Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes


“The problem, dear professor, is that you wanted someone who could be made intelligent but still be kept in a cage and displayed when necessary to reap the honors you seek. The hitch is that I’m a person.”

I last read this in high school. I haven’t read it since for the sorrow it still brings to the pit of my stomach. Charlie Gordon is so realistically created, so humble and gentle, that he reminds me of all of the students I went to school with, and all the students I’ve taught since then, who have special needs. How easy it is for some to forget that a person lies within, especially when the doctors want accolades for their skills and the mothers want everything to be all right.

What Charlie wanted more than anything was to be smart. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, saw that trait in him at the Beekman school he attended and nominated him for an experimental surgery such as the little white mouse, Algernon, had. The problem is that no one took into account the emotional and psychological side effects of messing about with intelligence. No one bothered to look past the hopes of a successful surgery into what might happen if it failed.

Which, of course, it does.

I think of the irony in this book, that Charlie’s mother was so caught up in the appearance of perfection that she could not accept him as he was. She sent him away to a home rather than loving him in hers, and when he visits her in a brief period of intellectual strength, she is the one who is feeble minded. Who we are, our frailty and imperfection, catches up with each one of us.

Daniel Keyes reminds us, through the powerful voice of Charlie, that intellect is nothing in and of itself. “Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

This is what makes the book so exquisite, the truths wrapped up within a mentally retarded man who has a bigger heart than anyone else around him.