September finds us back in the classroom and dusting off the perennial Stretch and Challenge school reading lists. As part of our own ongoing Read With Your Teen series, we’re leaping to your literary assistance by selecting one of the lesser known prescribed texts for you to share and brainstorm. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes tells the intriguing story of Charlie Gordon, the first person in the world to have their intelligence increased by surgery. From ‘dimwit’ to dazzling genius, Charlie’s experimental quest is to have devastating unforeseen consequences.
The Algernon of the title is a white lab mouse, star of the preliminary animal trials, a veritable genius, and Charlie’s fellow traveller on this unique journey to enlightenment. With an initial IQ of 68, Charlie has struggled to get on in life. Believing that a high IQ will bring him friends and success, he throws himself into the post-op task of keeping a daily journal. This is a smart literary device, as we observe Charlie’s early entries, littered with spelling and grammatical errors, progress to a flawless mastery of English. Charlie’s previously non-existent reading list now boasts the likes of Dostoyevsky and Flaubert.
First published in 1966, Flowers for Algernon provides some chewy food for thought. As Charlie’s intellectual capacity expands, he realises that his emotional intelligence has not kept pace. Never having been with a woman before and accepting it as his lot, he now desires a romantic connection, but around women, he is still a ‘blundering adolescent.’ His sharpened mind shows him that people he thought were friends were at best condescending, and at worst two-faced bullies. And then there’s the ghost of his childhood, refusing to let the old Charlie go.
When Algernon’s rodent genius begins to fade away, Charlie realises that the experiment may be fatally flawed and regression a real possibility. The resolution of this stimulating and original novel will move the hardest of hearts.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is published by Gateway, 224 pages.