Flowers for Algernon is a classic science fiction novel as poignant today as it was on its release. Flowers for Algernon is an elegantly beautiful book that almost defies analysis.
Flowers for Algernon – Summary
Flowers for Algernon describes the life of Charlie Gordon. Charlie starts the novel with severe learning difficulties. He is ‘cured’ of these learning difficulties through an experimental procedure, after which he becomes a genius beyond classification. The story follows both his intellectual and emotional development and asks some pretty tough questions of the reader along the way.
The Main Themes of Flowers for Algernon
The main themes of the novel are if it is better to be happy but ignorant or intelligent but sad, whether intelligence defines our value, emotional versus intellectual intelligence, the connection between memory and identity and the treatment of the disabled in society.
Happy and ignorant or intelligent and sad?
Charlie before the operation was kind and good-natured. He was also laughed at, ignored, and abused by those around him. He was, however, for the most part, blissfully unaware of being the butt of society’s joke. His only real sadness was the realisation that he wasn’t as smart as everyone else.
After the operation, he sees how the world has treated him and he is also capable of understanding some of the emotional trauma inflicted on his prior self. This trauma often being inflicted by his overbearing and domineering mother. Re-living this pain with greater understanding brings as much pain as it does closure. On top of this, he finds it almost as difficult to form meaningful connections when he is at the apex of his genius as he did before the operation.
His newfound intelligence is also a source of resentment for those around him and eventually he becomes so smart that he feels alienated from the comparatively dumb mass of humanity.
Flowers for Algernon never answers the question of whether or not it is better to be ‘happy and ignorant’ or ‘intelligent and sad.’ Instead it highlights that we are rarely content with our position in the world. We always feel that some better level of living is just outside our reach, that we can glimpse contentment but never hold it. We will never truly understand Charlie’s predicament, but reading about it allows us to dwell on our condition.
The narrative is concerned as much with Charlie’s emotional awareness as his intellectual development. Charlie’s attempt to grow emotionally is slow and painful. Each step towards understanding is as hard won as the last and as comfortable as a dislocated shoulder. Much of his emotional development is centred around his relationship with three women. Alice, the nurturing teacher who helped Charlie qualify for the procedure. Fay, the spirit-like artist who helps post-procedure Charlie find his identity. And his aforementioned mother, who casts a shadow over the whole novel. Through Charlie’s relationship with these women, we see him grow emotionally into a man. Perhaps not a happy or content man, but a man nonetheless.
Are we more than our memories?
For much of the novel, we are asked to consider two different Charlies. The Charlie with an IQ of 68 and the Charlie who’s a genius beyond compare. These persons are connected by sharing a common body and memories. Other than that they are treated as separate entities, sometimes even fighting over the same body.
Although this serves a narrative purpose, it also raises an interesting point. If we dramatically change as people, should we be considered a separate entity to who we were before? If I was banged on the head so hard my brain chemistry was completely altered to the degree that I had a total personality change, should I be considered a completely different person? When we dwell on this we start to wonder if our identity is perhaps more fluid than we believe it to be.
Does our intelligence give us value?
A large portion of Flowers for Algernon is given over to Charlie obsessing about others intelligence. Before the operation, he is painfully aware of his intellectually subnormal status. Afterwards, he grades people constantly on their intelligence in relation to him and others. This, along with his stunted emotional development, greatly affects his relationship with the women he loves. In fact, he is only really capable of loving Alice when they are at similar intellectual levels. This need to know where we stand in relation to others, whether it be in relation to intelligence, money or looks, is childish but very human.
The treatment of the disabled in Flowers for Algernon
The best the disabled people depicted in Flowers for Algernon can hope for is to be taken care of. They are pitied, they are laughed at and they are hidden away from society. They are never shown respect. All because they are less intellectually able than the rest of us. Flowers for Algernon subtly points out that intelligence is not the only measure of a person and suggests we should have more empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our review and analysis of Flowers For Algernon and would be interested in reading some more reviews of classic science fiction. Or you could take a look at our ultimate science fiction reading list. If you’ve read this before reading the book, make sure you pick it up. You can read our 10 Ten Quotes from Flowers for Algernon here.