I’ve decided to start a Classics Club list! You can read more about the challenge and see my list of titles here, but the short version is that I’ll be posting on a classic book about once a month. These probably won’t be reviews in my usual style, because that’s not so helpful with a book a lot of people already know about, so they’ll be shorter and more focused on what I noticed in the book, whether or not it matched what I expected, etc., but the exact format is a work in progress.
Flowers for Algernon (1966) by Daniel Keyes
With more than five million copies sold, Flowers for Algernon is the beloved classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?
Was it what I expected?
People call it sci-fi, so I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of sci-fi elements it might include. I suppose technically it’s fictional neuroscience that gives Charlie his increased IQ, but that’s all. It’s 1966 science fiction based on a 1958 short story, something like an “experimental fable.” But I expected a philosophical tear-jerker and that’s what I got.
Did I like it?
Yes… It was intense. Written well but weighty with trauma, of the major and incidental violences done to a person seen as subhuman. Even in the parts about doctors and the scientific world, I wish I knew more about the politics and implications of all the things that are said. I expect I’ll want to go read a bunch of literary analysis articles after every classic I read, but perhaps more so in this case because of the disability content — the novel has such an impact because it’s presented in the character’s voice, and it was based on people Keyes knew, but I’m very aware that it’s not actually someone’s real experiences so the narrative decisions may carry unexamined baggage. Aside from outdated terminology, though, I wasn’t aware of any huge issues. Keyes includes debates on what IQ actually measures, even back then, for instance. What stands out to me is Charlie’s repeated pain and frustration at being treated like he only became a real person after the operation, his insistence that he mattered all along, and that still rings true in people’s experiences today.
Is it worth reading?
Yes. The questions it asks about intelligence and happiness are worth thinking about. And, honestly, one of the best reasons to read classics is to develop a shared vocabulary, a set of stories and characters you can reference with other people to make these discussions clearer. Flowers for Algernon is a story like that.
4 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (Classics Club)”
I grew up in a sci-fi-fandom household, reading the short story over and over again as a young teen — my father went to the same Brooklyn HS where Daniel Keyes taught, at around the same time. Didn’t read the novel, though, until 3-4 years ago. The book has two major advantages on the short story (apart from length) — a more involved romantic subplot, and much more use of NYC as a distinct location with its own personality. Both versions of the story pack arguably the same gut punch.
That’s really cool! I definitely need to check out the short story, I like seeing how things develop over time like that.
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