Trigger warning: This novel mentions scenes about animal testing and contains slurs that are considered derogatory in this day and age. It’s important to remember that this book was written in 1959––a time when animal testing may not have yet been questioned and people were not as socially-conscious of the words they used to describe individuals with disabilities. Given this, I’d like to mention that I don’t condone some of the words and scenes mentioned in this novel and that I take it solely as a work of fiction.
At least once in your life, you might have encountered the idiom of “putting yourself in another person’s shoes” in order to understand them.
Whether this saying was told to you by a friend, colleague, or family member, you’ve most likely taken their advice and tried to imagine yourselves in other people’s situations. Oftentimes, this gives you a clearer picture of what the other person is going through and allows you to better empathize with them.
This particular sentiment is exemplified in the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
It’s a story that explores the mind and experiences of Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man with a learning disability who undergoes surgery in an effort to make himself “smarter” and more “normal.”
Through Charlie’s progress reports, you (as a reader) will get to witness all the challenges, accomplishments, and emotions Charlie goes through as he experiences the effects of the surgery. And when he notices Algernon––the mouse that has undergone the same experiment as him––seemingly regressing long after its surgery, it begs the question: will the same fate await Charlie in time?
Flowers for Algernon is a beautiful yet somewhat heartbreaking story that most people should read about. In fact, here are a few good reasons why you should consider picking up the novel for yourself:
The writing is great and immersive
The book begins with Charlie’s entries before the surgery. Through these initial reports, Keyes shows readers how Charlie is quite different from the other people around him. This is emphasized in Charlie’s earlier progress reports, wherein he would often misspell words and use the wrong grammar and punctuation in his sentences.
However, as the book progresses, you’ll slowly see the change in the writing, highlighting Charlie’s increased mental development after the surgery. And the way Keyes wrote this was so gradual that it’s only when you focus on the words on the page, you’ll notice a big difference in the way Charlie documents his progress.
It’s this aspect of the book that really allows you to see first-hand how the surgery is affecting Charlie and how it’s changing the way he views the people and the places around him. This, in turn, makes the book immersive and draws the reader in towards the story.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way about the book. A number of people reported on the book review platform Goodreads about being affected by the story.
One reviewer wrote, “I am finding it hard to put into words the vast range of emotions I experienced while reading this tale of hope, perseverance, truth and humanity.” And another online user described it as “captivating and heartbreaking.”
The book lets you think about the question: What makes a person human?
One aspect the book frequently touches on is the idea of what makes a person human. It begs the questions: Is it their IQ that makes them human? Is it measured by their ability to process emotions? Is it gauged by the accomplishments they have? Or is it just the fact that they’re alive and breathing that makes them a person worthy of love and respect?
These questions all come to mind as the reader sees how other people interact with Charlie, especially before his surgery. In the early days, you can clearly see how badly Charlie was treated; and when he got his surgery done and he was getting more and more intelligent, people around him started viewing him differently.
The truth is Charlie was already human even before his surgery––capable of feeling emotions and making memories. And this point is clearly emphasized in the many events in the novel.
Moreover, it shows that even people with disabilities can leave their mark on the world. Through the character of Charlie, readers can see that any person (with good intention) can make a huge difference to those around them.
In Charlie’s case, it was about helping others like him who may undergo the same operation. As Charlie said, “If I can find out and if it adds, even one jot of information to whatever else has been discovered about intellectual disabilities* and the possibility of helping others like myself, I will be satisfied. Whatever happens to me, I will have lived a thousand normal lives by what I might add to others not yet born. That is enough.”
Overall, it is a meaningful and timeless story that deserves more attention from today’s generation. And it easily is one of the five-star books I’ve read this 2022.
Here’s to hoping you’ll give Flowers for Algernon a try!
(*word was replaced to make it more politically-correct)