“Flowers for Algernon,” first published in 1959, is considered a landmark work in both science fiction and disability literature. It was expanded into a novel of the same name, which was published in 1966. Both the short story and the novel consist of a series of progress reports that track Charlie Gordon, a 37-year-old man suffering from mental retardation, through an experimental procedure designed to triple his I.Q. Charlie is the first human to receive the operation, though it has been successfully completed on a laboratory mouse, Algernon. Charlie’s early reports are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors; a month after the operation, the reports are grammatically correct. Within two months Charlie complains that the doctors in charge of the experiment cannot read Hindustani and Chinese. This rapid growth in intelligence from an I.Q. of 68 to triple that figure is accompanied by a crippling isolation from other people. A decline in his intelligence is first predicted by Algernon’s rapid regression, and Charlie soon conducts experiments into his own condition. He finds that his regression will be as rapid as his ascent to genius. The last progress reports are similar in style to those at the beginning, and Charlie closes the story by telling the doctors that he will be leaving New York, presumably to enter a state-operated home.
Experimentation is the predominant theme in “Flowers for Algernon.” At the height of his intelligence, Charlie complains that Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur, the doctors conducting the experiment, are not the mental giants he once perceived them to be. Some of his complaining can be accurately perceived as hubris—his aforementioned complaint about the professors’ knowledge of foreign languages is certainly unreasonable, considering their wide reading knowledge in Western languages. Much of Charlie’s observations about the doctors, though, can be interpreted as a nuanced critique on the medical establishment. The doctors argue at several points in the story, and the arguments reveal that they are often more interested in self-advancement than in Charlie’s development. Dr. Nemur is especially held to ridicule because he is primarily driven by his wife’s prodding. If the doctors are in a certain sense using Charlie, then the parallelism between him and Algernon takes on more significance. In the short story, Charlie is implicitly similar to Algernon because the doctors use him for advancement of their careers. The novel makes this theme more explicit through confrontations between Charlie and Dr. Nemur about the latter’s attitude toward the former. Dr. Nemur states that Charlie is a new creation of sorts, that he has achieved personhood through the experiment.
Charlie’s status as experimental subject comes into focus at the end of “Flowers for Algernon,” when he researches the consequences of the experiment conducted that made him a genius. The turning point in both the short story and the novel happens in a diner: A retarded young man breaks a plate and the customers, including Charlie, laugh at him. The moment defines the rest of the story because Charlie realizes how deeply he has isolated himself from other people during his ascent to genius. Although he has gained many gifts, he has also lost his meaningful relationships; thus, the connection with the retarded young man motivates Charlie to pursue research for the betterment of all who suffer from retardation. His research is set in opposition to the research of Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur because it is conducted solely to improve the lives of other people. Moreover, Charlie readily accepts his discouraging conclusion— namely, that the experiment conducted on him has no practical value because of the swift regression into retardation—and asks that the results be published. Charlie’s research can be read, therefore, as a commentary on medical experimentation and a call to consider the subjects involved—particularly those with limited abilities—as individuals.
The emphasis on experimentation in “Flowers for Algernon” can largely be explained by its roots in science fiction. Critics have observed that the experiment conducted on Charlie and his subsequent regression into mental retardation indicate that “Flowers for Algernon” properly belongs in the science fiction genre. Moreover, the short story and the novel won the most prestigious awards in science fiction (respectively, the Hugo award and the Nebula award).
“Flowers for Algernon” can also be classified as disability literature because its explorations delve into fundamental questions about the place of disabled people in modern American society. Charlie’s descriptions of other retarded people are telling—he speaks of vacant smiles and empty eyes. This perception is remarkably similar to Dr. Nemur’s assertion in the novel that Charlie did not properly exist as a person before the experiment. Disability remains an important public policy issue, which contributes to the enduring popularity of “Flowers for Algernon.”
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