Country United States
Pages 311 (novel)
Originally published April 1959
Genre Science Fiction
|Publication date April 1959 (short story)March 1966 (novel)|
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Awards Nebula Award for Best Novel, Hugo Award for Best Short Story
Adaptations Charly (1968), Algernon ni Hanataba o (2002), Des fleurs pour Algernon (2006), Flowers for Algernon (2000)
Similar Daniel Keyes books, Nebula Award for Best Novel winners, Science Fiction books
Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short story and subsequent novel written by Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year's Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17).
- Publication history
- Short story
- Film television and theatrical adaptations
The eponymous Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled.
Although the book has often been challenged for removal from libraries in the US and Canada, sometimes successfully, it is frequently taught in schools around the world and has been adapted many times for television, theatre, radio, and as the Academy Award-winning film Charly.
The ideas for Flowers for Algernon developed over 14 years and were inspired by events in Keyes's life, starting in 1945 with Keyes's conflict with his parents who were pushing him through a pre-medical education despite his desire to pursue a writing career. Keyes felt that his education was driving a wedge between him and his parents, and this led him to wonder what would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence.
A pivotal moment occurred in 1957 while Keyes was teaching English to students with special needs; one of them asked him if it would be possible to be put into a regular class if he worked hard and became smart. Keyes also witnessed the dramatic change in another learning-disabled student who regressed after he was removed from regular lessons. Keyes said that "When he came back to school, he had lost it all. He could not read. He reverted to what he had been. It was a heart-breaker."
Characters in the book were based on people in Keyes's life. The character of Algernon was inspired by a university dissection class, and the name was inspired by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Nemur and Strauss, the scientists who develop the intelligence-enhancing surgery in the story, were based on professors Keyes met while studying psychoanalysis in graduate school.
In 1958, Keyes was approached by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine to write a story, at which point the elements of Flowers for Algernon fell into place. When the story was submitted to Galaxy, however, editor Horace Gold suggested changing the ending so that Charlie retained his intelligence, married Alice Kinnian, and lived happily ever after. Keyes refused to make the change and sold the story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction instead.
Keyes worked on the expanded novel between 1962 and 1965 and first tried to sell it to Doubleday, but they also wanted to change the ending. Again, Keyes refused and gave Doubleday back their advance. Five publishers rejected the story over the course of a year until it was published by Harcourt in 1966.
The short story "Flowers for Algernon" was first published as the lead story in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was later reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 9th series (1960), the Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best Science Fiction (1960), Best Articles and Stories (1961), Literary Cavalcade (1961), The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964 (1970), and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 30-Year Retrospective (1980).
The expanded novel was first published in 1966 by Harcourt Brace with the Bantam paperback following in 1968. By 2004, it had been translated into 27 languages, published in 30 countries and sold more than 5 million copies. Since its original publication, the novel has never been out of print.
The short story and the novel share many similar plot points, but the novel expands significantly on Charlie's developing emotional state as well as his intelligence, his memories of childhood, and the relationship with his family.
The story is told through a series of journal entries written by the story's protagonist, Charlie Gordon, a man with a low IQ of 68 who works a menial job as a janitor in Donner's Bakery. He is selected to undergo an experimental surgical technique to increase his intelligence. The technique had already been successfully tested on Algernon, a laboratory mouse. The surgery on Charlie is also a success, and his IQ triples.
He realizes that his co-workers at the bakery, who he thought were his friends, only liked him to be around so that they could make fun of him. His new intelligence scares his co-workers, and they start a petition to have him fired, but when Charlie finds out about the petition, he quits. As Charlie's intelligence peaks, Algernon's suddenly declines—he loses his increased intelligence and mental age, and dies shortly afterward, to be buried in the back yard of Charlie's home. Charlie discovers that his intelligence increase is also only temporary. He starts to experiment to find out the cause of the flaw in the experiment, which he calls the "Algernon–Gordon Effect". Just when he finishes his experiments, his intelligence begins to regress to its state prior to the operation. Charlie is aware of, and pained by what is happening to him as he loses his knowledge and his ability to read and write. He tries to get his old job as a janitor back, and tries to revert to normal, but he cannot stand the pity from his co-workers, landlady, and Ms. Kinnian. Charlie states he plans to "go away" from New York and move to a new place. His last wish is that someone put flowers on Algernon's grave.
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye 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.
Charlie Gordon, 32 years old, suffers from phenylketonuria and has an IQ of 68. He holds a menial job at a bakery which his uncle had secured for him so that Charlie would not have to be sent to a state institution. Wanting to improve himself, Charlie attends reading and writing classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults; his teacher is Miss Alice Kinnian. Two researchers at Beekman, Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, are looking for a human test subject on whom to try a new surgical technique intended to increase intelligence. They had already performed the surgery on a mouse named Algernon, dramatically improving his mental performance. Based on Alice's recommendation and his motivation to improve, Charlie is chosen over smarter pupils to undergo the procedure.
The operation is a success, and within the next three months Charlie's IQ reaches 185. However, as his intelligence, education, and understanding of the world increase, his relationships with people deteriorate. His co-workers at the bakery, who used to amuse themselves at his expense, are now scared and resentful of his increased intelligence and persuade his boss to fire him. Later, Charlie angrily confronts his scientific mentors about their condescending attitude toward him, particularly Dr. Nemur because Charlie believed that more than anyone Dr. Nemur considered him nothing more than another laboratory subject and not fully human before the operation.
When not drinking at night, Charlie spends weeks continuing his mentors' research and writing reports which include observations of Algernon, whom he keeps at his apartment. Charlie's research discovers a flaw in the theory behind Nemur and Strauss's intelligence-enhancing procedure that could cause him to revert to his original mental state. His conclusions prove true when Algernon starts behaving erratically, loses his own enhanced intelligence, and dies.
Charlie tries to mend the long-broken relationships with his parents. He remembers that as a boy his mother insisted on his institutionalization, overruling his father's wish to keep him in the household. Charlie returns after many years to his family's Brooklyn home and finds that his mother now suffers from dementia. Although she recognizes him, she is mentally confused. Charlie's father, who had broken off contact with the family many years before, does not recognize him. Charlie is only able to reconnect with his now-friendly younger sister, Norma, who had hated him for his mental disability when they were growing up, and is now caring for their mother in their newly depressed neighborhood. When Norma asks Charlie to stay with his family, he refuses but promises to send her money.
Despite regressing to his former self, he remembers that he was once a genius. He cannot bear to have his friends and co-workers feel sorry for him. Consequently, he decides to go to live at the state-sponsored Warren Home School, where nobody knows about the operation. In a final postscript to his writings, ostensibly addressed to Alice Kinnian, he requests that she put some flowers on Algernon's grave in Charlie's former backyard.
Both the novel and the short story are written in an epistolary style collecting together Charlie's personal "progress reports" from a few days before the operation until his final regression. Initially, the reports are filled with spelling errors and awkwardly constructed sentences. Following the operation, however, the first signs of Charlie's increased intelligence are his improved accuracy in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Charlie's regression is conveyed by the loss of these skills.
Important themes in Flowers for Algernon include the treatment of the mentally disabled, the impact on happiness of the conflict between intellect and emotion, and how events in the past can influence a person later in life.
The original short story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The expanded novel was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, tied with Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany, and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967, losing out to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.
In the late 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) decided to give Nebula Awards retroactively and voted for their favourite science fiction stories of the era ending December 31, 1964 (before the Nebula Award was conceived). The short story version of Flowers for Algernon was voted third out of 132 nominees and was published in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964 in 1970. Keyes was elected the SFWA Author Emeritus in 2000 for making a significant contribution to science fiction and fantasy, primarily as a result of Flowers for Algernon.
Flowers for Algernon is on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999 at number 43. The reasons for the challenges vary, but usually center on those parts of the novel in which Charlie struggles to understand and express his sexual desires. Many of the challenges have proved unsuccessful, but the book has occasionally been removed from school libraries, including some in Pennsylvania and Texas.
In January 1970, the school board of Cranbrook, British Columbia, as well as Calgary, Alberta, removed the Flowers for Algernon novel from the local age 14-15 curriculum and the school library, after a parent complained that it was "filthy and immoral". The president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation criticized the action. Flowers for Algernon was part of the British Columbia Department of Education list of approved books for grade nine and was recommended by the British Columbia Secondary Association of Teachers of English. A month later, the board reconsidered and returned the book to the library; they did not, however, lift its ban from the curriculum.
Flowers for Algernon has been the inspiration for works that include solo debut album A Curious Feeling by Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks and Kyosuke Himuro's debut solo album Flowers for Algernon. It also inspired the 2006 modern dance work, Holeulone, by French dancer and choreographer Karine Pontiès, which won the Prix de la Critique de la Communauté française de Belgique for best dance piece.
Film, television, and theatrical adaptations
Flowers for Algernon has been adapted many times for different media including stage, screen and radio. These adaptations include: