Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
My second classic of the month was Flowers for Algernon. My experience with this book was much different than Scanner Darkly.
Flowers for Algernon is one of the best, and most disturbing, novels I have read in my life. Many people read it as an assignment in high school or sometimes in college but not me. I read it just this year, so my perspective may be a little different than those who read it as teenagers.
Usually I give a summary here but it hardly seems necessary. For the sake of tradition: a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon has a procedure done to make him smart. It works. He keeps a journal of his experiences.
Charlie Gordon is one of the most sympathetic protagonists you’ll find. You feel sorry for him, living a simple life with people he thinks are his friends but really aren’t. Most treat him with benign negligence while others have tons of fun at his expense. Only a couple demonstrate they really care for him and want to make sure he can live a comfortable life.
Charlie’s view of the world is very limited and simple, and you just feel that he is in for a rude awakening when he begins to see and understand more of it. As the story progresses, you sense his intelligence rise, largely through improved spelling and grammar, but also his clearer understanding of what is happening around him. Most of it does not make him happy. In fact, through most of his intellectual progress, he becomes steadily more miserable.
The lesson: higher intelligence can make you unhappy. Ignorance is bliss.
It is like going from childhood to adulthood in a few months with no time to adjust. Charlie becomes extremely intelligent, but emotionally is still very immature. As he puts more of his own past together, his personal identity transforms. He realizes he has repressed memories of his childhood and early adolescence. Even his current life is shattered. Rather than being a man with friends and a good job, he is a man with only one or two real friends and an existence on the edge of society. Even worse, he becomes aware of the many injuries he has received at the hands of others, particularly his family.
The realizations of his childhood abuse sends him spinning. As he navigates through the emotional torrent, his intelligence rises to new heights. At his peak, he is unable to relate to anyone, including the woman he loves. It was amazing to read about a character with incredible intellect still afraid of his Mother. For example, he was severely punished for looking at his sister or demonstrating any curiosity towards girls or sex. As a result, he developed a subconscious fear of intimacy. His mind associated sexual impulses with pain. Whenever he gets close to Alice, his love interest, he has an anxiety attack. As much as he wants to be close to her and knows it is perfectly normal, his mind and body are still reflexively trying to avoid punishment.
Daniel Keyes wants to show us that psychological trauma and disorder can trump knowledge. Charlie knows his Mother cannot hurt him anymore yet still fears her. Many victims of child abuse have similar feelings even as adults. The fear is imprinted into their brains through learned response, sort of like muscle memory for emotions. The mind reacts to a stimulus the same as it has countless times before. Overcoming the reflex is difficult.
Then the hammer drops: His own study of the matter confirms that the procedure’s effect on his brain is only temporary.
Charlie’s fall from genius back to mentally disabled is depressing. It is similar to one of my great fears: to one day lost my mind or have it so damaged or weakened as to forget all that I’ve read, learned, and understood about the world. To read about the descent of a person from first-person perspective was truly terrifying for me. Charlie sees it as a death sentence, the day when his intelligent self will die and the disabled Charlie returns.
Is life worth living if you know you are gradually losing your mind?
Much of the book is an indictment of how society treats the mentally disabled. The book is several decades old, and in some ways our approach to has improved, but there is a lot of room for more improvement. While a select few are compassionate and genuinely love Charlie, most are cruel and see him as nature’s mistake.
In the novel, Charlie is somewhat satisfied with the Warren House Institute, where he will live once his IQ collapses again. While overcrowded and underfunded, the people there care deeply for the residents. In the real world, this is often not true. While individuals may be compassionate, institutions often concern themselves with the bottom line and satisfying the needs of the administrators more than the patients.
On the negative side, I’d say his romantic relationships were ridiculous. The way Charlie tells it, women just seem to throw themselves at him. While his primary love interest Alice was more complex in the early parts of the book, towards the middle and at the end, she seemed to offer herself physically and emotionally to Charlie as if that was her sole purpose for existing. His casual relationship with the enigmatic Fay falls right into his lap, no pun intended, without him having to so much as invite her over for coffee. From the moment she meets him, it seems as if she is dying to get into bed with him as soon as possible.
In my experience, smart guys do not get that kind of attention from women. So unless Charlie was also incredibly handsome, this part came off as unrealistic. The author probably wanted to show Charlie’s slow emotional development via romantic relationships but didn’t want to bother with the flirtation, courtship, etc. Since it is an epistolary novel, it may be that the immature male narrator did not want to include those details or was perhaps a bit delusional about how chicks totally want to jump on him.
In the end, Flowers for Algernon had a profound impact on me. It is a MUST READ for absolutely everyone. Luckily it is often assigned in high school English courses.
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