Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes


Do scientists and doctors have the right to tamper with a person’s brain power?

In a return to the classics, here’s an excellent science fiction novel that looks at this important ethical question. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a thirty-two-year-old man with a low IQ. Committed to a state home as a teenager, now he is out. He’s living in a rooming house and working at a bakery in New York, all through the help of a family friend. He is happy, has friends at work and friends at his school, where he has worked hard to learn how to read and write.

Because of Charlie’s impressive motivation, Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss from Beekman University determine he is an excellent candidate for an experimental procedure to increase intelligence, one that has only been performed on mice. Algernon is their superstar mouse that has learned how to navigate through complicated mazes. Now Nemur and Strauss want to take it to the next level.

Charlie is willing. “After the operashun Im gonna try to be smart. Im gonna try awful hard,” he writes.

The surgery is a seeming success and Charlie’s intelligence increases, at first slowly, but later at a fantastic rate. Soon he is reading voraciously and learning ancient languages, complex theories, sciences, history, economics and classic literature and eventually surpassing Nemur and Strauss. But Charlie’s emotional intelligence is woefully behind and he doesn’t know what to do with the many new strong and complex feelings he experiences.

Through memory recall, Charlie begins to understand that the people in his life had been cruel to him, with their hurtful jokes and abuse, and that he had played a part in their jokes. “That hurts most of all,” he writes.

In addition, memories of his mother’s shame and embarrassment and her ultimate rejection make Charlie’s new knowledge painful. Even Nemur and Strauss treat him as an experiment and not as a human, forgetting that he was already a person with feelings before the surgery.

At his intellectual peak, Charlie detects a flaw in the theory and foresees his decline. How will it end as Algernon runs through his maze and Charlie navigates his own complicated path? With limited time, Charlie will try to figure it out. He writes, “I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am.”

Flowers for Algernon began as a short story in 1959. In 1960, it won the Hugo Award for best short story. The novel was published in 1966 and was the joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. No surprise that both forms won awards. Despite being an older story, Flowers for Algernon raises important points about human feelings and the ethics of scientific experimentation.

Charly is the 1968 film adaptation – I’ll be watching that soon as part of my library’s summer reading challenge to watch a movie based on a book!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

26 thoughts on “Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

    1. Hi Jo-Anne – I read it a long time ago the first time. It was heart breaking how Charlie was treated – and the sad irony of understanding it once his intelligence increased. I didn’t want to reveal too much about his relationships and the struggles, especially with his parents and his sister – he made the best of seeing them later, but he had to accept a lot. Thanks for stopping by – I hope you are doing well!

    1. Thank you, Dora – I read it a long time ago and thought I would read it again. It’s still relevant – and of course, that makes it a classic. Thanks for the visit!

  1. I remember reading this novel in high school. It made me sad to think that someone could know they were going to decline, predict the pattern, then just have to wait to see their demise. Thinking on it as an adult, in some ways Charlie is like a person with Alzheimer’s.

    1. Hi Ally – I hadn’t thought of that but you are right. I’m sure it’s heartbreaking to know you are going to decline. Charlie was an admirable character – both of them. As an intellectual, he wanted to leave his mark. It makes you think hard about how we treat others. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. This is a great write-up. I read this back in high school, and was so moved by it that I wrote about it for a scholarship competition. I found the idea of knowing about upcoming loss, as he begins his decline, so painful and sad.

    1. Yes, Charlie had a lot of pain once he became a genius. Remembering the past and knowing what the future held in store was doubly hard. Thanks for reading!

  3. I loved this book when I first read it in high School. The story touches on so many fascinating questions. Is ignorance bliss? Why are very intelligent people prone to depression? What value do the mentally retarded offer our society? What is the meaning intelligence? This book came to mind when I recently read about the possibility of a drug to “cure” down syndrome, or at least increase intelligence.

  4. This book sounds fascinating, Barbara. It’s going on my TBR list. Just wondering: with its accolades and your positive review, why did you give it four bookmarks instead of five?

    1. Hi Jennifer – I know, I thought about it a lot -my only reason is that, when I think about my 5-star books, like Life After Life, The Grapes of Wrath and Youngblood Hawke, for example, it wasn’t quite the same experience for me. But that’s why I reserve 4 stars for excellent books that I would definitely recommend and read again. Plus, although this is not a typical science fiction, I don’t usually read that genre. So I guess it’s just my personal and very subjective opinion! Great question though – something I think hard about.

  5. I’ve never read this, but now I might just have to. It’s sort of one of those books that I’ve always known about, but never really knew what it was about, so thanks for the handy review :))

  6. I teach this book at my school and it’s one that the students always remember. It’s really really sad but evokes a lot of diverse and interesting discussion. As ever Book Club Mom, you’ve written something of brilliance and beauty. Hope you’re well dear friend. X

    1. Hi Books and Bakes! It’s good to know that this book is still in the school curriculum. I read it in high school and I think some of my kids read it in school too. Thank you for your compliments – I hope you are doing well! 🙂

      1. I’m not sure if many other places do but we included it in lower school because it’s quite a boy friendly text and one they still talk about. Thank you x

  7. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story and the film adaptation is excellent spoiler alert). I hadn;t thought of it in years but it’s a great story for students.

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