Sunday, 18 March 2012

Some of my favourite reads No 3

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys

I first read Flowers for Algernon as a short story in 1960, about a year after it was originally published and it impressed me no end. A few years later I discovered that Daniel Keyes had expanded it into a novel, which I immediately bought and devoured. It did not put me off, knowing the overall plot, so I hope this review, which contains some minor spoilers, will not prevent you dear reader from reading this wonderful novel.

When I first read the novel I was not disappointed and to use a comparison, it was not like the stretching out of a half hour TV episode into a feather film, the story had been expanded in a masterful way. My original 1968 copy started showing the signs of a much loved book by getting rather dog eared and tatty but this book has never gone out of print for long to my knowledge, so I recently replaced it when it finally fell apart.

This fine book has had a number of TV, radio, stage and film spin-offs and even a musical, although none of them seem to have been a resounding hit. It is a difficult story to bring to life, since it is in the form of a diary and the changes in the writing are an important part of the plot, but it is the humanity in the story that makes it so recyclable. Poor Charlie Gordon, like Mephistopheles, has looked upon the face of God but can never achieve heaven.

Charlie is mentally sub normal. Innocent and child-like he is dimly aware that he is missing something in life and believes that if only he could learn to read and write he would become smart like his friends in the bakery where he works. He enrols in night school and impresses his teacher by his strong desire to try to improve himself.

Meanwhile a group of researchers have created an experimental medical technique to increase intelligence, with notable success on the white laboratory mouse Algernon, and now they want to try it on a human. Charlie’s teacher suggests that they use Charlie Gordon as a guinea pig. Charlie on being told what it may achieve, promptly volunteers and he is given the new treatment.

Throughout the pages of this book, you get to know Charlie as he starts to understand who he is. It is easy to empathise with him because the whole book is written by Charlie himself as he writes up personal progress reports for the experiment. Starting off as a struggling illiterate, with few words he gradually improves until he is writing and expressing himself fluently. As he starts to become smarter, he begins to realises what the people he thought of as friends at the bakery really thought of him. Eventually the experiment, which had started so well, proves to be a failure and Charlie gradually realises what is in store for himself as Algernon the mouse starts to degenerate until eventually you come to the point where you understand why there were flowers for Algernon.
Flowers for Algernon helps understand those less gifted with intelligence than yourself and if you do not already understand, you will see them in a different light after reading this book.
If you do not like sad endings do not read this book, it is compelling and moving but ultimately very sad but I am glad I have read it and will certainly read it again and again.

Since composing the post, I have found several other Blog sites posting this book and some using it as educational literature, so it seems I am not alone with my opinion of this novel.  Also the blurb on the book cover states that five million other readers have bought the book, although it does not say that five million people all liked what they read, I like to think so, but if it is used by schools and colleges, having a book you must read often puts you off.  It certainly put me off Dickens and I only read and enjoyed his books several decades after leaving school.  So if you had to read it as a student, give it another try, it may not be as bad as you think.  


  1. I've never read it. Maybe I should.

  2. The book sounds interesting, snafu. I'm going to see if it's an ebook (trying to downsize on 'real' books!) Thanks for your always great and easy to read reviews!

  3. This sounds lovely - I must search it out. x