Book Review: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

flowers_for_algernon_coverThis book review is part of series of reviews written by students at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School for their 7th grade English classes.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a world where you don’t know how to read, write, talk correctly, and have people stare at you like you’re stupid? Flowers for Algernon is a great book that immerses you in the life of someone who has all of those disabilities. In Flowers for Algernon, our brilliant author Daniel Keyes takes us on an ambitious walk through a disabled persons shoes, all the while trying to incorporate them into everyday society. He first thought of writing this book when he met a challenged young man and thought how good it would be if there were techniques to help him and others like him. Flowers for Algernon visits the point of view of how a disabled person might feel about this transition, rather than just how we might feel about it.

Charlie Gordon is 32 years old and lives by himself in a small New York apartment. All his life he’s struggled with a severe learning disability keeping him stuck at simple, and simultaneously making him a social outcast. Charlie has always desired to be smart to gain his mother’s approval, but he simply couldn’t retain knowledge. Coincidentally he is part of a research study where he takes basic tests and writes progress reports everyday so they can observe his development. “Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remember and every thing that happins to me from now on. I don’t know why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me because Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart” (3).

In the lab, Charlie befriends two key people: Dr. Straus and Alice. Alice is Charlie’s best friend, motivational coach, helper, and first love. She is also Charlie’s first step into having a social relationship. Dr. Straus is the person who takes Charlie’s progress reports and analyzes them. He observes Charlie in therapy and examines his maturity.

One day the lab has Charlie race a mouse called Algernon in a maze. Much to Charlie’s aggravation Algernon beats him every time. The reason for Algernon’s success was entirely due to an operation performed on his brain, which super charged his intelligence and problem solving skills. Realizing Charlie would be a perfect candidate for this surgery, Dr. Straus hoped to test it on him as the first human specimen. Charlie eagerly jumps on this opportunity and the surgery is performed. Afterwards Charlie can’t see much of a difference, but little by little his intellect progresses; so rapidly in fact that he even surpassed his doctor. Unfortunately, our mighty mouse Algernon starts to display signs of digression. “When he found himself moving along the unfamiliar path, he slowed down, and his actions became erratic: start, pause, double back, turn around and then forward again, until finally he was in the cul-de-sac that informed him with a mild shock that he made a mistake. At this point, instead of turning back to find an alternate route, he began to move in circles squeaking like a phonograph needle scratched across the grooves” (212). Charlie fearfully starts to wonder if the same fate is inevitable for him… “What eludes me is the reason for his regression-is it a special case? An isolated reaction? Or is there some general principle of failure basic to the whole procedure? I’ve got to work out the rule” (213).

Flowers for Algernon is cleverly written from the perspective of the writer as though it is the main character’s journal. I really enjoy the fact that I can physically see Charlie’s intellectual progression in writing throughout the book. It really made his character come alive in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Flowers for Algernon also made a bold clarification between social disabilities and mental disabilities, as people sometimes assume they are one and the same. I highly recommend this phenomenal book, as it will give readers a fresh perspective on the true motives behind helping people adapt to our society. Is it really for our benefit, or for theirs?

-Jake K., 7th grade

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