Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
Oh, man, I was all set in this July of science fiction adventures to peg the tale of Charlie Gordon, with his IQ of 68, as an example of human hubris in the face of nature, a la last Wednesday’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
I underestimated the sex.
Because Charlie’s artificially enhanced intelligence doesn’t just make him smarter than the average lab mouse. It pushes him through decades of social and emotional growth in a few months. His experience is as heady and terrifying as any teenager’s -- moving from a barely expressible crush on his favorite teacher, to adolescent awkwardness to rather mild sexual experimentation to mature love -- and back down the scale. Little wonder that Cheryl Hill’s 2004 study, “A History of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon,” cited its “especially striking ability to appeal to adolescent readers.”
But its those strikingly inexplicit sex scenes that have made Flowers for Algernon #43 on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books. And that’s for the decade 1990-1999, not from the bad old days when respectable book reviewers could use the word “moron” with impunity to refer to Charlie’s original intellectual level.
As I was reading that statistic, I remembered a young woman with Downs’ syndrome at a therapy center where I do volunteer work discussing her wedding plans. Remembered editor Judith Kleinfeld’s study Fantastic Antone Grows Up, which considered the benefit of a supportive spouse or partner for adults with fetal alcoholism. And, remembered, less happily, periodic news reports of horrific sexual abuse of the disabled.
The short story version of Flowers for Algernon was published in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, after author Daniel Keyes refused the request of another magazine to give the tale a happy ending.
The story tracks the progress and regress in his own words of Charlie Gordon, a young man who undergoes an experimental procedure to enhance his intelligence, with the encouragement of his teacher, Alice Kinnian. A similar procedure has given a laboratory mouse named Algernon mental abilities superior to Charlie’s, who is understandably embarrassed to by out thought by a rodent. But as Charlie’s intellect develops, he soon surpasses the scientists who look upon him as their own creation. Unfortunately, neither Algernon’s nor Charlie’s improvements are permanent. After Algernon’s death, Charlie, realizing he will suffer the same fate, steels himself for a return to his previous life. At the end, he asks Alice to place memorial flowers on the mouse’s grave.
The initial story won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. In spite of its popularity, the expanded novel version was initially refused by several publishers who wanted a happy ending for Charlie, before seeing publication in 1966. It has never been out of print since.
For more about Keyes, see
The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities has a discussion of sexuality and intellectual disability, available at www.aamr.org/.
And check out which of favorite books are most frequently challenged at
(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Who knew the destruction of our planet could be so much fun?)