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"Flowers for Algernon". Balancing on a Knife Blade

Flowers for Algernon

There is science fiction that carries away not by describing wonders of science, answering the question: what would happen if aliens came up with this kind of thing? It raises a completely different question, no less significant: what would happen to me in this case?

This book appeared in distant 1959 as a relatively small story and won the "Hugo" award in 1960, and then, reworked in a full-fledged novel, won the "Nebula" award in 1966. For comparison: in the same year, Robert Heinlein received the same award in the nomination "The Best Novel" for the thriller "Starship Troopers", and after half a century it can be stated that Keyes with his story and novel will remain forever, but Heinlein, with all due respect to the master, will not be remembered by this thing.

When analyzing a literary work, much is due to the time of creation. Specialists from, who analyzed hundreds of books, are well versed in this. The end of the 50's was marked by the rise of science with faith in its boundless possibilities and unquestionable authority, and by shaking foundations of the political system of the world, by military confrontations, by the nuclear threat ... Therefore, it is doubly surprising, but also symptomatic that the author received recognition for a novel, chamber in something and deeply personal – after all, it was written on behalf of Charlie Gordon, an idiot who becomes a guinea pig, or, if to follow the author's intention, a mouse, and who becomes a genius for a short time.

The work can be attributed to a science fiction drama. However, the element of fiction is small and subordinate, and the dramatic component is in the foreground.

So, Charlie Gordon has a unique chance: to undergo an operation on the brain, which will allow him to raise intellect to the normal level. A mouse named Algernon went through this serious operation, and his intellectual abilities increased at times.

Charlie keeps a diary in which he records his impressions, and the earliest records begin with the preoperative state, they are completely ignorant, he misunderstands the essence of what is happening around. After reading first lines, you find yourself in perplexity as you get the impression that you are reading a personal diary of a child who has just learned to write: grammatical errors, absence of punctuation, monosyllabic sentences ...

Through these notes, the author of the book introduces the main character, his way of life, his feelings and his mental evolution after the scientific experiment that was performed on him. At first glance, the plot may seem very simple and trivial, but philosophical depth and symbolism of the work lie in this simplicity.

The narrative begins in spring, when Charlie is going to do an operation to increase the rate of his mental abilities. We get acquainted with his primitive way of thinking and naive outlook on life. We understand that Charlie Gordon is a small child, trapped in the body of a 32-year-old man. Unfortunately, people around do not understand this fact. He is considered simply a mentally retarded person, so-called "friends" openly scoff at him. Charlie does not understand this because of his mental abilities, he sincerely loves his friends and trusts them. Despite his mental defect, he aspires to become an intelligent and educated person. Even among normal people, it is not always possible to meet such a craving for knowledge, like our hero has.

The character fascinates with his openness to the world around him, he is kind and sincere in his feelings, actions and attitude towards people. Here the problematic of the work lies – the society refuses to notice that people with mental disabilities have feelings and emotions, that they understand in their own way, they hear us in their own way and see the world in their own way. Sometimes we are so narrow-minded and ignorant that we try not to notice such people at best, but, in fact, we often laugh at them, considering them "vegetables". The protagonist, after becoming a genius after the experiment conducted by Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, correctly observes that it is so surprising that people of high moral principles who will never allow themselves to mock a person born without eyes, hands or feet, easily scoff at a human born without intellect.

It is worth thinking about, is not it?

So, the operation is successful, and intellect of the protagonist begins to grow at the incredible rate. Grammar becomes perfect, and thoughts become deeper from recording to recording. In a few months, Gordon becomes a brilliant scientist whose intellect rises above those people whom he wanted to look like before the operation. However, a mistake was made in the mechanism of changes in brain activity that made the inverse regression of mental abilities irreversible. Charlie realizes this, but cannot help it, losing his genius with each passing day and falling into amnesia. Over time, the syllable of his reports becomes poorer, he again forgets punctuation, grammar, and in autumn he becomes the same person that was before the operation.

The novel is quite simple in mastering, and, at first glance, nothing can be seen in this sad history. But is it true? In fact, here you can find a lot of philosophical ideas, which immediately catch the eye, trained in a thorough analysis of literature. The philosophical message of the work can be divided into several levels.

Irrationalism in Action

First, it is necessary to identify some irrational notes. As intelligence grows, Charlie becomes more and more alienated from people. He is constantly told that during his mental retardation he was good-natured, smiling, had many friends. But he perfectly understands what the price of this "friendship" was. If a person is ever smiling degenerate, then, of course, he will constantly be in the company of other people. But what is the price of such sociality? It consists in the fact that Charlie attracted people only because he was an eternal whipping boy and clown, an easy target for constant jeers of others.

In fact, this "sociality" is all the same alienation, only not realized by a mentally retarded person. Becoming reasonable, Charlie realized it and alienation only became more direct. A person removes alienation in joint mental and practical activities, but the peculiarity of modern society is such that neither a one-sided fool nor a brilliant scientist can do this simply because they do not correspond to the average level of unilateral development of other people.

Another irrational message is truer. In the novel, backwardness of sensible content of Charlie in comparison with reasonable one is constantly noticed. Intellect can be increased by locking yourself in a library. But the sensual side of a person can be developed only in constant practice of communicating with people. The operation sharply boosted the growth of intellectual abilities, but skills of interpersonal relationships remained at the level of child's development, and no operation could force their growth.

Charlie constantly suffers from this, and this is especially evident in his experience of communicating with women, in the way he cannot initially build a normal relationship with them. The "pure" mind itself is not enough for anything without development of other aspects of a human. Intellectual one-sidedness is not so detrimental as one-sided sensuality, when a person is stupid, but delicately understands vicissitudes of interpersonal relationships, but, nevertheless, it leads to sad results and destruction of a person.

In the same way, the novel raises the acute social theme of influence of a family on the formation of a personality. Agree that not every family can cope with the birth of a mentally retarded child, accept him or her and fall in love with what he or she is, give human warmth and care to this child. Most parents refuse such children in a hospital, and if they decide to bring them up, they try to correct the mistake made by nature, as Charlie's mother tried to do. Therefore, Charlie, experimentally raising his IQ, does not feel happy. He is emotionally stuck at the level of a child and in dire need of love, which his mother could not give him.

And he finds it in the guise of Alice, a teacher from a school for mentally retarded people. Seeing his student's unrestrained aspiration to knowledge and enviable persistence in achieving a goal, she leads him to scientists as a guinea pig. Both before and after the experiment, Alice strongly supports Charlie and loves him at first simply as her ward, and then as a lover. The love line runs through the whole work, but in the end, it leaves only the taste of bitterness.

Charlie cannot cope with feelings overwhelming him and remains misunderstood by Alice. Loneliness pursues him, and all his childhood fears do it together with loneliness. Little Charlie has not disappeared anywhere after the operation, feeling of inferiority remains in his head. Paradoxically, the character was rejected by the society being stupid, but after the scientific experiment, the situation even gets worse ... Charlie cannot find himself in this world, and this reflects the urgent conflict between an individual and the society.

Rational Ideas

But, one way or another, behind all the above irrational motifs through the whole novel, the main line is rational ideas. Let in some sense Charlie became alien to people, but at the same time, he became closer to them. If earlier his closeness to others was similar to the monkey's closeness to visitors at a zoo, then after the operation, everyone started treating him like a human, not a plaything for a laughing-stock. Let like a controversial person, not always the most pleasant for associates, but all the same like a person. He did a much greater service for humanity with his scientific work than with the fact that he amused crowds of onlookers.

Although Charlie also considered himself feeble-minded being a full-fledged person, but it was not so. Yes, then he had his own experiences, feelings, awareness of some things. But the determining party of a person is his or her mind, and only with full intellectual activity, with sufficient reflection and socialization, a person becomes a full-fledged individuality. And the very socialization of Charlie really began only after acquiring intellect.

Intellect, as it was, began to pull other sides of Charlie's personality, and although they needed independent development, the impulse to this development was given by mind, which clearly shows its decisive role in a human. Emotionality is also strongly tied to development of intelligence, in the case of Charlie, the mind seemed to fill an unfilled vessel of sensory experiences. The deeper consciousness reflects the world, the more diverse is his emotional experience.

Also, it is worth paying attention to the ridicule of religiosity. If Charlie-idiot knew neither science nor art, but was confident of the existence of God, then Charlie-genius, on the contrary, considered religious problems too insignificant and meaningless, and all his attention was focused on scientific problems. There is an interesting scene in the bakery, where the woman urged Gordon that after ceasing to be mentally retarded, he violated his divine destiny, which is recorded in his fate. Religiosity always puts into irons, which do not allow to rise above the current level of development, metaphysically denies the need for self-improvement.

A very important role in the novel is assigned to the mouse Algernon, who was the first to experience the failed, as it turned out, experiment to improve the mind. This character is very symbolic, Charlie identifies himself with the mouse. In the end, he repeats the fate of Algernon. The aspect of carrying out experiments on animals painfully touches not only Charlie, but also us, readers. This is another burning and actual problem till now, raised by Daniel Keyes in the novel.


In conclusion, it can be said that this novel, showing rise and fall of human spirit, makes one think about how great the role of intellect in a person is, how much the level of intellectual development transforms a person and drastically changes relations with people. Rationalistic orientation of this work becomes understandable in its philosophical analysis, but the author shows well the limitations of "pure" rationalism and makes it clear that other aspects of a human are relatively independent and are not reduced to only one intelligent activity.

After reading it, there remains a tart aftertaste of how the author decided to return a reader from the fantasy world to the harsh reality. This is the incredibly spiritual book that shakes all indifference inside us and just makes us empathize, be sad, love or, in fact, become a little more humane.

Rated 4.5 | 712 votes.

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