As I continue my odyssey of Reading Things People Read in High School That I, For Some Reason, Did Not Read, I ponder why some classics are obviously classics and others inscrutably so. This dichotomy is indubitably subjective; in my case, I consider Flowers for Algernon a member of the former category. On the surface this is a simple book with a straightforward story, but there is so much going on here that it’s well worth studying, in school or independently.
Unlike many others, I read The Speed of Dark long before Flowers for Algernon, which is generally the book people compare The Speed of Dark to. I can see why. Both involve the augmentation or enhancement of the brain of someone with a disability and then allow the reader to observe how this affects the protagonist’s outlook on life and the way people in his life change in their treatment of him. But Moon and Keyes take subtly different approaches to these issues.
Flowers for Algernon is entirely narrated by Charlie Gordon through an epistolary device that allows Keyes to chart Charlie’s mental development throughout the story. When the book begins, Charlie cannot spell or form proper sentences. His writing isn’t just childish; it is painfully under-developed. Yet that doesn’t stop us from getting a sense of Charlie as a character. After Charlie undergoes the surgery that is supposed to “cure” him, his writing rapidly becomes more complex and almost hyper-intelligent. This alteration of narrative style is just as if, if not more, telling than any difference in the way Charlie or other characters act, and I think it’s a very interesting device that would make for great discussion. Keyes exploits it once more at the end, in the other direction, to tragic and distressing effect.
I feared going into this book that, having left my formative adolescence finally behind for the ever-more-confusing years of middle-twentysomething-hood, I wouldn’t get as much out of this book as those who embraced it when they were younger. I feel like at certain times in one’s life, subject to one’s experiences, there is a range of titles that can leave more than the usual lasting impact upon one’s psyche. Flowers for Algernon is so widely taught and read because it is one such title for many young people. If that window closes, then it’s still possible to enjoy the novel, but it just won’t be as affecting. My fears were, to some extent, justified. But it never crossed the line to dissatisfaction or dislike, for which I am grateful. Flowers for Algernon didn’t leave me with a lasting impression the way some other classics have. But I still appreciate Keyes’ writing and relentless characterization, not just of Charlie but of all the others like the scientists, Alice, and Charlie’s mother.
The flashbacks Charlie shares with us of his mother’s abuse of him are some of the most harrowing parts of this story. On the one hand, her behaviour is so painful and discomforting to watch. All children deserve to be valued and treated like human beings, and here she is, punishing Charlie for his mere existence. On the other hand, Keyes still makes it possible to sympathize with Charlie’s mother, especially when we learn later on about her dementia. This is a potent reminder that we cannot demonize and Other the people whose mistakes and malice misshape our lives: those people, too, are human and flawed and just as complex as we are. Flowers for Algernon is about more than the quandary of intelligence and self-worth … it’s about the way in which conflicting goals and desires and ideas among individuals affect the overall human condition. Sometimes doing the right thing or doing good is difficult because different perspectives yield different priorities. That’s why it’s so important that we have empathy for others.
I’d definitely recommend and even teach Flowers for Algernon. Even if, like me, you missed out on it when you are younger, it is an obvious classic, intrinsically value for discussion and debate. And if ever it was overhyped, of hype it is still quite deserving.