Lyceum — Flowers for Algernon

How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibilty, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys is a book about empathy and humanity. We follow Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man, who participates in an experiment to increase his IQ that changes his life. His progress mirrors that of Algernon an extraordinary lab rat who was operated upon before him. Charlie’s IQ keeps growing until it surpasses that of his doctors. But as time ticks, and Algernon shows signs of deterioration, the same fate seems to be in store for Charlie. It’s an extraordinary book.

The book is written as a series of progress reports. It’s not a book that you should listen to as an audiobook, because you see the evolution and subsequent deterioration while reading, incorrect spelling and grammar, missing punctuation in the early progress reports and the eloquent and lucid, almost ethereal way of writing in the later reports.

I mentioned in the introduction two things, empathy, and humanity. Society mistreats the mentally disabled. They are publically ridiculed and shamed. People use them and their simple attitude for their ends. We see this through Charlie’s lens, as he grows smarter, he understands that others treat him, not only as intellectually inferior but less of a human being. As Charlies’ intelligence grows beyond others, he notices the same tendencies in his treatment of others, condescending, pessimistic, egotistic and constantly looking down on others. He is the only person to have experienced both perspectives and learns that it’s natural and what makes us human, it doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence.

Charlie’s intelligence brings with it the memories of his past. Hidden in the deep recesses of his mind, his trauma deeply affects his emotional growth. His past guides his future. He attributes these past experiences in the form of old Charlie, who keeps a watch over him at all times. His mother being the pivot around which his traumas stem from keep him from growing and until he has come to peace with his past they will continue to haunt him. It’s a strong message, you have to settle your past to move forward.

Charlie’s exponential mental growth can’t keep up with his emotional growth, this makes it harder for him to keep old relationships intact or form new ones. Intellect isn’t the only scale of growth. Charlie initially is warmhearted and trusting, but as his intelligence grows he becomes more cynical and arrogant. Charlie has to learn to integrate intellect and emotion to feel whole and find himself.

I thought the book was tragic, that Charlie had something of value taken away from him. But while writing this, I don’t know if I believe the same anymore. Charlie lived more that most people. He was able to come to terms with his past, find a woman that he loved, loved the work that he did and had people that cared for him. He was happy in what he had. This is what the book teaches me, be grateful for what you have, cherish the people around you and live to be happy, be it cleaning the floor in the bakery or changing the world with your research, do what you find fulfilling and be grateful that you had the opportunity at life.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

– Kurt Vonnegut