Flowers for Algernon: A Book Review

When I picked this book up, I was thinking that this year I wanted to read more classic sci-fi/fantasy. The genre has always been my favourite, the one I go to when I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for. Reading this book only made me more determined to pursue that vague goal I gave myself at the beginning of the year.

Flowers for Algernon is about Charlie, a man who has grown up with a very low IQ. He can’t read or write very well, and he has a very simple view of the world, like a child. He undergoes an operation as part of an experiment which promises to make him smarter. The experiment has previously proven successful on Algernon, a lab mouse. Charlie’s intelligence increases in leaps and bounds, to the point he becomes something of a genius. Then Algernon starts to fade, and Charlie realises the effects of the experiment are only temporary.

The story is told as a series of progress reports which Charlie is writing for the experimenters. At the start, his spelling is all over the place, and he narrates things which happen to him in a simplistic manner. You really feel for Charlie, his narration has a kind of innocence to it and he often doesn’t realise the motives of other people are not as good as he thinks. As the book progresses, his intelligence increases, and his character changes.

This was a very emotive, thought-provoking story. I think the most interesting part for me was how as Charlie’s intelligence grew, his impressions of the people around him changed- he realised the professors carrying out the experiment were human and flawed, his colleagues at work were not laughing with him but at him. It was sad, but also kind of hopeful. Even though the realisations made him angry or upset at first, he kept trying to understand and make excuses for everyone.

I think at its heart this book is about how we treat each other, and how intelligence and emotional maturity/empathy don’t always go hand in hand. We can learn a lot from Charlie’s attitude to his life and his experience, from the way that he refused to lay the blame for his situation at anybody else’s feet, even after all the heart-breaking things he finds out about his past. Despite this, you never feel like you’re being preached at when reading this book, and it makes for a quiet, thoughtful reading experience.

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