Warning: Due to the concept of this book, this review contains potentially sensitive discussion around eugenics and using experiments to raise the IQ of an individual.
I was gifted Flowers for Algernon by a friend quite a while ago, and I put it on my list to read for Readathin in February, and never managed to read it. Finally, I got round to picking it up a few days ago, and found it a really enjoyable read!
Like the last book I reviewed (The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells), Flowers for Algernon is fairly old, so this review may contain some mild spoilers. It’s the second book I’ve read since coming home from university, and I’m already midway through the book I’ll be reviewing next week. Definitely finding more time to read since being stuck at home! Knowing that I have to stay inside has managed to give me the motivation to stay busy while I’m inside to stave off boredom. Another thing I’ve found is an increased motivation to write blogs and be more active on social media. So, on that note, what did I think of the book?
As I said at the start of the review, I really enjoyed this book. I know I say that a lot, but I am trying to only read books I’m actually excited for at the minute. Like the H. G. Wells, I didn’t know very much about this book before I started, and I’ve barely even heard of Daniel Keyes. For the most part, I’m not a big science fiction reader, though I’m saying that having just reviewed two very iconic classic science fiction novels. Seeing as I’ve enjoyed both, perhaps I should make scifi a more regularly read genre. It’s something to think about!
For this book in particular, I was gripped by the form. It’s a bit of a hybrid between diary and more traditional epistolary (letter form). It’s written as a series of ‘progress reports’ by the protagonist, Charlie Gordon. Some of these are written with the knowledge and intention that they will be read by others, and some are written with Charlie knowing and understanding that other people will read his words. The opening reports are riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes, and the reader quickly catches on, even if you know nothing about the premise. Charlie has severe learning difficulties, and has been chosen as a possible test subject in a study on what is, I suppose, a form of artificial intelligence, or at least, artificially given evidence. The program Charlie has been brought into is aiming to develop an operation that can somehow unlock hidden potential for greater intelligence. Charlie is chosen as the subject because he has a real drive and passion to learn, and a desire to impress. As the book progresses, the quality of Charlie’s writing improves as the operation is a success and he begins to learn at an incredible pace.
The reader understands from the first introduction of this project the implications it has, but Charlie does not. The scientists have one other successful test subject, Algernon, a mouse. Throughout the novel, there is the suggestion that this might not work. Still, Charlie has his operation, and it seems to be a success. Personally, the implications of such an operation existing and being successful was far more chilling than the alternative option, that it would be a failure. Written in the wake of Nazism, the concept reeks of eugenics, and bases itself around one awful assumption, that people deemed ‘clever’ are better than those who aren’t.
Until midway through the book, the experimentation is presented with fairly little critique, as Charlie lacks the capacity to critique it, or even to provide informed consent. After the experiment and his subsequent intelligence gain, he starts to question the scientists who conducted the experiment. His intellect far outstrips theirs, and he questions their competence. He also starts to realise how badly he was treated, by both the scientists and the people he considered friends before his operation. Charlie’s refrain, and the reason for his backlash against the scientists in the second half of the book, is that he was a person before the operation, but he wasn’t treated as such. And, when Algernon the mouse starts to decline, Charlie starts to wonder what the future holds for him. A return to his former life, where he was treated as less than human, starts to seem imminent.
So, this is a book dealing with a very complicated issue, and I think it handles it well. Charlie’s desire and passion for learning manages to mask the horror of the experiment until later in the novel, when things start to unravel. The characters in this book are all compelling — even the awful scientists are fascinating characters, and the character development on the part of Charlie is naturally second-to-none. The plot carries the characters through, with all its complexities, and delivers them beautifully to the final scenes.
Flowers for Algernon is heart-wrenching. I really fell in love with the character of Charlie Gordon, and I like to believe that he found some peace after the events of the novel. Algernon, as well, was definitely the most engaging supporting mouse I’ve ever read about.
Overall, I give this book 4 stars.