Book blog

1000 before 30 #46: Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

A study on how human experiments can both enlighten and devastate their subjects. What would you do if you knew you were going to lose your mind?

This is one of the saddest yet most beautiful stories I have ever sat down to read. Keyes paints a humble and touching portrait of life inside the mind of Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who is about to undergo a procedure to jump-start his brain and allow him to learn (which is all he ever wanted to do). The problem is that these scientists have only been successful once before – with a rat called Algernon.

flowers_algernonThe narrative, which is in diary form and is written by Charlie,  allows us to figuratively wake up with him – as he starts to learn and understand the things that go on around him people begin to react differently to him. The experiment was working.

He begins to understand that the men at the bakery that he had considered his friends, the boys that he thought were so nice and even the elderly uncle that had taken him in were not as kindly as he had first thought.

This book made me more angry than I can describe. The disgusting behaviour of the other characters, and their outright aversion to his growing intelligence that puts their own ignorance in evidence is terrible.

But the worst thing is that as Charlie grows in intelligence he surpasses even the intelligent scientists that had given him his gift in the first place. He starts to analyse their experiment and comes to an unsettling conclusion – the results of the treatment were only temporary, and he was soon going to revert back to his former state.

The internal struggle, denial, and fight to keep his dignity and identity during an impossible crisis echoes some of the experiences shared by people suffering from memory loss or Alzheimers. At one point, his life is on the edge of a coin – on the one hand he may be wrong, on the other he might lose his most precious gift. It all hinges on how Algernon, who had the treatment before Charlie, behaves.

The saving grace in this whole tale is Miss Kinnian, Charlie’s teacher at special needs school and the woman who he falls in love with during the book. She is a truly compassionate and understanding character who triumphs in my mind if only because of her unending kindness.

The language is beautiful. never before have I seen so effectively the blending of the character and the use of spelling (mistakes and childish inklings at the start and elaborate and eloquent as it goes along).

Putting the moral and ethical aspects of ‘Flowers for Algernon’ aside, it’s a hard to swallow story on how disabled people are treated. The worst thing about it is that his life wasn’t even that bad. The words cut deep. I’m not going to forget this book ever – just thinking about the ending brings tears to my eyes.

If there’s one thing you read this year, this decade, let it be this book.



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