Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Flowers for Algernon Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Flowers for Algernon originally appeared as a novelette in the April, 1959, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It received the 1960 Hugo Award for best science-fiction novelette of the year. The story then appeared in numerous anthologies and was made into a television drama, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, in 1961. From 1962 to 1965, Daniel Keyes reworked the story, expanding it into a full-length novel that was published in 1966. The novel won the Nebula Award for the best novel of 1966 from the Science Fiction Writers of America. A film adaptation, Charly, was released in 1968.

Keyes’s idea of physical enhancement to boost intelligence was not new to the field of science fiction, but the brief duration of the result and the structure used to tell the story create a powerful narrative. The story is structured in journal format, heightening both characterization and story development. Readers know only what Charlie records in the “progris riports” he is told to keep for the experiment. Use of the journal, or progress reports, limits the viewpoint of the narrative solely to that of the main character. This limitation presents a challenge on two levels: Keyes must convey the narrative through the lens of Charlie’s low intellect and illiteracy, as well as presenting information only through Charlie’s limited perspective. Keyes superbly meets these challenges, fully plunging readers into Charlie’s inner struggle.

Through Charlie’s progress reports, readers become aware of truths that the character himself does not at first comprehend, such as that the coworkers he thinks of as friends are really playing cruel jokes on him. As Charlie develops intellectually, the emotional impact of that development is heightened once Charlie finally realizes these “friends” have been using him. Tension builds as Charlie races against the clock to try to solve the flaw in the experiment and save himself, if not Algernon. Once Charlie regresses, reader identification heightens the story’s pathos, especially as Charlie feels helpless while his knowledge slips away. In the end, Charlie’s expressions of his thoughts, once again riddled with misspellings, reflect what both he and a reader know: The experience he has undergone will prevent him from ever regaining his former contentment in his simple life, because a shadow remains in his memory of what he once knew, even as he realizes that that knowledge is now forever out of his grasp.

Charlie’s progress reports symbolize one of the themes in the story: the role of science in moving society forward. They raise the question of whether or not scientific progress was achieved through the experiment that Charlie underwent. While Charlie demonstrates immense physical change in the development of mental ability, that development only creates social and emotions challenges for him.

Flowers for Algernon explores the assumption that science can fix society’s woes. It is a result of science—the operation—in which readers are interested. The novelette follows Charlie’s life through the course of the experiment, from his initial state to the peak of intelligence to his decline. The novel delves deeper into Charlie’s personality and the emotional conflict arising from such a rapid increase in intelligence. The emotional consequences of the experiment make a statement against the progress of science. It is the emotional fallout of Charlie’s increased intelligence that causes his greatest trials. Through knowledge comes awareness. For better or worse, memories surface that provide Charlie with understanding about his childhood and explain his intense need to improve his intellect.

Charlie’s insights allow readers to journey with him and experience his evolution from an illiterate simpleton to a lonely, superior intellect who is devastated to realize the mental giants he had looked up to prior to the operation are now worlds beneath him. Readers are caught in the urgency of...

(The entire section is 1,088 words.)