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Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

November 18, 2011

When I was in junior high school the movie Charly was big. Everyone saw it, and one girl, I can’t remember her name, had a Charly protective book cover and was so obsessed with the movie that she’d write the name, with the backwards “R” on everything, including adding it as a middle name to her own name on tests and papers she would hand in. She was in all the school plays and sang beautifully so my guess is her connection was with the play and the movie as opposed to the subject of the story. Or maybe she just had a thing for Cliff Robertson.

Flowers for Algernon is expanded from an original short story and is the tale of Charlie Gordon, a retarded man with an IQ of 68. Chosen to take part in a groundbreaking experiment, Charlie soon finds himself gaining knowledge at record speed until, in a short period of time, his IQ nearly triples.

Written in epistolary style, the plot is moved along through Charlie’s regular ‘Progress Reports’ which he begins writing just before his operation and detail his day-to-day life and thoughts. Even if you haven’t seen the movie or read the short story, Charlie’s journey is easy to predict, but that doesn’t ruin the story, it makes it all the sadder.

There were some passages that made me think the book was maybe a little too long and that maybe some of those slower passages took away from the overall story, but once I was past them I realized that wasn’t the case. Those passages were just different pieces to the puzzle and only added to the richness of the story and to the depth of Charlie.

There’s a scene about halfway through the book where Charlie goes to a diner after taking a walk. Charlie is watching the restaurant’s busboy working, and he recognizes something of himself in the 16-year-old worker. As Charlie watches, the busboy drops some dishes and the restaurant manager comes over and begins verbally abusing the boy who cowers in terror of being hit. Eventually the restaurant customers begin teasing the boy and Charlie watches, seeing himself in the boy, until he can’t watch any longer. Charlie stands and shouts for everyone to leave the boy alone because he can’t help who he is. He’s just human. Charlie leaves the restaurant in shame and thinks to himself, “How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes – how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence.” I share that passage because the message I took from Flowers for Algernon was that there are bits of Charlie – both pre and post-operation Charlie – in everyone. If we forget that, or lose that, then we start to lose our humanity and our connection to the world and at that point it doesn’t matter if our IQ is 68 or 185. In the end, our lives aren’t measured by how smart we are, but by how we treat others and interact with others. Our humanity isn’t a measure of our intelligence, but rather whether or not we can remember flowers for Algernon.

Flowers for Algernon is a beautiful story.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 6:45 pm

    Michael, I remember going to the show and watching the movie and it prompting many discussions with my friends. I was a freshman or sophmore and we thought we were very sophisticated and we all fell in love with the Charlie character. I’ve never read the book but I will now. I’ll find it in my Kindle I’m sure. Great post as usual my friend.
    now you know how old I am. sheesh


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      November 19, 2011 4:35 pm

      Thanks, Mo! I think we must be about the same age then. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the book after you’ve read it. I saw the movie when it came out but I don’t remember it so I should probably watch it again now.


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