|Flowers for Algernon|
Flowers for Algernon has a very basic narrative structure which works most of the time. The entire book is comprised of progress reports written by the main character—Charlie Gordon. Charlie is a mentally handicapped man who is, due to his desire and need to learn, chosen to participate in experimental procedures, including, and most dramatically, brain surgery. The intent of the procedures is to increase Charlie's IQ and potentially unlock the lost potential of not only Charlie but a great swath of mankind. After the surgery is performed, the reader quickly becomes aware of Charlie's greater capacity and prowess in expressing himself. His progress is swift but not without its hurdles and hitches. Perhaps most interesting is the conflict between Charlie's quickly advancing IQ and his still adolescent and handicapped emotional intelligence (EQ). The book provides a wonderful insight into the difference between IQ and EQ, and it makes for the most interesting and grueling conflicts the story provides. The self-imposed narrative tool of the progress reports feels a little shallow as Charlie becomes a genius because his writing and expressions barely progresses after only some noticeable but limited improvements. In addition, entire scenes of character and plot development have to be documented through the protagonist's progress reports. At times this is reasonable and effective; at other times it strains credulity but hardly harms the overall flow and impact of the book.
As previously mentioned, Flowers for Algernon's simple narrative structure is not reflective of its deeply complex and absorbing thematic elements. As Charlie Gordon increases in intelligence there are a myriad of subjects which are directly or indirectly explored by the book—love, human connection and sexuality, science and expertise, family relationships, abuse, forgiveness, and so on and so forth. Flowers for Algernon is a verdant garden of ideas and themes, begging to be explored and discussed. And thankfully Charlie Gordon is a sympathetic character, even during his acerbic and mordant outbursts. Furthermore, Algernon, the titular mouse, acts as an extremely effective narrative tool to foreshadow the inevitable and tragic end to Charlie's journey.
As intellectually interesting as Flowers for Algernon is, the defining feature of the book for me was the deep sadness I felt at its conclusion. I was not, however, depressed. There is a distinct difference, and I felt Daniel Keyes expertly balanced the ever so fine line between being heart-rending and being hopeless. Rending a heart can, for example, make it an open heart—open to feelings, to truth. Hopelessness can harden a heart, making it impossible to feel anything but the already present despair trapped inside. Flowers for Algernon accomplishes the former and avoids the latter. Put simply, I will never forget Charlie Gordon, Algernon, and the sadness I felt as they were lost again after being mercifully found. But then again, these are the types of questions the book poses—what is happiness? What is a fulfilling life? And why are we so convinced we know the answer to either?
Flowers for Algernon made me feel something—a hallowed experience for any book reader and the supreme goal of any author. In its simplicity, the book unravels a story with underlying complexity and depth. In the character of Charlie Gordon, Daniel Keyes has written a dissertation on psychology, sociology, medical research, family studies, and a handful of other disciplines in a way only fiction can achieve. Flowers for Algernon is beautifully simple and deeply complex.
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Of Mice and Men
Reflections: Death Be Not Proud
Reflections: The Marshmallow Test