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 Charlie’s race to correct the flaw in the experiment and, once that race proves futile, agonize over the knowledge that slips through Charlie’s fingers as quickly as he acquired it. In the end, science has progressed Charlie no further; he comes full circle, returning to the same circumstances as before the operation.
Keyes uses Charlie’s tale to explore the mistreatment of one person by another. Charlie’s own mother cannot accept him for who he is; her desire to make him like other children is the driving force behind Charlie’s need to be smarter, which leads him to the Beekman Center and the experiment. When he later reconnects with his sister, his mother’s senility drives him away but reveals her fear of the old Charlie.
At the Beekman science lab, Charlie is angered from the onset that Algernon is motivated by food. He eats only if he solves ever-changing puzzles and mazes, the solutions to which unlock his food. Before the operation, Charlie sees this as cruel. Later in the novel, he creates mazes for Algernon that provide the mouse with the mere satisfaction of solving them.
Though he cannot express how insulted he feels prior to the operation, Charlie seems to understand that Professor Nemur thinks of him as subhuman and intends to “re-create” Charlie into a true human being. After the operation, Professor Nemur’s continual inferences that Charlie is now a human or that he has been created by the experiment create a tension throughout the novel that culminates at the psychological convention, where Charlie feels both he and Algernon are on display. Charlie creates a diversion and leaves. Eventually, he confronts Nemur, only to realize that he has also succumbed to arrogance and superiority over those who have provided the opportunity for his intellectual development.
Charlie’s progress reports also reflect the need to feel superior to others. This is initially evident when he becomes ashamed at realizing his coworkers were using him as the butt of their jokes. The realization causes tension, as Charlie understands that what he mistook for friendship was really teasing. Later in the novel, the situation comes full circle. As he is struggling over other emotional hurdles, Charlie stops at a diner and witnesses a busboy accidentally drop and shatter dishes. As the busboy is increasingly heckled for his error, Charlie angrily defends the boy and leaves, but he admits that he was actually angry with himself for momentarily forgetting what it was like to be that boy and laughing along with the others. Charlie sees the human need to feel superior, however, and finally understands that intelligence does not guarantee love or happiness, nor does it necessarily improve humankind.