Flowers for Algernon Critical Context
by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon book cover
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Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Flowers for Algernon has won recognition both inside the science-fiction community and among mainstream readers. The 1959 novelette, published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1960; it is frequently anthologized, including in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg, and in literary anthologies for middle schools and high schools.

The novel is included on many educational reading lists, including those by the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association, and it is taught in colleges. The story has been filmed twice: as the television play The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon in the 1960’s and as the film Charly (1968), for which star Cliff Robertson won an Oscar.

For all its general popularity and special appeal to adolescents and young adults, Flowers for Algernon is highly controversial. The primary complaint by parents concerns its sexual content. The scenes are tame and inexplicit, but they both show Charlie’s sexuality and approve of it. Some parents are also bothered by the depiction of religion, as Charlie’s growing intelligence makes him question the existence of God, and two religious characters (Fannie Birden and Charlie’s postoperative nurse) are portrayed as bigoted.

Nevertheless, the story, in both forms, will endure, because its complex treatment of a simple “what if?” question appeals to readers of all ages. It is easier for most readers than other science-fiction stories of increased intelligence—from Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935), through Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The New Adam (1939) and Wilmar H. Shiras’ Children of the Atom (1953), to Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968) and Frederik Pohl’s “The Gold at Starbow’s End” (1971), which was expanded to the novel Starburst (1982)—yet raises the same important questions. Keyes brings to Flowers for Algernon the keen psychological insight also seen in his nonfiction case history of multiple personality disorder, The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981).