Friday, April 27, 2018

Revisiting Flowers for Algernon--Fifty Years Later


Daniel Keye's novella Flowers for Algernon was published in 1959 and in 1966 was expanded into the novel because of its popularity. I read the novel as a teenager in high school, and enjoyed it enough to read it several times. I also saw the 1968 movie Charly, based on the book. I had not read the book since then.

A little sniffing around the 'Net brought the information that Keyes was inspired when teaching special needs students and that characters in the novel were based on people he knew.

The story is presented through a series of journal entries by Charlie, who is
mentally impaired and working in a menial job with friends whom he likes, although they take advantage of him and make him the brunt of jokes. 

Charlie takes classes and sincerely wants to improve himself, to be normal. He agrees to become a test subject in hopes of gaining normal intelligence. Algernon, a mouse, showed amazing intellectual powers after receiving an operation. 

As Charlie's capacity for understanding grows, he outpaces everyone around him, including the scientists.

Charlie's parents had abandoned him to a home when his mother became concerned that Charlie might harm or abuse his little sister. He struggles with the demons of his now understood past, particularly the mistreatment he suffered from his mother, which left him unable to have normal sexual relationships. The psychology is very Freudian.

Algernon the mouse shows the effects of the experiment is short-lived and Charlie grapples with this knowledge, becoming manic in his obsession to find a cure. He also tries to reconnect with his family.

It seemed to me that the novel was informed by the sci-fi trope of the highly intelligent scientist who loses his humanity. And yet in the real world, I can think of a multitude of brilliant people whose compassion and humanity was amplified by their intelligence.
...I was an arrogant, self-centered bastard...incapable of making friends or thinking about other people and their problems." Charlie

In the end, Charlies is as isolated as a super-genius as he was with an IQ of 68. He calls for the need to respect all humans, regardless of their intelligence.

"But I know now there's one thing you've all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn.(...)Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love.(...)Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis." Charlie

My local book club read the novel this month, to great acclaim by all. Everyone thought the epistolary format offered great insight into Charlie's developing and declining intelligence. 

One member noted that in a few months Charlie went from a childish innocence through all the stages of development before regressing again--a coming of age story. Another mentioned he connected to the book because of a family member. And one woman's health crisis involved a loss and regaining of mental acuity. They all related to the story.

Several aspects of the book felt very dated to me: the Freudian psychology and the characterization and function of women. 

Charlie adores his teacher Alice, and when he reaches normal intelligence, he finds he is in love with her. She is responsive, but Charlie can't deal with sex with her. 

Charlie finds his 'need for human contact' filled by his free-spirited neighbor Faye, whom he does not love. She is fun and exciting and an extrovert who loves to dance and has little modesty. 

One line that will pull a few strings in today's female readers is when Charlie says, "you can't have everything you want in one woman. One more argument for polygamy."

I was surprised by the 'sex talk' in the book, perhaps one reason why it has been banned in schools over the years.

The club members gave the novel five stars, a few four, and considered it to be required reading along with 1984.

I was cajoled for rating it 3.75. I appreciate what Keyes was saying, but am not sure the novel has stayed fresh or that the messages are profound enough to be considered 'great' literature. I do think it is a good book for a young adult reader. And I expect younger readers will still find it a tear-jerker as I did fifty years ago.