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A Mouse, A Maze, and A Man: Flowers For Algernon Connects The Dots

Updated on May 11, 2011

.... 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.


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    • GalaxyRat profile image

      GalaxyRat 6 months ago from The Crazy Rat Lady's House

      I'd say I'm a little young to read it, but I have. It's one of my favorite books.

    • Chinaimport profile image

      Kamal Mohta 3 years ago from Guangzhou

      No, I haven’t read “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, but I do believe that we value our privacy too much to let ourselves slip into some Orwellian styled dystopian society. Loss of privacy, if at all, will happen at gradual pace so that society as a whole will adapt to a new shift in values and morality.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 3 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Thanks for the comments, Chinaimport. I think you might be right about "Phenomenon" borrowing ideas from "Flowers For Algernon!" Have you read "The Circle," a sci-fi book that focuses on what could happen if the technology/ social media frenzy is taken too far?

    • Chinaimport profile image

      Kamal Mohta 3 years ago from Guangzhou

      Flower for Aglernon is a great sci-fi story. Being a sci-fi buff myself, I am pleased to see you writing about it. "Phenomenon" starring John Travolta, an equally good movie, may have borrowed some of the ideas from this short story.

    • profile image

      PatriciaTL 4 years ago

      I'm sure that many people who have seen the movie and/or read the book would agree with you. I think another lesson might be, "Don't jump the gun." The written version of the story makes it clear that the surgery had been performed on Algernon a relatively short time before it was performed on Charlie. (Dr. Nemur was in a hurry to become famous.)

      Had the doctors waited a reasonable length of time in order to observe Algernon's progress, they would have realized that using a human guinea pig would end in disaster. Thanks for the comments!

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Charly-Flowers for Algernon the book and movie versions are disturbing and heartbreaking on several levels. Its cruel that Nature inflicts low intelligence and other defects on people and society is cruel for mistreating mentally deficient people. Charly is laughed at by his friends at his job. They give him a brain operation which dramatically increases his IQ. He discovers that its success is temporary and short lived. Algernon the mouse was given the same operation. Algernon was later given to Charly as a pet. Algernon passes away. Charly discovers he has been used in a laboratory experiment and resents the fact that he wasn't told that the operation's success is only temporary and shirt lived. Does the operation eventually kill Charly? At the end of the movie with actor Cliff Robertson the final scene shows Charly regressing back to being childish at a children's playground. Charly seems to hallucinate seeing himself in his mentally deficient persona. In another disturbing scene, a waiter drops glasses at a restaurant and some stupid customers laugh at him. Only Charly has the decency to help the waiter. People are cruel and Nature is cruel is the lesson of this story as I interpret it.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 4 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Thanks for the enlightening comments, Ausseve! I think this is a story everyone should read at some point. (I actually prefer the story over the book in this case.)

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      Ausseye 4 years ago

      Hi PatriciaTL....a great writer of much

      A story for mice and men to reflect and tango with the tantalising ethics of human nature. Love the write and am fascinated by the idea of a smart mouse…gees will cheese ever be safe again. And the nature of smiles may be a set animation of politics….in line with the sociopath being able to express empathy if their arms are twisted. What a wonderful space you have explored, hope you rocket on and make sense of the universe. Loved the story and as you can see has made a little silly.

    • profile image

      polo 5 years ago


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      ana 5 years ago

      it a grate book

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 6 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Thanks, Patricia!

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      I read 'Flowersfor Algernon' several years (decades) ago - you've made me remember a brilliant piece of writing.

      Great review. I've voted this 'up'.