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In Search of the Novel: Ten Novels

Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes


According to Charlie Gordon, who tells his own story through his journal, he is a mentally retarded adult. He works in a bakery as a janitor, but he is ambitious and hard working. He yearns to have friends and to be smart, like his fellow workers. As such, he is a perfect candidate for an experimental brain operation that promises to increase radically human intelligence. Already tested on Algernon, a mouse, the procedure promises wonderful success. Both mouse and man become brilliant. But Charlie the man now must question his new self and what it is to be a person and to be happy. He confronts the cruelty that marred his childhood. Soon, Algernon’s intelligence diminishes, and Charlie has to face the inevitable reversal.


The story of Charlie Gordon, a profoundly retarded adult transformed briefly into an intellectual giant by medical science, first appeared in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The one element of science fiction is the transforming operation, performed first on the mouse Algernon and then on Charlie. The story was expanded into a full-length novel in 1966 and then made into a movie titled Charly. As Charlie Gordon tells his story through his journal, we glimpse the world of the retarded. According to Mark E. Hillegas (Saturday Review, March 1966), Keyes “offers compassionate insight into the situation of the mentally retarded; how they feel, how they are treated by parents, friends, institutions.” We also see Charlie’s evolving life in his changing style. As critic Robert Scholes writes (Semiotics and Interpretation, 1982), “Charlie acquires a competence in grammar, an extensive lexicon, and a rich, vigorous syntax—and then gradually loses all these, as his mental powers fade. He also becomes an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase… But as he loses his mental competence he regains the affection of those around him…”

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