This is how long it’s been since I last read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon: I can remember the neck-ache I got from bending to read it under my school desk. It was one of those particle-board, comma-shaped desks; to read covertly required a particular contortion in which I, at eleven, was an expert. I wept like a baby when I finished the book.
As an adult, re-reading a thrift store copy of presumably the same vintage as my childhood edition, no such clandestine action was required. The emotional impact of the book was also significantly lessened, either because I was primed to anticipate the devastating conclusion of its plot or because, like the novel’s protagonist, I have matured. If you somehow missed Flowers for Algernon or its 1968 film adaptation, Charly, the story is thus: Charlie, a mentally handicapped man working in a bakery, is selected for an experimental trial of a new procedure which might make him more intelligent. The story is told through his journals, which means the first third of the book is written in a “simple” English that borders on pidgin and is definitely more offensive now than it was meant to be in 1959. As the trials progress and his intelligence grows, Charlie’s reality expands. The many tragedies of his life come into focus; the laughs he shared with his “friends” at the bakery, he discovers, were always at his expense. His teacher is a beautiful woman, with whom he is in love. His mother was cruel. The scientists are exploiting him.
It’s to Keyes’ credit that Flowers for Algernon isn’t just a thought experiment or a hackneyed gimmick. As dated as the novel reads now, Charlie’s development is nuanced and complex: despite near-superhuman intelligence, he retains the emotional IQ of a wounded child, having never developed a robust personal defense system for the trials of life, and struggles to come to terms with a violently nascent sexuality. The novel should also be commended for not veering towards the saccharine. Despite his editors’ demands to the contrary, Keyes stuck to the tragic arc which gives Flowers for Algernon its high pathos: the intelligence effect, it turns out, is temporary, and Charlie, intelligent enough to anticipate what’s coming, documents his descent back into the darkness, until he can no longer remember who he is, or why he’s keeping these journals at all.
My favorite genre critic, Robert Scholes, calls Flowers for Algernon “minimal SF,” which is to say the discontinuity it manifests between its world and our own is small, and “requires no appreciable reorientation of our assumptions about man, nature, or society.” Flowers for Algernon takes place in mundane reality–a world of bakeries, college campuses, and the milling, indifferent American city. This doesn’t make it any less science fiction; while other works of science fiction about intelligence (most notably Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John and Sirius, two novellas often collated together) experiment with broader world-building, one needn’t recreate the universe to tell this kind of story. Often, I believe, the most powerful stories are those which manage, in rejiggering a small variable, to change everything. It’s the butterfly effect. Such narrative efficiency is astounding.
Charlie is Flowers for Algernon’s protagonist, but science itself is its hero, or anti-hero. Science is the enabling metaphor–without it, there would be no novel, only a fable about a simple man who woke up intelligent. The fact that Charlie’s growth is scientifically engineered, rather than magical, brings accountability into the equation, raising precisely the kind of questions folks were beginning to ask themselves in the Atomic Age: are we playing God? What are the limitations of man? Where are the ethical lines drawn, when we wield such power? Presumably, such anxieties contributed to Flowers for Algernon‘s massive success–it blanketed Cold War fears with a human allegory, one where relatively comprehensible variables such as love, sex, and cognition placed a buffer between the reader and the truly cold, harrowing mysteries of the growing scientific-industrial complex.
Intelligent Charlie is arrogant, impatient with others, and ultimately unlovable. The more he learns–and learns to learn–the less he can relate to people, least of all the scientists who created him, who dwindle into sycophants as he outpaces them. As people begin to fear him, he becomes despondent. But as his mind wanes, he regains the affection of those around him, even if that affection is rooted in pity. To be intelligent, Keyes seems to argue, is to be in a state of perpetual desperation, always seeking, always alone. The sheer complexity of the world, once one begins to grasp it, is horrific. In this sense, Flowers for Algernon has the qualities of a myth: man, toiling in obscurity, peeks beyond the edges of the shadows of the cave, or behind the veil, or in the secret box, or else bites from the apple of knowledge. What he sees is not beautiful: it’s the screeching maelstrom of the real.
In such myths, curiosity, rewarded with the sour taste of truth, is essential in the coming of age. Once you’ve seen reality, you can’t un-see it, and so begins the troubled march towards enlightenment. Or the fall from grace–either way, the impulse to peek and suffer the consequences is what makes us human. Flowers for Algernon is a modern myth, although what it teaches is different. It’s not that ignorance is bliss; it’s that intelligence carries with it a burden of responsibility towards the weak, the ignorant, and the innocent. We must learn with ferocity, Keyes argues, but love like children.