How Flowers for Algernon Works As and Transcends Science Fiction

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2255

Like Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger Daniel Keyes is an author whose reputation rests on a single remarkable novel. Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, like Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, is a powerful story of alienation, of an individual who is at odds with his society and who struggles to have satisfactory relationships with others. Unlike Lee's and Salinger's novels, however, Flowers for Algernon is also a work of science fiction: the type of science fiction, according to Saturday Review critic Mark R. Hillegas, that "deals with moral, social, psychological, theological, or philosophical problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses." While firmly within the "literary" tradition of Lee and Salinger, therefore, Flowers for Algernon also stands in the tradition of such classic science fiction novels as Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s It's Player Piano, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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Keyes' story is also noteworthy for its success in many different forms. It was originally published as a short story, which was adapted in 1961 as a television play entitled The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon. The full-length novel version was adapted in 1968 as the feature film Charly. The short story won the World Science Fiction Convention Hugo Award for best story of 1959, the novel won the Science Fiction Writers of America Nebula Award as best novel of 1966, and Cliff Robertson, the actor who portrayed Charlie Gordon in the feature film, won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

The science fiction idea of Flowers for Algernon is simple: what if people could undergo a surgical procedure that would raise their IQ's? The first person to undergo such an operation is Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. Unlike many other mentally handicapped adults, Charlie is highly motivated to learn. He goes to night school at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults and repeatedly states his desire to be smarter than he is. It is this level of motivation, finally, that convinces the scientists in charge of the project to accept him as the second subject for the procedure, the first having been a mouse named Algernon.

Much of the novel's power comes from Keyes' remarkable use of first-person point of view. Flowers for Algernon is told in the form of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the project. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in nonstandard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult:

Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my birthday.

As Charlie's intelligence grows, his Progress Reports become more and more literate and sophisticated. Three months after the operation, he writes:

I've got to realize that when they continually admonish me to speak and write simply so that people who read these reports will be able to understand me, they are talking about themselves as well. But still it's frightening to realize that my fate is in the hands of men who are not the giants I once thought them to be, men who don't know all the answers.

The striking contrasts between the earlier and later entries, both in style and content, dramatize both the changes Charlie undergoes and the obstacles he must overcome. Keyes' deft handling of point of view helps to ensure that, unlike in many science fiction novels, the ideas in Flowers for Algernon are expressed through the novel's characters, and not the other way around.

The two quotes above also represent the central conflict of the novel: the difference between Charlie's, and the scientists', expectations of what can be accomplished through increased intelligence, and the reality of what intelligence alone can and cannot do. Before the operation, Charlie wants to be smart, not to gain power or advancement, but to improve his relationships with other people: "I dont care so much about beeing famus. I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me." However, as Charlie's IQ increases, so does his disillusionment. When his "friends" make fun of him, he understands their true motivations: "Now I know what they mean when they say 'to pull a Charlie Gordon.'" He steadily advances at work, but "all of the pleasure is gone because the others resent me." He falls in love with Alice Kinnian, the night school teacher who originally recommended him for the operation, and is devastated by her rejection. Charlie is becoming aware that factual knowledge and intellectual ability alone do not prepare a person to deal with all of life's problems: "Ironic that all my intelligence doesn't help me solve a problem like this."

As Charlie learns more about the people in his life, he also learns more about himself. The postoperative sleep learning he undergoes to increase his store of factual knowledge also triggers his recovery of long-suppressed memories. These memories, recorded in the Progress Reports as they occur, reveal the harrowing details of Charlie's early life, especially concerning his abusive mother, Rose. At first, she denied there was anything "wrong" with Charlie and beat him when he was unable to learn like other children. However, after Charlie's sister Norma was born with normal intelligence, Rose turned against Charlie. Obsessively (and needlessly) fearful of Charlie molesting Norma, Rose reacted with particular violence to any behavior that showed evidence of his normally developing sexuality. Charlie's extraordinary motivation to learn, therefore, as well as his difficulty in expressing his sexual desires for women, are rooted in how he was treated by his mother. Keyes thus places the novel's emphasis on psychology firmly within the tradition of Freudian analysis, which sees human motivation as stemming largely from unconscious desires which are often traceable to childhood experiences and which frequently center on sex.

By the time Charlie's IQ peaks at nearly triple its original level, he realizes he was mistaken to think, as he did before the operation, that with increased intelligence "you can have lots of friends to talk to and you never get lonely." His relationship with Alice has deepened, but when she is finally able to return his feelings, he is unable to make love to her. More importantly, the gap between their respective IQs makes it harder and harder for them to communicate, a problem Charlie now has with almost everyone. As Burt, the graduate student who administers Charlie's psychological tests, points out to him, "You've got a superb mind now.… But you're lopsided. You know things. You see things. But you haven't developed understanding or—I have to use the word—tolerance." In particular, Charlie has come to regard Nemur and Strauss, the scientists in charge of the project, as narrowly-focused specialists more interested in acquiring fame and power than they are in increasing knowledge and helping others. His disappointment with them turns into fear when he discovers that there is a flaw in Professor Nemur's analysis of the "waiting period" following the operation, a flaw which may indicate that the results of the operation are not permanent. By this point in the novel, Keyes has firmly established what critic Thomas D. Clareson has called Flowers for Algernon's "double-edged theme: the unthinking brutality with which society treats the mentally retarded and the terrible isolation of soaring intellect."

After walking out on a psychology conference where the scientists "talk[ed] about me as if I were some kind of newly created thing," Charlie turns his back on both Alice and the project scientists. But despite his genius-level IQ and newfound personal freedom, his sense of isolation increases. He forms a relationship with Fay Lillman, an artist who knows nothing of Charlie's "former" life and whose uninhibited, free-spirited lifestyle is a sharp contrast to both the earnest and responsible Alice and the demanding, controlling project scientists. But, as with Alice, he is unable to have a sexual relationship with her. Yearning for meaningful contact with others, he walks the streets of New York feeling an "unbearable hunger" for contact with others. He even goes to visit his father, who left his mother several years earlier. His father fails to recognize him, and Charlie, sensing himself about to be disappointed yet again, does not reveal his identity: "I wasn't his son. That was another Charlie. Intelligence and knowledge had changed me, and he would resent me—as the others from the bakery resented me—because my growth diminished him."

There follows one of the key moments in the novel when, while dining alone in a restaurant, Charlie witnesses an obviously slow-witted young man drop a stack of dishes. Seeing his earlier self in this young man, Charlie is outraged by the abusive response of the young man's boss and the condescension of the customers, doubly so because "at first I had been amused along with the rest." After this incident, Charlie decides to return to Beekman University and begin his own research to try and perfect the procedure that raised his IQ.

The Progress Reports Charlie writes while engaged in his own research reveal a Charlie Gordon who is, for the first time, a fully functional adult. He works feverishly, driven by his fear of reverting back to his former self—Algernon is beginning to show signs of instability and decline. However, Charlie is also driven by his desire to help others like himself: "If [my research] adds even one jot of information to whatever else has been discovered about mental retardation and the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied," and by the sheer joy of discovery. "I'm living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed." He is finally able to distance himself from his childhood traumas and make love to Fay. Most importantly, he begins to achieve a more mature insight into his own nature and that of other people. In a violent argument with Nemur, Charlie declares that "intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn.… But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love."

Eventually, Charlie discovers the flaw in the experiment, and his worst fear is realized. His raised intelligence is not permanent, within a few months, he will return to his former mental state. How Charlie faces this devastating news shows that, beyond his increased IQ, he has learned far more important lessons of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. "No one is in any way to blame for what has happened," he writes shortly before he enters his final decline. "I don't want anyone to suffer because of what happens to me." After visiting his mother, who has fallen into senility and only sporadically recognizes her son, Charlie realizes that she is no longer a target for hatred: "I must understand the way she saw it. Unless I forgive her, I will have nothing." He finally is able to make love to Alice, the only person he has truly loved, and for a brief period they have a complete and fulfilling relationship.

But Charlie's decline is even more rapid than his ascent. He leaves Alice and the others of the project rather than have them witness his return to subnormal intelligence, a process depicted in agonizing detail as his Progress Reports return to the broken English and lack of awareness they exhibited before the operation. Charlie's return to his former state is all the more poignant because, although he has lost his intelligence, he has not lost all of the insights he gained: "if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were." At the end of the novel, Charlie prepares to go voluntarily to the Warren State Home for the mentally handicapped, leaving a final request regarding Algernon, who had died two months earlier: "Please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard."

Keyes has published two other novels and three nonfiction books, all of which also deal with themes of psychology and the structure of the human personality, but Flowers for Algernon remains his most famous work. Although critics have been largely positive about the novel, their praise has sometimes been accompanied by negative comments, usually along the lines of Mark R. Hillegas' suggestion that the novel is occasionally "marred by a cliched dialogue or a too predictable description." These reservations, however, have not kept critics from acknowledging Flowers for Algernon as an unusually powerful and moving work of literature, or kept two generations of readers from keeping it in print. In the words of a Times Literary Supplement critic, although the novel is "painful," it is also "important and moving.… Mr. Keyes has the technical equipment to prevent us from shrugging off the pain."

Source: F. Brett Cox, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. F. Brett Cox is an assistant professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2392

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon appeared first in the form of a long short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in 1960 received from the World Science Fiction Society the Hugo Award for the Best Novelette of that year. It seems to have been immediately recognized as a piece of literature well above the routine, for it was anthologized in the next two years in Fifth Annual of the Year's Best Science Fiction, Best Articles and Stories, and Literary Cavalcade. In the years that followed, it re-appeared as a television play by the Theater Guild under the title, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, in 1966 in an expanded version as a novel, and later still in 1968 as a film with the title Charly. The film's star, Cliff Robertson, received an Oscar for his performance. The novel version received the Nebula Award for the Best Novel of 1966 from the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Reviews of the novel on its first appearance were generally very favorable and tended to praise its treatment of mental retardation. For example, the Times Literary Supplement said the following:

a good example of that kind of science fiction which uses a persuasive hypothesis to explore emotional and moral issues. By doing more justice than is common to the complexity of the central character's responses it gives body to its speculations. In its ideas, especially in its speculations about the relationship between I.Q. and maturity, this is a far more intelligent book than the vast majority of "straight" novels. Moreover, the intelligence is displayed in a treatment of subject-matter which is bound to affect us as both important and moving.

It has, then, achieved literary success in an unusual variety of forms, and may well be the best-known work of science fiction to the general public, that is, to non-science fiction fans. This success has come about because, as Robert Scholes puts it, "it was based on a powerful concept which worked well in all those forms."

Although it originally appeared in a magazine devoted to science fiction, fictional science is used sparingly, allowing the author, with one exception to the ordinary and real, to answer the "What if?" that is the trade mark of this literary genre. Keyes raises the question, What if an operation could be discovered that allowed a retarded person to develop not only average intelligence but to become the world's most brilliant man? The author answers that question by inventing such a procedure and then allowing the reader to follow that development stage by stage as the subject of the experiment, Charlie Gordon, a slow-witted but pleasant and kind man, becomes [as Robert Scholes describes him in Structural Tabulation] increasingly "an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase, inspiring envy, jealousy, and even fear in others." Aware of what is happening to him, Charlie fights the negative change in his personality, but fails to overcome his contempt for the ordinary individuals around him. Here is a quotation from his journal when he is at his most arrogant:

But there were other kinds of papers too—P. T. Zellerman's study on the difference in the length of time it took white rats to learn a maze when the corners were curved rather than angular, or Worfel's paper on the effect of intelligence level on the reaction-time of rhesus monkeys. Papers like these made me angry. Money, time, and energy squandered on the detailed analysis of the trivial.

Keyes "what if" question is one that might occur to any reader, for who would not wish to become a genius? But the story is not merely a pleasant fantasy. Rather, Keyes returns the reader to reality by having the effects of the operation gradually reverse themselves. Charlie, who has been the butt of jokes by the "normal" people he works with, gradually regains their friendship as his mind returns to its retarded state and he returns mostly but not fully to his more pleasant personality, "affection grounded in pity." Scholes calls it. Charlie is retarded at the beginning of the story, and he is not aware that the friends he has are not real friends, that they treat him with disrespect, look down upon him, and enjoy a sense of superiority because they are not like him:

Gimpy hollered at me because I droppd a tray full of rolles I was carrying over to the oven. They got derty and he had to wipe them off before he put them in to bake. Gimpy hollers at me all the time when I do something rong, but he reely likes me because hes my frend. Boy if I get smart wont he be serprised.

At the end, when these former friends begin to treat him as they formerly had, he accepts them but with more understanding of who they are and why they act as they do. He comments:

Evrybody looked at me when I came downstairs and started working in the toilet sweeping it out like I use to do. I said to myself Charlie if they make fun of you dont get sore because you remember their not so smart like you once thot they were.

Writing in Library Journal [February 1,1966] shortly after the story appeared in its novel form, Keyes described his story this way:

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a man's inner journey from a world of retardation to a world of high intelligence. Charlie Gordon lives through comic, sad, and ironic experiences as he emerges from his mental darkness, through the various stages of perceiving and understanding levels of knowledge, into the light of complex awareness of the world, of people, and of himself.

A major contributor to the success of the work in novelette and novel form is the fact that the author tells the story by means of a notebook that Charlie begins to keep at the behest of the doctor involved. Thus we see both the low level of literacy and thought that marks Charlie at the start of the adventure, as well as the sweetness of his character, by means of those journal entries. And we like him and yet feel the contempt that Scholes tells us is the basis for pity. At the same time, the story as told through Charlie's own journal, effectively carries out one of the main qualities that proponents of literature claim for it, immediacy of experience, that is, empathetic power. In Scholes' words, "It conveys to us the deprivation involved in mental retardation as no amount of reports or exhortations could possibly do." For example, Charlie writes, "If your smart you can have lots of friends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time." And later, reflecting on his former state when he encounters a retarded boy, he writes,

It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I—like this boy—had foolishly played the clown.

And I had almost forgotten.

Only a short time ago, I learned that people laughed at me. Now I can see that unknowingly I joined them in laughing at myself. That hurts most of all.

As the effects of the operation appear, the entries in the notebook parallel those changes. Charlie's style evolves from short, awkward sentences and partial sentences cluttered with misspellings and marked by a limited vocabulary into, first, what Scholes calls "a rich, vigorous syntax." Then, as Charlie's mind begins its retreat to its former state, his style gradually reflects that change, though it can be argued at the end of the novel he has retained perhaps a bit of the grasp of language that he had at the height of his mental powers.

At first, Charlie is not aware that he is losing the intelligence that he has gained. Soon, however, his still superior mind realizes what is happening, and he struggles to keep what he has gained. As he goes over what he still knows, as he practices and practices what he has learned, each entry in the notebook showing yet further loss, Charlie takes on an heroic stature as someone who has seen the marvelous, lost it, but remains determined at least to keep its memory alive. And Charlie is not bitter. Rather, after a first bout with anger and frustration, as he works to retain what he is losing, he regains the sweetness of his temper, his kindness, tolerance, and generosity. Here he is in the midst of his struggle to keep what he is gradually losing:

I dont no why Im dumb agen or what I did rong. Mabye its because I dint try hard enuf or just some body put the evel eye on me. But if I try and practis very hard mabye Ill get a littel smarter and no what all the words are. I remembir a littel bit how nice I had a feeling with the blue book that I red with the toren cover. And when I close my eyes I think about the man who tored the book [the smart Charlie] and he looks like me only he looks different and he talks different but I dont think its me because its like I see him from the window

Anyway thats why Im gone to keep trying to get smart so I can have that feeling agen. Its good to no things and be smart and I wish I new evrything in the hole world. I wish I could be smart agen rite now. If I could I would sit down and reed all the time

The story, then, has much to offer a reader, and it seems especially well suited to a young reader. The premise is easy to understand and one that most of us, including children, can identify with—the desirability of becoming smarter. Reyes's "what if" question is, in fact, probably one that most students have wished for in the competitive world of the school. At the same time, young readers can be helped through Charlie's entries at the beginning and close of the story to see into the world of someone like Charlie and understand that it is he, not the false friends around him, who is worthy of respect. As the story progresses, they can identify with his exultation over his growing intellect; but they can also see that the arrogance and cruelty resulting from his superior intellect make him less than he could be, less in some ways than the earlier Charlie was. As the process reverses itself and Charlie becomes less smart, young readers can surely feel the terrible sense of loss that Charlie feels and realize that he faces that loss far better than they might. They can admire the determination that he displays to the very end of the story to hold on to what he can of his new found understanding.

Many teachers have recognized the fact that Flowers for Algernon would make an effective focus for reading and discussing in an English class, and so it has been used extensively with middle and high school classes. It appears on many recommended reading lists for these grades, including the National Council of Teachers of English Books for You, the American Library Association's Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and the H. W. Wilson company's Senior High School Library Catalog, The Perfection Form company has prepared a set of work sheets to accompany its study, and versions of it have appeared in school literature anthologies.

But its use has not been without censorship problems. Two of the most common points of objection to literature by would-be censors have been aimed at it: sex and religion. Charlie is, of course, a young man. As such, he would realistically have an interest in sex; and Keyes does devote a few passages to rather tame sexual encounters. As a result it has been called pornographic and sexually explicit, although it surely is neither. In addition, because the operation changes Charlie from the man that some readers feel their God meant Charlie to be, it has been accused of tampering with the will of God, of turning men—the doctors, that is—into gods, and of supernaturalism, although the story clearly dwells in the world of science fiction rather than fantasy. It is, these critics argue, only for God to give mankind intellect. It was Satan who aspired to such power; and so if a work of literature shows a human possessing such powers, that work is clearly irreligious and perhaps Satanic. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association and People for the American Way have documented numerous recent cases; it is listed in ALA's Hit List as one of the most frequent targets of censorship.

The power of Flowers for Algernon lies partly in the original concept, the "what if" that Keyes asks and then answers. More important, the novel gives its readers profound insights into people, retarded, average, brilliant, kind and cruel, and it does so with stylistic brilliance and control. Perhaps most important, it creates one of those rare truly round fictional characters, to use Forester's term, who surprise convincingly, who have lives before and after the story is told, who seem to possess free will. Keyes' accomplishment is all the more impressive because his character changes so drastically during the course of the novel, yet remains for the reader one human, and one we continue to care about past the end of the novel. Toward that end, Charlie writes in his last entry,

If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian [his former teacher] dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembird about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone.

Source: Robert Small, Jr.," Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 249-255.

Structural Fabulation

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210

Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon might be called minimal SF. It establishes only one discontinuity between its world and our own, and this discontinuity requires no appreciable reorientation of our assumptions about man, nature, or society. Yet this break with the normal lifts the whole story out of our familiar experiential situation. It is the thing which enables everything else in the novel, and it is thus crucial to the generation of this narrative and to its affect on readers. How crucial this idea is can be seen in the story's history, which, as it happens, makes an interesting fable in itself. It first appeared as a long story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 1959. It received a Hugo award in 1960 for the best science fiction novelette of the year. It was then reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction and in the Fifth Annual of the Year's Best Science Fiction, both published in 1960, and in Best Articles and Stories and Literary Cavalcade in 1961. It was made into a television drama and then rewritten to appear as a full-length novel in 1966. Then it was made into a movie and given, of course, a new title: CHARLY (with the R childishly reversed). In 1967 it appeared in paperback and has now been through more than thirty printings. My paperback copy, which is from the thirty-second printing (1972), has a scene from the film on the cover, with the word CHARLY prominently displayed, and a bundle of "rave" quotations from reviewers on the back cover. Nowhere on the cover of this book does the expression "science fiction" appear. Even the Hugo award (which is at least as reliable an indicator of quality as, say, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) goes unmentioned. Inside, in very fine print, the ultra-snoopy purchaser may find in the back pages some words about the author, which indicate that this work first appeared as a "magazine story" (but the name of the magazine is suppressed) and that it won a Hugo award as the "best science novelette" in 1960. Even there, the cautious editors have managed to avoid the stigmatizing expression. Flowers for Algernon has gone straight, folks; it has passed the line around the SF ghetto, and to remind us of its sordid history would be downright impolite. And it might chase away a lot of potential customers who "hate science fiction."

An interesting fable, is it not, from which a number of conclusions may be drawn. It certainly reveals something about attitudes toward SF in various quarters, and this is instructive as well as amusing. But it also reveals something about the genre itself. Flowers for Algernon could succeed in four distinct forms (novelette, TV drama, full-length film, and full-length novel) because it was based on a powerful concept which worked well in all those forms. Daniel Keyes had an exceptionally good idea for a work of fiction, and the idea is what made it originally and still makes it a work of SF. The idea is simply that an operation might be performed on a severely retarded adult male, which would enable his mind not merely to catch up with those of his peers but actually to surpass theirs. That is half of the idea. The other half, which completes and justifies this idea, is that the effects of the operation would prove impermanent, so that the story involves our watching the protagonist grow into a genius unconsciously, and then consciously but helplessly slip back toward a state of semi-literacy. When this mental voyage has come full circle, the story is over.

For many people, I suspect, the first half of this idea constitutes the domain of SF, a land of inconsequential wish-fulfillment in which the natural laws that constitute the boundaries of human life are playfully suspended. But the best writers of structural fabulation do not settle for mere imaginative play. Daniel Keyes completed the circuit of his idea, and the beauty and power of the resulting story were acknowledged by his readers at the eighteenth World Science Fiction Convention, where he was awarded the Hugo. It should be added that Keyes's execution of his idea was fully adequate to the original conception. He undertook to present the story through a journal kept by the protagonist himself, at the request of his doctor. Thus, we see the growth of Charlie Gordon's mind through the evolution of his prose style as well as in the events narrated. (Mr. Keyes, we might note, happens to be an English teacher.) Charlie acquires a competence in grammar, an extensive lexicon, and a rich, vigorous syntax—and then gradually loses all these, as his mental powers fade. He also becomes an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase, inspiring envy, jealousy, and even fear in others. But as he loses his mental competence he regains the affection of those around him—an affection grounded in pity, which is, as Joseph Conrad knew, a form of contempt.

This tale is beautifully problematic. It conveys to us the deprivation involved in mental retardation as no amount of reports or exhortations could possibly do it. And it does this by the fabulative device of an apparently miraculous scientific discovery. It is fabulation that promotes speculation, and speculation that is embodied in an emotionally powerful fable. The intensity of our emotional commitment to the events of any fiction, of course, is a function of countless esthetic choices made by the author—at the level of the word, the sentence, the episode, the character, the ordering of events, and the manner of the presentation. These aspects of Flowers for Algernon cannot be dismissed without devoting much more space-time to this story than is available here. I must assert, merely, that Keyes has fleshed out his idea with great skill, and I invite those interested to investigate the text for themselves.…

I should like to use this occasion to examine an aspect of this story which is typical of the genre as a whole, and of the special qualities which seem to differentiate it from other kinds of fiction. Like many works of SF, Flowers for Algernon appeared first as a story and then was "expanded" into a novel. Now all of our training in esthetics and all of our background in the critical thought of Flaubert and James, for instance, must lead us to believe that a work of verbal art consists of one set of words in one particular order. Thus, this idea of expansion seems to have more to do with packaging and merchandising than it can do with art. To some extent this must be admitted. The shapes of genres have always had something to do with the means of their communication and the needs of their audiences. But if the "same" story can appear in two different versions just to suit the exigencies of commercial publication as a magazine story and a book, then we may rightfully feel that the work must be deficient in artistic integrity.

Source: Robert Scholes, "Structural Fabulation," in Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future, University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pp 45-76. Scholes is an American scholar and critic who has written widely on postmodern realistic fiction.

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Critical Overview