Sunday, February 24, 2008

Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" (novelette): Don't make fun of the mentally retarded, please

Quote from the story titled Flowers for Algernon by Daniel KeyesFirst raw impressions: fabulous first half, ok to good next quarter, & good last quarter.

This note is based on the original novelette version of the story. This version was later expanded into a full length novel of the same title. There is a movie adaptation of the same title too. And innumerable other adaptations.

For a story this widely dissected, different people are bound to see different things in it. I was most reminded of otherwise sensible people making fun of a hapless mental retard - because I've actually seen it & felt bad.

For Indian readers - another take on this story: If you've seen last year's superb movie "Lage Raho Munnabhai", there is a scene where the girl in restaurant calls Munna at radio station seeking advise on how to judge the man she's about to meet at the advise of her dad. Munna consults the ghost of Mahatma Gandhi, & is given this advise: "If you want to judge a man, observe how he behaves with those below his social station." There are strong echoes of it in this story.

When I looked around the web, I found rather varied takes of different individuals from this story. Here are a few that I can still recall:

  1. A case for being compassionate with your social inferiors.
  2. Pain of an Alzheimer's patient. While the last quarter sees the protagonist getting into loss similar to this, it's super-quick compared to Alzheimer's & also has some differences if my experience with someone who eventually died of it is any indication.
  3. Abstracting human growth - from child who finds everyone superior to decay in old age. Except that normal human children don't really consider themselves inferior, nor get defensive when they grow up with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis their elders.
  4. There is a cross-section of readers that feels the last quarter is fantastic because it's a tragedy & it makes them cry.
I've collected some quotes from this story. They don't have many pearls of wisdom, but they probably give a feel of the story & sentiments.

Story summary.

Story is set in New York (I suppose "City" is meant).

It's is in the form of diary entries, dated "martch 5, 1965" to July 28, of Charlie Gordon, 37, mentally feeble at the beginning of the story & a janitor at "Donnegan's Plastic Box Company".

Over the course of the story, a new experimental surgery will transform him into a genius; & then a mental decay back to old state & almost certain death (as a side effect of surgery). He is writing diary at the insistence of Dr Strauss, neurosurgeon who performed the surgery. He is free to write whatever comes to mind.

Story is not really about surgery or what goes into making a supermind. It's about human issues - Charlie getting routinely mistreated by those he trusts; then recognizing this & getting bugged by it; then lapsing again & seeking company of those old "friends" - only the friends have also changed for the better.


  1. Charlie Gordon: The protagonist. Initially feeble minded, but goes on to see greatness & mental decay.
  2. Algernon: A laboratory mouse who also has got the surgical treatment to triple his intelligence. In the beginning of the story, Charlie has many "races" with him - of solving mazes. Algernon keeps beating Charlie, until the transformational point in Charlie's treatment. Charlie will develop soft feelings for the little mouse - even make a grave for him when he dies to decay that will eventually set as side effect of surgery. Title comes from the flowers Charlie regularly puts at the grave of Algernon.
  3. Dr Strauss, 50, neurosurgeon who operated upon Charlie & is normally monitoring him.
  4. Dr Nemur, 60, "psychoexperimentalist". He seems to have a key role in discovery of this treatment for intelligence, though we are not given details. Prodded by an overbearing wife, he is driven by social status & recognition from others.
    For a while, during his shining days, Charlie will give him an inferiority complex & will take his work further in the form of a paper titled "The Algernon-Gordon Effect: A Study of Structure and Function of Increased Intelligence" that says the treatment is effectively no good & will always end up killing the subjects.
  5. Miss Kinnian, 34. She teaches at a school for the mentally feeble. Charlie was her student, & she recommended him to Dr Strauss. During his shiny days, Charlie will fall in love with her but the relationship has always been doomed.
  6. Joe Carp, Frank Reilly: Charlie's coworkers at factory. While Charlie thinks of them as friends, they treat him as joker. Relationship will strain when Charlie gets smart. In the end, with Charlie lapsing again, they will become real friend & defend him against those who now abuse him.
  7. Amos Borg: Foreman at Charlie's factory. Another man who makes jokes at Charlie's expense. Has a very small role in story.
  8. Mr Donnegan: Proprietor of Charlie's factory.
  9. Mrs Flynn: Charlie's land lady. A woman with a golden heart.
  10. Burt: A lab assistant at hospital. Will play a role in helping Charlie figure out the world as he gets smarter.

See also.

  1. C L Moore's "Daemon" (1946): There is so much similarity between Moore's & this story that I'll be very surprised if Moore's version wasn't a major direct influence on Keyes'.
  2. Ted Chiang's "Understand" (1991): Obviously inspired by this story of Keys'. While it's not the best of Chiang, now that I've read both, I think Keys' version is incomparably more competent.

Collected in.

  1. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".

Fact sheet.

"Flowers for Algernon", short story, review
First published: F&SF, April 1959.
Rating: A
Listed in Contento's Top Ten Most Reprinted Stories.
Winner of Hugo Award 1960 in "short fiction" category. This category is now-a-days split into short story, novelette, & novella. I didn't do word count, but I have a feel this story is novelette length.
This story was expanded in 1966 to novel length under the same title.