Thursday, 7 April 2011

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also one of the very few that has actually made me cry. It’s not often that happens! The central character is Charlie, a thirty-nine year old mentally disabled man, with an IQ of 68. He works as a janitor in a bakery, and attends adult learning evening classes in an attempt to improve his basic literacy and numeracy. Nearby, at the local university, research is underway on a procedure to develop and accelerate intelligence. After seemingly successful results on mice, specifically a particular mouse, Algernon, the search begins for a human volunteer, which is where Charlie fits in. Through Alice Kinnear, his teacher at the adult education classes, Charlie is recommended as a suitable candidate and the process of mental assessment begins.

The whole story is told in the form of progress reports written by Charlie himself, and the narrative starts once Charlie has been chosen, and is in the final stages of preparation for the operation. Charlie is a brilliantly portrayed and extremely likeable character. At least initially, the operation is successful and Charlie sees his intelligence increase drastically, and his narration reflects that change. Obviously, when Charlie first begins to write his reports he is writing with his low intelligence, hence the spelling, grammar and syntax are all wrong, and actually quite difficult to read and understand in his ‘Progris Riports’, yet after his operation, as his intelligence accelerates rapidly he becomes more literate, and this development is portrayed very well throughout his writings. Looking back on the book as a whole, it is easy to track Charlie’s development, and even to spot where he is on the IQ scale, almost by picking a page at random in the book.

It is not all good news for Charlie though. Yes, his intelligence increases (finally reaching 190), but some of the realisations this brings about in him are not pleasant for him to deal with. When he worked at the bakery, he believed he had friends, didn’t realise that people were laughing at him, not with him.

“Their all my good frends and we have lots of jokes and laffs here. Some times somebody will say hey lookit Frank or Joe or even Gimpy. He really pulled a Charlie Gordon that time. I dont know why they say it but they always laff and I laff too. This morning Gimpy hes the head baker and he has a bad foot and he limps and he used my name when he shouted at Ernie because Ernie losst a birthday cake. He said Ernie for godsake you trying to be a Charlie Gordon. I don’t know why he said that. I never lost any packiges.”

And a few pages later

“I think it’s a good thing finding out how everyone laughs at me. I thought about it a lot. It’s because I’m so dumb and I don’t even know when I’m doing something dumb. People think its funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can.”

I think that that encapsulates what this novel is about perfectly. It is looking with a very critical eye at the treatment and attitude towards mentally disabled people in society, and this is seen with the utmost clarity as seen through the eyes of someone who has been on both sides of the fence. Although when Charlie has the low IQ, he understands little of what it means, throughout the novel his increasing intelligence leads to dreams and memories of repressed incidents from his past, both with his peers and his parents, and the sadness it causes him to feel is heartbreaking. The realisation that the people he believed to be his friends are just making fun of him is compounded by the understanding that all his life he has been laughed at, hidden away and generally thought worthless. When this all becomes clear to him, he says what I would consider to be the crux of this entire story

“I’m a human being, a person-with parents and memories and a history-and I was before you ever wheeled me in to that operating room”

The book is raising some very serious questions about how we categorise and react to mentally disabled people, and the way we view their place in the world. Although written in 1966 (slightly earlier for the original short story I think) and some of the terminology used reflects this, it’s still an important concern today, and although we’re getting better, we are nowhere near where we should be. At least, not in my experience working in special needs education.

I think the other central theme of this book can again be summed up succinctly with a quotation from quite near the start of the book. At one point, his doctor says

“Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth”

This is a problem that hounds Charlie throughout the book. Relating to people on a personal level is virtually impossible for him, and it is more difficult, the more emotionally attached he feels to the person. It is a problem at he never really comes to terms with, and is never really resolved within the story. What is obvious, however, is that his inability to relate to people on their own level becomes a major stumbling block for him, and seriously hinders his attempts to find happiness. Charlie always believed he could be happy if only he could be smart, but in reality this is not the case, and I finished the book wondering whether Charlie would have been happier, if he had been left alone, if he hadn’t felt the pressure of society to be smart as the only way of being worth something.

I loved this book, just as I loved Charlie. Charlie is so central to the story, and is really the only character with any depth that the two are synonymous anyway. He wasn’t always likeable, in fact there were points where I felt he became quite obnoxious, but that was always balanced with the knowledge that none of this was his fault, and he was struggling with his emotions, his past, and the uncertainty about his future.


Annabel (gaskella) said...

This is one of my favourite books of all time - it's in my desert island list. I cried too! It raises some interesting questions on EQ v IQ etc. Loved it.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

Loved this book - one of my favourites from last year. I couldn't agree with your review more... I didn't cry, but I did think about the book, the themes, the story for aaaaages after putting it back on the shelf.

farmlanebooks said...

This is one of my favourite books so I'm really pleased to see that you enjoyed it too. I still think about it and recommend it to people all the time.

Jo said...

Annabel, I think this woul come high up on my all time favourites too.

Anothercookiecrumbles, I've not stopped thinking about it yet, I think it will be a while before I do!

Jackie, I've recommended it three times already this weekend!

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