Some books leave you disappointed, some books you finish with bated breath, and some books you finish with a feeling of satisfaction that it was an enjoyable book which won’t collect dust on the shelf in coming years. My experience with Flowers for Algernon was none of these, however.
This book was published in 1959 after several failed attempts. Since then, it has never gone out of print and has been considered a classic of its time, receiving the Hugo Award for Science Fiction. Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charles Gordon, a mentally handicapped, young man who longs to have the intelligence of normal people. Algernon is a white, lab mouse, the first to successfully survive an experiment developed by two doctors to increase intelligence—in fact, triple it. Charles Gordon, with an IQ of 68, becomes the first human experiment.
The reader progressively sees the change in intelligence that occurs in Charles Gordon, whose progress reports relate the story. At first his grammar is poor and his cogitating is at a child’s level. At the same time, the reader feels drawn to Charles. His innocence and longing to be smart endear him. In Charles we glimpse a truly beautiful soul.
As the progress reports continue, the grammar becomes better and Charles’ thoughts become more advanced. The experiment progresses and Charles’ mind begins to soar beyond that of most people. As this occurs his relationships with other people deteriorate. He falls in love with the teacher who taught a night class for the mentally disabled that he used to attend. But his exceeding intellect drives an unavoidable barrier between them. The doctors who developed and administered the experiment (who Charles once adored as geniuses) disappoint him as he finds his mind far exceeding theirs.
When his intellect is reaching places no human has ever conceived, he sees a mentally handicapped boy at a restaurant and glimpses his old self. He is immediately horrified by the fact that he was once like him—stupid and slow in Charles’ mind—barely perceiving anything but the surface but simultaneously realizing he lacks something. He finds himself laughing along with several other people as they tease the boy and is instantly revolted by his own insensitivity. The fact that he was like him startles Charles, but the fact that he laughed at the boy much the same as people had jeered at him makes him disgusted with himself. He wonders why people will go out of their way to aid and help the blind and physically handicapped, but the mentally inferior become the objects of ridicule from the people around them. The reader is given a window into the mind of Charles Gordon, masterfully opened by the author, in which we see the world through the eyes of brilliance itself and through eyes that are blinded to the depth and intricacies of life.
But at the pinnacle of Charles Gordon’s intelligence, Algernon, who preceded him in the experiment, dies. The mouse’s motor abilities first decrease and his intelligence and motivation drop while his life fails. Charles realizes he will eventually follow suit. Feeling an urgency pressured by time, he starts to research the Algernon-Gordon effect as he takes the liberty to call it. He realizes that this experiment, even though a failure, still has the potential to help advance research in the area of mental disability. He struggles to complete the research as his mind begins to deteriorate at the same incredible speed it soared. His ability to compute and comprehend even his own work ebbs. He finishes his research—a gift to science and humanity, a gift that would benefit the mentally handicapped—just before he loses his ability to do so.
As his mental capacity shrinks, he grasps for some thread of his brilliance to hold on to. But his gift begins to sift through his fingers like sand. He was given a beautiful gift—to see the world in brilliant light, to unlock its secrets, and to understand its infinite majesty. A door was opened where he could see for the first time out of a darkened room into a world filled with light. The author gives the reader a moment of realization, of something easily taken for granted, that our minds are beautiful gifts, capable of understanding and perceiving, of thinking and unlocking the doors of nature’s mysteries.
The world begins to darken once again for Charles Gordon. A window is swiftly shutting, and the radiance of knowledge is distinguished. Only fleeting recollections connect him to the past: shattered fragments of an old life are strewn about him…the doctors, the night class teacher. Thus, Charles decides to leave the city and go where no one else knows him as both a genius and as mentally handicapped. The story ends with him asking, in a childish way, that someone remember to put flowers on the grave of a little white mouse, Algernon.
The story didn’t leave me with bated breath, nor disappointed. It leaves the reader changed, in my experience. The author instills in us a love for the innocence of souls like Charles Gordon, people who may only see the surface in some ways but see far deeper in others. It leaves you touched by the fact that intelligence is a gift and reminds us of the beauty of things we seldom notice. It awakens in the soul a true respect for all human life and an understanding that brilliance comes in many forms.
Flowers for Algernon only takes a couple hours to read, but it’s not a story you’ll likely forget. As with all truly great novels, it sticks in some part of your mind. It may not be a story you read twice, but it’s a story definitely worth reading once.