Flowers for Algernon Book Review

Charlie was a 32-year-old man with an intellectual disability. His IQ was only 68— He wasn’t able to learn or memorize or do complex actions as non-disabled people could. He lived a happy life because he thought everyone was his friend, and he couldn’t remember anything bad. His dream was to become clever, so everyone would love him even more. 

The book Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes, is narrated from Charlie’s point of view in a series of progress reports — something like a diary — written by him. In Flowers for Algernon, scientists did some experiments on Charlie, and his IQ began to improve dramatically. He began to learn and he could memorize quickly, and he became a talent in a few months. Algernon was a laboratory mouse. The changes that happened to him reflected the basic changes that happened to Charlie’s psychology after the experiments on him. 

I thought that Charlie would live a wonderful life after becoming very clever, but the book gave me a surprise. When his IQ was becoming higher and higher, he began to know more and more about things happening around him. He found that people were mocking him, and there were only a few people who truly loved him.  His “friends” were actually making fun of him, and some of the “doctors” were treating him as a laboratory mouse instead of a person. He was expelled from his “home” — the bakery; he found out that his mother abandoned him because he was “stupid” when he was still a boy, and his sister thought he was a monster. He couldn’t properly communicate with people who loved him because the gap between their IQs was too big, and their thinking was so different. 

Unfortunately, Charlie began to lose his IQ again gradually. He couldn’t stop it from decreasing, no matter how much effort he made. He was anxious, hopeless, and irascible. He began to treat people he loved, and even himself, rudely. Algernon, the lab mouse, acted like him, as well, and he died after a few weeks. Charlie stopped making any effort; the only thing he did was to lie on the sofa and stare at the TV day by day. He knew that eventually, his IQ would be even lower than 68. The book gave the readers a feeling of hopefulness when Charlie was going to become clever, and then it took the readers’ (and also Charlie’s) hope away little by little. A sense of powerlessness ran throughout the entire book; it seemed like no matter what Charlie did, nothing would become better.

However, another surprise happened. After Charlie’s IQ dropped low enough in the last few chapters of the book, his happiness returned. The workers in the bakery accepted him again. When Charlie was taunted by a new worker, the old workers who had expelled Charlie before protected him and expelled the new worker instead. When Charlie had difficulties doing his job, they helped him and taught him things he forgot again. Charlie hated no one anymore, not the doctors, not his parents or sister, not anyone who had hurt him. His heart was full of warmness again. He felt joyful every day.

Why couldn’t Charlie solve his troubles when his IQ had become very high?

When I read the book for the first time, I couldn’t understand why Charlie was not able to find solutions to solve the troubles he experienced when his IQ was high, However, when I read the book again, I found that although Charlie’s IQ had improved a lot, his heart was still like a child’s. I realized that we all experience a lot of things during the process of growing up. We learn how to communicate with others, we learn how to overcome difficulties, and we learn what humanity is. However, Charlie knew nothing about these. He thought everyone was kind and friendly until the day the scientists conducted the experiment on him. Then he became like a person who had slept for centuries, and he was suddenly awakened. He didn’t know how to live a “common person’s” life now; he needed to study the world again, but no one could teach him. We were taught gradually by our parents, by our teachers, and by others over decades, but Charlie needed to learn all of these by himself in a few months. He suddenly saw reality and became aware of plenty of malice from people around him before he knew how to deal with them. As a result, he began to magnify all the malice. He didn’t trust anyone, so he refused to ask people who actually cared about him for help. 

What’s the reason for what happened in the bakery?

When Charlie was still having an intellectual disability, the other workers in the bakery always made fun of him. He didn’t realize that; he thought they were his friends. He thought they laughed at him because they loved him. However, after becoming non-disabled, he understood. He didn’t give them a chance to mock him anymore, and he did his job perfectly with the highest efficiency. Charlie also caught an old worker stealing money, but he didn’t allow the worker to lose his job. Nevertheless, Charlie was expelled from the bakery. Why was that? 

Why did the other workers hate Charlie even more after he became clever and even asked the boss to fire Charlie? I think it was because of their sense of inferiority. The other workers didn’t want to accept the fact that the person who had been “stupid” in the past was becoming much more clever than they were. They used to get a feeling of superiority by making fun of “Stupid Charlie,” but now they could only find their own shortcomings when facing Charlie. Consequently, they asked the boss to fire Charlie. The bakery wasn’t big, there were only a few workers, and the “boss” didn’t have much authority. Nearly all the workers hated Charlie, so he was fired, though he had been working in the bakery for years. 

However, the same workers treated Charlie kindly after he became “stupid” again. Why was that? In my opinion, this was similar to what happened to Malena in the movie Malèna. In my opinion, people treated Malena well not only because her powerful husband came back, but also because they were forgiving themselves. They were convincing themselves that “I’m a kind person. I’m a nice person. Look, I treat her so well!”

The comparison between the musical version and the book version of Flowers For Algernon

I watched the musical Flowers For Algernon, too. In fact, I watched the musical before I read the book. The songs and dances in the musical were fantastic, and the plot was warm. In the musical, all the people, including the workers in the bakery, loved Charlie. The final ending was Charlie lying on the stage with a smile of relaxation, and all the others stand around him singing a heart-warming song. I thought the musical was perfect, but after I read the book, I found that the musical wasn’t very good compared to the book. The musical nearly changed the whole plot. In conclusion, if you want to read something thought-provoking, I strongly recommend this book! But if you want to feel warm and joyful, watching the musical is a very good choice!

Finally, here’s a quote written by Plato in his book Πολιτεία (The Republic), which I think very closely aligns with the theme of the book Flowers for Algernon. It is written at the beginning of the novel:

“Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.”