first of your new brede of intelek** (coudnt get the word) superman.” Readers immediately know that the doctors have an ulterior motive for increasing Charlie’s intelligence, whereas Charlie thinks they are just helping him out of the goodness of their hearts.
After undergoing the operation, Charlie’s intelligence increases rapidly: His spelling and vocabulary improve, he can finally solve puzzles and mazes faster than Algernon, and he begins to feel more complex emotions. Whereas earlier he only recognized happiness and sadness, now he can experience shame, pride and love.
However, the irony of having Charlie pick up on conversations that he can’t comprehend fades after the surgery, as he realizes that he’s being used for an experiment. With his newfound intelligence comes the realization that people are not as inherently good as he had previously believed them to be.
Before, in a conversation between Charlie and Miss Kinnian, “she said for a person who god gave so little to you done more then a lot of people with brains they never even used. 1 said all my frends are smart people but there good. They like me and they never did anything that wasnt nice. Then she got something in her eye and she had to run out to the ladys room.”
Charlie eventually comes to realize that ignorance is indeed bliss, and the people he thought had been his friends had been mocking him for his mental disability. Moreover, intelligence doesn’t bring him the social acceptance he desperately seeks; He comments, “Before, they laughed at me and despised me for my ignorance and dullness; now, they hate me for my knowledge and understanding. What in God’s name do they want of me?”
Even though this story is science fiction (no type of surgery exists that can artificially triple your I.Q.), it still pains me that Charlie equated intelligence with social acceptance, that he felt the need to improve his intelligence at all. What “Flowers for Algernon” suggests to me is that intelligence is not the most important thing to judge or define a person by, because eventually, it’s not Charlie’s newfound intelligence but his ability to feel love and loss that sets him free, that makes him become a better person.
Charlie’s childlike innocence is what enables us to feel so strongly for him. For example, the very first time he beats Algernon in a race, he asks if he can “feed him because I felt bad to beat him and I wanted to be nice and make frends.” Then, upon learning that Algernon can only eat after proving that he’s earned his food by solving a bunch of puzzles, Charlie remarks, “How woud Dr Nemur like it to have to pass a test every time he wants to eat. I think Ill be frends with Algernon.”
While Charlie identifies strongly with Algernon because they are both outsiders, having been the first ones to experience this surgery, most of it stems from a basic sense of compassion for other beings that these doctors and researchers seem to ironically lack.
Post-surgery, however, Charlie’s capacity to act emotionally juxtaposed with his doctors’ cold rationality also draws readers’ empathy. One particularly poignant moment is when Charlie witnesses the public humiliation of a young restaurant employee who is also mentally disabled and realizes that “people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence.” The social commentary of this piece still resonates today.
The most painful part of reading this story, perhaps, is at the end, as we watch Charlie regress back to his initial mental state, losing everything he has managed to gain. The first tragedy is Algernon’s death, indicating that the operation has failed. As Charlie begins to lose his memory, he tries to break off the emotional ties and relationships he’s formed with other people through his brief period of clarity.
He begs, “I’ve got to try to hold on to some of it. Some of the things I’ve learned. Oh, God, please don’t take it all away.”
I will conclude with the last lines from Charlie’s farewell letter, as there is no other way to describe its emotional weight: “Good-by Miss Kinnian and Dr Strauss and evreybody. And P.S. please tell Dr Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul 1aff at him and he woud have more frends. Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you. 1m going to have lots of frends where I go.
P.P.S. Please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard...”