A Mouse, A Maze, and A Man: Flowers For Algernon Connects The Dots
.... and encourages empathy
Have you ever wished that you could increased your IQ? I don't mean by a few points. What if you could increase it by 40 points.... or 80.... or actually double it? Wish no more, at least not until you've read Daniel Keyes' Flowers For Algernon.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, "Flowers For Algernon" shared the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. Even if you've already read the story in its short-story-verging-on-novella form, which continues to appear in many literature texts, you won't regret reading the expanded novel version published by Harcourt-Brace in 1966. ( An interesting note: several other publishers, including Doubleday, had refused to published Flowers For Algernon unless Keyes agreed to change the ending. Harcourt-Brace published the novel with Keyes' original- and only- ending.)
Charlie Gordon has a problem: He and a mouse run a race (the mouse, Algernon, actually runs; Charlie does the maze on paper), and the mouse wins. Always. That is, until Charlie has the same surgery that Algernon had to increase his IQ. The reader learns all of this through a series of Progress Reports. Written by Charlie Gordon himself, the reports begin shortly before Charlie's surgery in March and continue into the following November. The author's choice of narrative style for this haunting story was particularly effective, since the Progress Reports allow the reader to experience the striking changes in Charlie's personality, attitudes, intellect, and self esteem as they emerge.
At the beginning of the story, Charlie attends a school for "retarded adults." (Keep in mind that when the story and then the novel were first printed, more compassionate designations for the mentally limited were not in vogue.) Since Charlie is her most motivated student, Miss Kinnian, his teacher, has recommended him to be the first human being on whom to test the surgery to increase the intellect. (Heretofore, the surgery has been performed only on animals. The white mouse, Algernon, referred to in the story's title has continued to show phenomenal intellectual progress since he had the surgery.) Charlie has been asked to write Progress Reports to document just that: his progress or lack thereof.
At the beginning of both the short story and the novel, the Progress Reports mirror someone who lacks grammar, spelling and basic writing skills, not to mention a total lack of imagination. When he is given the Roschach inkblot test, in which the subject is expected to explain what he "sees" in the inkblots, all Charlie is able to see are splotches of ink. The early entries in his unique diary also reflect a naïve, gentle man-child (his chronological age, thirty-two, belies his childish nature) who mistakes people laughing at him as a sign of friendship. The reader, however, is made acutely aware of the all-too-common societal tendency to snicker at the mentally challenged as Charlie is mercilessly teased and used as the butt of some less-than-humorous "jokes." This, in fact, is one of the major themes of Flowers For Algernon: that those human beings who are mentally challenged are still human beings and deserve to be treated accordingly. The book goes beyond the short story with many examples that emphasize this theme.
As Charlie's intellect becomes sharper, so do his memories of a less-than-ideal childhood. (This part of his life isis not even mentioned in the short story.) His mother, whom he continues to think of as "Rose" rather than any version of "Mother," was unable to accept a son with limitations, insisted that he was as capable of learning as anyone else, and treated him harshly when he was unable to live up to her unrealistic expectations. In fact, when Charlie's younger sister, Norma, expressed her resentment at having a "retarded" brother, Rose "disposed" of Charlie, as it were. His father, Matt, though a more compassionate parent than Rose, abandoned his son nonetheless.
The book also explores Charlie's growing (and reciprocated) love for his former teacher, Alice Kinnian and his less complicated relationship with his neighbor, Fay. In addition to this, the book delves more deeply into the pre-and-post-surgery behavior of Charlie's co-workers at the bakery where he works (a factory in the short story), which emphasizes one of the other major themes of Flowers For Algernon: the idea that happiness does not necessarily increase with intellectual growth, and that, in fact, it might decrease. Before the surgery, for example, when Charlie's IQ was 68, he was saw the merciless teasing by his co-workers as gestures of friendship. Indeed, he felt lucky to have so many" friends." After the surgery, as his IQ is increasing, the reality comes into focus all too clearly as Charlie realizes that he'd actually had no friends but was in a better position emotionally, in an "ignorance is bliss" kind of way. In the words of the intellectually enhanced Charlie Gordon, "How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes- how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence."
Charlie's intellect increases at breakneck speed, and soon his intellectual capacity far surpasses that of everyone he knows, including the doctors who developed the surgical procedure responsible for the apparent "miracle." By the time Charlie's IQ has tripled, he has become something of an "intellectual snob." Increased intelligence is not a magic carpet to social prowess, however, and Charlie learns that it actually can be a barrier to forming the personal connections he so desperately craves. In fact, his co-workers are so intimidated and downright scared by the sudden change in Charlie that they circulate a petition to have him fired, and his own father doesn't even recognize him when Charlie makes an attempt to find some closure with his past.
One of the most unique aspects of the book version of Flowers For Algernon is Charlie's continuing perception of his "old" self watching his "new" self through a window. Despite his phenomenal ( too-good-to-be-true, perhaps?) intellectual strides, he is always aware of- perhaps haunted by- the "real" Charlie Gordon who is waiting in the wings. When Algernon begins to regress, Charlie realizes the agonizing irony of the situation: he is the only one who is mentally equipped to figure out what went wrong with his doctors' original hypothesis.... but does enough time remain for him to succeed?
The unique style of both the short story and the novel takes Flower For Algernon beyond the "incredible" realm of science fiction into the even more challenging and perhaps frightening realm of possibility by creating an unforgettable human being. Charlie's story encourages all of us to think about what being human really means.
Note: Cliff Robertson did such a remarkable job of "becoming" Charlie Gordon on the silver screen in 1968 that he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. He previously had played the same role in the TV movie, The Two Worlds Of Charlie Gordon.