Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes ISBN: 978-0156030304, Mariner Books (May 1, 2005)

Plot Summary:

Charlie Gordon has an I.Q. of 68 and works a menial job at a bakery so that he will not have to be institutionalized. His mother never accepted his limitations and always pushed him to better himself. Then she pushed him away altogether in order to give his sister a “normal” childhood. Charlie thinks that his life would be better if he were smarter. It is while he is attending Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults, that he first hears about an experimental surgery that increases intelligence. Charlie agrees to undergo the surgery and over three months experiences increases in intelligence until his I.Q. score is 185. Unfortunately, greater intelligence does not equal greater happiness and Charlie grows ever more isolated.

Critical Evaluation: 

This novel is told in epistolary form, which is used to great effect as a device to record Charlie’s gain in intelligence, as well as his heartbreaking decline. The correlation between knowledge and happiness is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Charlie believes that he would have more friends if he were smarter, but when he becomes smarter, he realizes that his friends at the bakery were ridiculing him all along. A nurse tells Charlie that if God had wanted him to be smart God would have made him that way. This statement foreshadows Charlie’s eventual decline and also put the reader in mind of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge. Just as in the case of Adam and Eve, knowledge does not bring him happiness. Instead, his greater intelligence gives him the ability to predict his eventual relapse. He is aware that he will return to his former state, but he is unable to do anything about it. Though very sad, this novel is a good introduction to teens about the issues surrounding those who suffer from mental disabilities.

Information about the author:

Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927 As a young man, he served in the US Maritime Service and later received a BA in psychology from Brooklyn College (CUNY) Early in his professional life, Keyes worked as an editor of fiction; he was also employed in the fashion photography industry He later taught English in the New York City schools and returned to Brooklyn College to earn an MA in English and American Literature He also taught English and Creative writing courses at Ohio University, where he remains a Professor Emeritus In 1988 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal of Honor from Brooklyn College

Keyes’ published works include the novels The Touch (1968), about a radiation accident and its human toll; The Fifth Sally (1980), dealing with multiple personality disorder and an attempt to combine a sufferer’s separate personalities into a single personality; and Until Death Do Us Part: The Sleeping Princess (1998), concerned with the issue of mental competency in death penalty cases His non-fiction works include The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981), which examines the life of a man who suffers from multiple personality disorder and is acquitted of rape and kidnapping charges through an insanity defense; Unveiling Claudia: A True Story of Serial Murder (1986), which explores the story of Claudia Yasko, a woman who claimed to have murdered several individuals; The Milligan Wars (1994), a sequel to The Minds of Billy Milligan; and Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey (2004), which examines Keyes’ creation of his classic novel.

Of course, Keyes is most noted for Flowers for Algernon (1966) The work was initially published as a novelette in 1959 and won the Hugo award for Best Short Fiction in 1960 Keyes then expanded it into novel length This version of the story won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966 In 1968 a film of the novel, titled Charly, was made, starring Cliff Robertson

Daniel Keyes currently lives with his family in southern Florida, where he continues to write

Reader’s Annotation:

Charlie Gordon, a man suffering from mental retardation, thinks that his life would be better if he were smarter. He is about to find out.

Genre:

Realistic Fiction. 

Curriculum Ties:

The history of mental healthcare.

Booktalking Ideas:

Read exerpt from the book.

Reading Level/Interest Age:

N/A

Challenge Issues:

Sexual situations.

I would make sure that all material was purchased in accordance with my library’s collection development policy and make sure to keep a file containing positive reviews for books that I thought might be challenged. In the event of a challenge, I would actively listen to the parent’s concern and ask if they had read the book. I would then explain why the book had been added to the collection and provide with the reviews and a copy of the collection development policy. I would affirm that they are within their rights to limit what their children read, but that other parents also have the right to determine what their children can read. If all else failed, I would provide the parent with a reconsideration form.

Reasons for inclusion:

It is a classic crossover novel.

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