Is intelligence linked to happiness or lack thereof? Can greater knowledge of the world make us better persons? How much does emotional trauma from early in our life affect our present behavior?
Daniel Keyes tackled these themes (among others) poignantly in his 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. I had learned from Reddit that the book is considered a classic, having multiple movie and TV adaptations, and even a Simpsons episode inspired by it (HOMR). After reading the book, I can say that it is trully a (science fiction) masterpiece.
The premise is quite fascinating: an intelectually disabled man called Charlie Gordon is the first human subject of a scientific experiment that enhances his IQ to that of a super genius. The story follows his personal journey, written in his own journal entries, recording the joy and pain of gaining self-awareness of the world around him.
Charlie starts out as a pretty simple-minded man. He works at a bakery and attends to special education classes for adults to improve himself. After being recommended by his teacher, he is chosen as the first subject of an intelligence enhancing procedure, previously succesful with Algernon, a common lab mouse.
Keyes masterfully takes us inside Charlie’s mind through the use of journal entries, justified in the story as part of the records needed to document the effects of the procedure on the individual. Charlie starts out with a pretty bad writing, resembling that of a kid, but by the time the experiment’s effects sink in, he now has a wide vocabulary and precise writing to express his emotions.
And this is where his emotional conflict begins. Charlie now has access to a wide arrange of knowledge, including the capacity to form thoughts and give name to emotions and events from his past. He recalls the times he was abused by his family for not being a normal boy, the bullying he suffered at work, and even the ethics of using a human being, who cannot give well-reasoned consent, as an object of scientific study. All this takes a toll on his mental and emotional state, morphing his previously naive demeanor into a bitter, self-absorbed one.
Halfway through the story, Charlie falls in love with a woman and his sexual needs flourish too. He is totally unprepared for this and cannot form a mature relationship with her. Later on, he has to confront his family (who had estranged him) and is overwhelmed by the emotions that come back to him. Even with all the knowledge in the world, he doesn’t have the emotional tools to handle these kinds of interactions and situations. Charlie thought his intelligence would be enough to thrive in the world, but he soon realizes it’s not enough.
This, to me, is the most well realised part of the novel. Keyes makes us live as Charlie as he tries to make sense of a cruel and difficult world. Charlie reflects on how times used to be simpler, how he didn’t have to worry about thinking too much, and how rapidly he forgot the wrong done to him, even cruelty. Basically, how many of us, as adults, recall our childhood.
When Algernon’s intelligence begins to decline, Charlie knows his time will come too, and the result is heartbreaking.
I would greatly encourage anyone and especially people who don’t read science fiction to try this book.
P.D. I had pet mice when I was younger and reading about dying mice adds an extra layer of sadness to the story.