Thursday, 21 October 2010
Flowers for Algernon
It is a rare and wonderful thing; to read a book that makes you question the way you look at life. I found Flowers for Algernon to be such a powerful, beautiful and poignant book that I'm not sure I'm quite the same person after reading it.
The main character is Charlie Gordon, a good natured floor sweeper in the local bakery with an IQ of 68. To please his teacher Charlie volunteers for a secretive scientific program designed to turn people like him into super geniuses with IQs in excess of 200. The book is structured into a series of 'progress reports' written by Charlie shortly before and then after his treatment. The whole thing is seen through his eyes only. Right at the beginning of the book the progress reports (or 'progris riports' as Charlie writes) are written as if by a child. Here is an example of a typical passage early in the book:
“My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollars a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday I tolld dr Strauss and prefesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk”
As you can imagine it's not easy reading whole reports written like this but they don't last long after his procedure and by page 20 there are visible improvements to his writing. Around the page 40 mark there are hardly any mistakes at all and the length of the reports increases significantly.
Art by Matt Valuckis www.vasinvictor.com
As the story progresses and his intelligence increases Charlie becomes more aware of his surroundings and is able to communicate more effectively both with the reader and with other characters in the book. By halfway through the book he has become unrecognisable not just because of his obvious increase in intelligence but his overall outlook on life and even his personality. He goes from happy-go-lucky Charlie to a Mensa standard genius who is suddenly aware of what the real world is like and that everyone he used to hold as dear friends prior to his operation were actually laughing at him the whole time.
Charlie is a loveable character and I found myself quite fond of him. I desperately wanted him to be happy and believed (as I imagined I was supposed to) that once he gained intelligence it would lead to happiness. It is in this way that Daniel Keyes most effectively challenges stereotypes and prejudices I didn't even know I had. 'How can a person as stupid as that possibly be happy?' In reality even though Charlie was deluded into thinking people were his friends when he had a low IQ he was very happy. When he gained intelligence he also gained self-awareness and a strong insight into his life and his past problems. Loneliness, humiliation, insecurity, paranoia and anger threatened to overwhelm him as he struggled to come to terms with his new mind.
The book is multi-layered and I am certain when I re-read it I will notice other things I didn't see the first time around. Ultimately for me the main question that sprang out of the pages was; Is ignorance bliss? Is it better to go through life happy in the knowledge that everyone was your friend even though they weren't or would you rather be smart enough to know about their falsehood and be aware that the world is full of cruel, ignorant people...it's a good one for discussion I feel.
All in all a wonderful book not bogged down with any technical jargon and packed full of colourful characters and a heart-wrenching story that may or may not change the way you think (I make no guarantees!)
Final verdict 5/5