Flowers for Algernon Essays and Criticism
by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon book cover
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How Flowers for Algernon Works As and Transcends Science Fiction

(Novels for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 5,857 words.)