Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ [Flowers for Algernon] – On Disability, Animality, and Structure

Flowers for Algernon

I think I’ll begin by stating that Flowers for Algernon is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books that I’ve read recently. In the narrative, Algernon is the name of a laboratory mouse who successfully underwent an operation to increase its intelligence. The main focus of the novel, however, is Charlie Gordon,  a man suffering from Phenylketonuria with an IQ of around 70. Charlie undergoes  the same procedure done to Algernon, and consequently becomes a genius and a ployglot within a short period of time. However, the procedure is found to have a major flaw, which leads to the mental detriment of both characters.

There were many things I loved about this novel. It is delivered in an epistolary fashion by Charlie, so his musings are quite candid and honest, and his struggle to become a “normal” human being is frequently highlighted throughout the narrative. Even when Charlie becomes a genius, he realizes that there is a difference between being intellectually mature and emotionally mature. Although he is able to quickly learn languages and conduct difficult thought experiments with ease after the operation, he finds it difficult to make friends and connect with people emotionally, and even sexually. What we have here is a novel of development, or a Bildungsroman, that takes place after the character has reached adulthood, which I find completely fascinating.

I thought the epistolary structure of the novel added much dimension to it, for through Charlie’s writing we are able to observe his intellectual progress and detriment. Charlie’s first epistles contain many grammatical errors, words are usually spelled according to their pronunciation, and the vocabulary is relatively simple. The first sentence of his writing, for instance, is: “Dr Struss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on” (Keyes). As the narrative progresses, and especially after Charlie undergoes his procedure, he begins to improve his punctuation, his grammar, and the complexity of his words and ideas dramatically increases. This change of writing style really adds to the character’s ethos and our ability to connect to his words.

Flowers for Algernon was very rich thematically, and it covered issues such as the role of mentally disabled human beings within our society, and other complex issues, such as the relationship between humans and animals and the effects of psychological and physical abuse to children with expressions of intelligence that deviate from the norm. The novel really tried to deal with the differences that exist between mental and physical disabilities, an issue that I have personally grappled with in terms of my past work with representations of disability within contemporary fiction. In one instance, the protagonist questions how mentally disabled persons are viewed and approached by people who have neutral bodies and minds:

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 thing nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I–like this boy–had foolishly played the clown. (Keyes)

Flowers for Algernon stressed the ludicrous nature of the hierarchies and the restrictions that are imposed upon certain types of disabilities. The protagonist points out how quickly people can accept and lament physical disabilities because they are easily seen and readable. People with physical disabilities are thus considered marked by other people. The issue with mental handicaps, as interpreted by the protagonist, is that since they are not readable through the body, but rather performed, it gives people the right to consider mental illness as an inferior type of disability.

It’s easier to understand that which can be seen and felt, is it not? Of course, the protagonist actively challenges this idea. Most people, prior to his operation, didn’t even consider Charlie to be a person or a human being–as if intelligence was the spark that ignited his humanity or his spirit. This, of course, is where issues of animality are present within the novel, and it is also the reason why the protagonist identifies so strongly with Algernon. Algernon’s mental deterioration foreshadows Charlie’s eventual intellectual regression, and  Charlie thus makes it his mission to understand the causes for Algernon’s sudden and rapid loss of intelligence.

In perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel, Algernon dies. Rather than getting rid of the laboratory mouse via incineration, Charlie buries him in a yard, giving Algernon the validation that few people bestowed upon him as a living creature. As Charlie’s mental health deteriorates, he continues to visit Algernon’s grave and places flowers over it, treating the mouse as more of an individual than any other person ever did. This of course, is due to Charlie’s strong association with the mouse: they are both Others, and they both deviate not only from expectations of normalcy, but also expectations of humanity. Charlie’s lack of intelligence makes him more animal than human according to the views of those who surround him, and thus, he is locked within the categorical cages that they imposed on him.

As a final remark, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this novel and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflowerwhich leads me to believe that Flowers to Algernon was undoubtedly an influence for Chobosky’s novel. The protagonists of both novels are named Charlie, both illustrate the developmental themes of the novel through the protagonist’s writing and writing style (see my essay on Perks’ use of writing to illustrate development here), both illustrate honest and open characters, and Perks even contains an epistle that discusses a laboratory rat, an obvious tribute to Keyes’ novel. I would further like to explore how Perks is ultimately part of the Algernon genealogy… I think there’s a lot of interesting things to be said when juxtaposing both books together.

All in all, Flowers for Algernon was an amazing read that stimulated me both intellectually and emotionally. I’m glad that years after the novel’s publication (1966), people continue to give Charlie and Algernon the validation and the importance that was never given to them within the novel itself.

References:

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1994. Ebook version.

Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” – On Disability, Animality, and Structure was originally posted on http://angelmatos.net on May 25th, 2013.

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