Rating: 5/5 stars
Favorite quote: “Thank God for books and music and things I can think about.”
Flowers for Algernon is one of the saddest books I have ever read. The story is told through a series of “progress report” journal entries written by Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man who is mentally disabled. He has recently been selected for a breakthrough experimental procedure- if it is successful, he will become the first human ever to have his IQ tripled. Since the same procedure has worked well so far on Algernon, a lab mouse, the scientists have high hopes for Charlie’s transformation. After the operation, Charlie’s intelligence begins to steadily increase. He is functionally a genius after a few short months, and is determined to bring the same miracle to other people like his former self. Until Algernon begins to deteriorate, rapidly, and Charlie realizes that all good things must come to an end…
This book is sad on so many levels. First of all, Charlie’s character, especially at the beginning, is heartbreaking. He has an IQ of 68, and confesses in his journal entries, “I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.” His innocence and naivete is really endearing and it’s painful to read about how unaware he is of people’s true intentions. He works as a janitor in a bakery and thinks his coworkers are all his friends, but the reader can tell that these people aren’t as friendly as Charlie thinks. As his IQ increases during the procedure, he begins to realize that the world is not as rosy as he previously thought, and childhood memories resurface about how he was abused by his mother and bullied at school. At his peak, Charlie’s IQ is close to 200 and he ends up feeling just as alienated as before, disheartened by his discovery that the people he used to admire are inherently flawed and disgusted with the realization that he himself has become condescending and indifferent. And then the ending…. is extremely depressing. If you can get through the whole thing without crying, I applaud you.
Flowers for Algernon is so powerful because of the multifaceted questions it raises about intelligence, ethics, psychology, and compassion. Was Charlie’s operation ethical? How does intelligence affect people’s perceptions of the world? How did Charlie’s childhood turn him into the person he grew up to be? Was Charlie really better off as a genius when it robbed him of his blissful innocence? The book is also extremely well-written. The journal entry format is extraordinarily unique and provides much-needed verisimilitude. The reader witnesses Charlie’s mental transformation firsthand; his spelling and grammar improves as he learns more and more and we get to see his thought processes evolve. He truly feels like a real person. I highly recommend this book!