Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon

June 18, 2014

41Fjf1EXV+L._AA160_Another reactive post: today the death of SF writer Daniel Keyes was announced; I’ve long admired this novel, and as a former student of SF, wanted to add my thoughts and appreciation.

The novel began as a short story ‘Charley‘ before being developed into a full-length novel; a young man with a very low IQ and serious learning difficulties becomes the subject of an experimental scientific and medical procedure which apparently can address his problems; as a result his intelligence gradually increases until he is far ahead of those hwo developed and administered the procedure. Tragedy then strikes: the effects achieved are not permanent and Charley knows that he will regress gradually to a point possibly even worse than where he began…

We follow his story, the changes he undergoes and difficulties he faces, and his interaction with the scientists whose experiment he ultimately is. Keyes’ master-stroke was to have Charley tell his own story from start to finish as a diary, complete with his poor grammar, spelling and understanding of the world, his naivete, his feelings and emotions in his own words, at the outset; his growing intellect is reflected in his style and attitude, as is his end… it would be very hard not to be moved by the picture Keyes paints, because to have known and to know one will lose, and to see the loss, is surely tragic.

Back in my days as a teacher, it was a great text to use at GCSE. I paired it with Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, another novel about a scientist experimenting with life from a completely different era. We looked at how the writers explored the changes undergone by the subjects of the experiments, and how they also explored the responsibilities of scientists towards society and their guinea-pigs. Students produced some very thoughtful and high quality work; we were able to consider how the novels were written differently because of the time, how writers structured stories, and how they manipulated readers’ responses. In Gove-land, this will not be permitted.

There was apparently a film made of the book, which I have not seen. And Algernon, if you are wondering, is a mouse which underwent the experiment before Charley and became his pet; Algernon’s death makes everyone realise that the experiment has not been a success….

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