American writer (The Minds of Billy Milligan), awarded the Hugo Award for the short story Flowers for Algernon, given the Author Emeritus honour by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2000, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ohio University.
Flowers for Algernon, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959
Available to read online here
This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. This is how they begin their description of this method: “Like monologists and correspondents, the diarists of the next two stories are reacting to events almost as they happen; like correspondents, they write on successive dates. But as diarists they are not writing to anyone in particular: “Dear Diary” suggests a curious image of an audience that is somehow close to the writer, and yet rather general; the imaginary listener or correspondent does not respond at all.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Flowers for Algernon
Charlie Gordon, aged 37, with an IQ of 68, a student at Miss Alice Kinnian’s remedial reading evening classes, and a general helper at Mr Donnegan’s factory, is approached by two doctors, Nemur and Strauss, to be the subject of an experiment. A little white mouse, Algernon by name, is part of the same experiment, to see if they can artificially raise his intelligence. So far, Algernon’s intelligence has increased extraordinarily. Can the experiment work the same way for a man?
At first, the success (or otherwise) of the experiment is reflected in Charlie’s regular progress reports that he writes for Nemur and Strauss; as the weeks go by, his understanding of language, grammar, spelling and so on all improve by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Charlie and Algernon have been competing in how quickly they can escape from a maze; at first Algernon wins easily, but after a while Charlie starts to beat Algernon. In the end they dispense with the maze races.
But it’s not just Charlie’s intelligence and dexterity that improve. He undergoes an emotional development too, realising to enormous shame that he has been the butt of jokes at the factory as they have been laughing at his stupidity, rather than with him. He also realises he is falling in love with Miss Kinnian. It’s not long before Charlie’s intelligence outshines those of the two doctor scientists and his English teacher; and he realises that he needs to take charge of the experiment himself and starts to write reports and undergo research that will all make the experiment much more easily and dynamically understood.
And then Algernon starts to get irascible, unpredictable, and within a few days he dies. It was always a danger that any intelligence growth by Charlie might be temporary, and that he might regress again – or worse. As time runs out, Charlie tries to complete as much of the research and science as he possibly can; but he’s facing a losing battle. He goes back to sweeping the floors at the factory; refuses to see Alice Kinnian; and in the end is a shadow of his former self, with just the occasional flash of memory. His last words, in his last diary entry, are: “Please, if you get the chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard”.
This is not my idea of a typical Science Fiction story. No zombies, no galaxies far far away; just an exploration of what could happen if a certain type of scientific research were to grow and be applied to a man. You might say that the experiment should never have been tried on a human being until they had done much more research with mice; Algernon’s death would surely have put paid to Nemur and Strauss’ dream. But that would have deprived Charlie of the pleasure of intelligence – of reading great books, of working out scientific theories, of falling in love. Would it have been fairer not to have involved him, or did it give him the chance of a brilliant life? There are all sorts of ethical questions that this story throws up, and I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer to any of them.
Massively successful as a short story, in 1966, Keyes expanded it into a full scale novel of the same name, which was the joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It became a film, a play, a musical; it has been adapted into all sorts of media all around the world. My own personal link to the story was seeing the West End musical (called Charlie and Algernon when it was shown in the US) and being completely overwhelmed by it, emphasising the emotional side by concentrating more on the love affair between Charlie and Alice. However, I truly admire the original short story for its brevity and simplicity; Keyes’ fantastic concept, which is only a small step away from reality, captures the imagination and the heart with huge power and immediacy.
The diary technique works extremely well with this story as we see at first hand how Charlie’s understanding of basic grammar and literacy gradually improves through the treatment up until the time when Algernon dies and then it all starts to go badly wrong; and there isn’t a dry eye in the bookshop or library when you get to the end.
It’s an outstanding read, an absolute classic of the genre, and it’s a testament to the strength of the original that it could be adapted into so many other art forms, in so many cultures. Completely appropriate that Keyes should have been so significantly lauded for it.
The next story in the anthology is the second of the two diary narration stories, Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. I’ve read some Gogol and he’s a brilliant, exciting and witty writer, so this should be very good!