On Flowers for Algernon

Within the progress reports of Charlie Gordon- a formerly ‘retarded’ man transformed by an experimental operation into a veritable genius- is the portrait of someone who, within one lifetime, has stood on both sides of an intellectual communication barrier. Though Charlie is gifted with a brilliant brain, a marvelous mind, he lacks the emotional intelligence necessary to deal with life’s newfound problems. Things of which he was formerly unaware now become central to his life, and he loses his former innocent charm. The man he turns into is cynical and perpetually unimpressed. Though Charlie cannot relate to the people around him, he does relate to a ‘very special mouse’, Algernon, [supposedly] the first successful test subject of the procedure Charlie underwent. Algernon serves as both mirror and foreshadower of Charlie Gordon’s own life.

While it is often mentioned of Flowers for Algernon that it is a warning against scientists playing God, I do not really see this theme as very prominent myself. If anything, it is much less a warning than an examination- a sensitive account of the causata of contrast, both positive and negative. In other words, the contrast between Charlie, both versions of him, and other people; between emotional and analytical understanding; between pride and shame; between amorousness and love. Even the prose in the first half contrasts drastically with the prose of the second half, as Charlie goes from straining to spell simple words to straining to simplify his words. As we know, contrast is the seed out of which both drama and comedy grow, but most misunderstandings in fiction result, and not necessarily always by design, in comedy. This novel is at least refreshing in that it will sooner make one cry than make one laugh when depicting misunderstandings.

Since I have identified contrast as central, I should probably mention a few contrasting features of the two [written] versions of Flowers for Algernon. Originally a short story, Daniel Keyes later developed his character study into a novel, and fortunately, he did add some important elements into it, somewhat filling out the length. I do still feel, however, that with a longer short story, the whole thing could be told well but without all the excess verbiage. A novella at most would do. You can see what I mean by comparing those aspects of both versions which remain the same in detail. One improvement made in the novelization is the language use of Charlie Gordon in the first half, in fact, all of the characters are given far more distinctive voices. We can identify them through their speech alone most of the time. Of course, a weakness of short fiction, and one of the relative weaknesses of the short story version of Flowers for Algernon is that only the protagonist is sufficiently fleshed out, and while we do hear of the other characters, we do not really get to shake their hands. In the novel, there is added to every minor role a dash of humanity which serves the narrative well, not least for better understanding our narrator himself.

Notably, in the novelization, there is far more involvement with ‘Miss Kinnian’, Charlie’s teacher. In fact, after his operation, Charle gets very much involved with her- as well as another young lady, Fay, who is absent from the short story. Herein can be seen the last contrast mentioned above (second paragraph)- that between sexualized passion and shared compassion. And of course, we get the obligatory observation that sex is meaningless without love. Further missing from the short story is Charlie’s mother and sister. Late in the novel, there is an important scene where we see how Charlie’s mother is becoming senile, losing touch with reality, and for the first time do we see post-op-Charlie really empathize with another human being for their lack of lucidity. I would nearly go as far as to say the tables had turned in the relationship between Charlie and his mother, but this is not really true. As Algernon hints, Charlie is not going to remain a genius forever.

It is interesting to note that Charlie becomes a much shallower person after the operation than he ever was before. Whether this is by design or not is hard to say. We know Keyes intended for him to become much more unlikeable, but I don’t think he would have become so much shallower if only a certain point had not snagged on Charlie’s emotional coattails: ‘I’m a person, I was always a person, I’m not just a guinea pig.’ Okay, we get it. This is one of those things that would be better rendered shown and not told- or told over and over again. There is somehow much more humanity and complexity in his former self, except when it comes to mundane affairs of course, which is never very special. I’ve come to the conclusion that Keyes, like most non-geniuses, has no idea how to depict a genius with depth in any direction. There is never any demonstration of Charlie’s newfound insight into the world, but he does love to list off things that he knows and proclaim his intelligence. It was irritatingly similar to an episode of SpongeBob– Patrick Smartpants– in this way. The plot is similarly contrived, there is no real transition from clinical retard to genius, just a very sudden switch that happens shortly after Chalie’s (Patrick’s) cranium is screwed back on. There is the theme of memory and child abuse. I just don’t think this was handled with particular grace. This aspect of the novel is authentically felt, but disappointingly generic. There is little to talk about here that is very unique or interesting.

Finally, I said earlier that Flowers for Algernon was not a warning against playing God. I stand by this of course (I left it in), but maybe it can be taken as a kind of warning: specifically to those in the medical field, to perhaps wait until the results from your test guinea pig- or in this case, test mouse- are rendered in full before you do something both life-altering and irreversible to a patient?

Rating: 6/10

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