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Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon

Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Year: 1966
Reviewed: 2007-04-25

I have chosen this book to be the one used for task #44 on my 101-in-1001 list. It took me a long while to find the perfect book, but I am confident that Flowers for Algernon is as close to ideal as I am likely to come.

Let me begin this review by saying that mere words are insufficient to covey what I think about this novel. This might sound like a cliché, but even if language is limited for communicating certain notions, I seldom find it difficult to formulate my opinions about books I read. The reason for this novel not being like other novels is that it has a far greater emotional impact than anything I have ever read (this is not an exaggeration, but a carefully considered statement). Books are often interesting intellectually, or appeal to my imagination and inspire me in various ways, but I can honestly say that this is the first book to really move me emotionally.

Throughout this fairly short novel, we follow the mentally challenged Charlie with an IQ of 68. He lives a secluded life, sweeping floors in a bakery and enjoying his life. However, within him stirs an ambition to become something, to elevate himself into the world of normal citizens. Although he is not competent to understand what he is doing, he volunteers to become the first human subject of a psychological experiment. Having reached stable results with the mouse Algernon, scientists proceed to test on Charlie. The goal: To triple his IQ and give him super-human mental faculties.

Our window into the ever-changing world of Charlie is his progress reports. From the moment he is picked as a possible subject of the intelligence acceleration, he writes about himself, his feelings and his experiences. At first, his writing is childish and rife with grammatical errors, inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. His thoughts are what we might call shallow and he is incapable of grasping the long-term effects of events. Here are a few lines when they test his performance finding his way through a maze printed on a sheet of paper, getting beaten every time by the mouse:

“And the other ten times we did it over Algernon won evry time because I coudnt find the right to get to where it says FINISH. I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time. I dint know mice were so smart.” (6)

Gradually, like the man from Plato’s cave, he ascends into the light and his progress reports improve rapidly, showing both an increased awareness of language and an increased ability to understand himself and his relation to society. However, if we are to trust Charlie’s account, there is much in the saying that ignorance is bliss. He learns of many things which hurt him badly and he is removed from his small personal world. Entering the complex system which is the society of today, he has to cope with social problems that he hitherto has been oblivious to. As the experiments proceeds, he leaves other humans far behind and yet again becomes as lonely as he was before the experiment, with the significant difference that he now is intelligent enough to understand.

Then Algernon begins to behave strangely, his intelligence deteriorating. Like a madman, he throws himself against the walls of his maze, in anticipation and in frustration of what may come. The turning-point of the novel is when Charlie realises that his ascendancy might be only transient…

There are three aspects of this novel which make it a true masterpiece. Firstly, the way in which it is written is truly marvellous. Through all the reports, the reader is offered the opportunity to identify with Charlie, to join him on his journey. They are written in a style which makes me feel closer to him than to any other fictional character I can think of. Also, the way in which the author manages to illustrate the development of the experiment simply through modulating the way in which the progress reports are written, is simply awe-inspiring.

Secondly, the intellectual themes of the novel are highly interesting. The novel deals mainly with the problem of Plato’s cave, of man realising that there is a higher form of existence and then returning to his former world of shadows. The novel also instils humility, preaching that intelligence is not something that is without drawbacks. Ignorance may indeed be bliss and although scientists might be viewed as the gods of modern society, we should think twice before worshipping them as such.

Thirdly, and as I have already mentioned, this novel moves me in a way no other work of fiction has ever done. The story, especially the beginning and the end, is suffused with sadness and tragedy. Believe me when I say that I have thought this over, but I cannot really tell you why it touches me so. In the final few paragraphs of the novel, though, there was something I have never encountered before, which kept me wiping my eyes in order to go on reading. Afterwards, I had to go for a really long midnight walk.

Conclusively, this is a book I recommend to everyone. Since I finished it fairly recently, I cannot yet determine how will it will stand the test of time, but I am confident that it will come out triumphant as the best (yes, the best, not one of the best) book I have ever read. I am sure it will be with me for a long time and I look forward to rereading it whenever I feel too conceited because of my academic and intellectual achievements.

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  1. Caroline’s avatar

    I remember reading this in school, but now I think I might have to re-read it.

    Reply

  2. Hannes’s avatar

    Yes, I remember reading this in school as well. It was good back then, but I guess that rereading it would be a good thing.

    Reply

  3. Martin’s avatar

    My review is here (in swedish): http://yasylum.theyard.org/?p=420

    My expectations were kinda high all because of Snigel’s review. Flowers for Algernon turned out to be a really good novel but far from the best I’ve read despite the high rating I gave it. Maybe I need more steps on my scale…? :)

    Reply

  4. Joakim’s avatar

    Hej och hå! Läste just en spännande nyhet. Jag vet inte hur din inställning till Will Smith är men personligen anser jag att han är en ganska bra skådespelare trots det faktum att han har gjort en ganska stor samling pajasroller. Hur som helst ska han producera och spela huvudrollen i filmatiseringen av Flowers for Algernon. Här fann jag nyheten, vet inte om det är så mycket att läsa, men i alla fall. http://film.feber.se/art/168622/smiths_nsta_projekt_klart/

    Reply

    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Det var en nyhet för mig, tack för tipset! Jag tror aldrig att en film kan fånga det på samma sätt som boken, men det hindrar ju inte att det kan vara intressant för det. Jag har inget alls emot Will Smith, men filmerna jag sett honom i har inte varit vidare bra och ingen har varit särskilt lik Flowers for Algernon. Den har för övrigt filmats flera gånger förut, kika här:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_algernon#Film.2C_TV_or_theatrical_adaptations

      Reply

    2. Martin Ackerfors’s avatar

      Ball nyhet. Jag tror den språkliga aspekten blir svår att fånga, men Flowers for Algernon har många djup och intressanta trådar och om de ser till att inte göra en filmatisering av boken utan en adaption av handlingen så kan det bli riktigt intressant. Blir det I, robot av det betackar jag mig. :D

      Reply

      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        Precis! Jag hoppas att vi inte kan göra en lista lik den Maddox gjorde över I, Robot, som räknade upp alla saker boken och filmen hade gemensamt. Den innehöll en post: “Titeln”. Jag har inget emot Will Smith som skådis, det är nog mest det att jag inte sett någon film han är med i som liknar den typ av film jag skulle vilja att Flowers for Algernon blev.

        Har någon Charlie, förresten?

        Reply

      2. Martin Ackerfors’s avatar

        “Har någon Charlie, förresten?”

        Nu har jag.

        Reply

          1. Martin Ackerfors’s avatar

            Jag har inte sett den än. Du frågade bara om någon har Charly. :P

            Reply

            1. Olle Linge’s avatar

              Meh. Du far val lasa vad jag menar och inte vad jag skriver, har du ingen rutin, manniska) Jenny har sett den i alla fall och hon tyckte att den var bra. Jag kikar nog pa den vid tillfalle.

              Reply

            2. Pingback from Charly on 2009-12-04 at 13:38