8 December, 2019
The article was originally published in the December edition of The Plus.
Narrated as a series of first-person progressive reports, Flowers for Algernon revolves around the story of Charlie Gordon, a developmentally disabled thirty-two-year-old man and his fleeting brush with intelligence. Because of his eagerness to learn, Alice Kinnian, Charlie’s teacher at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults, recommends him for an experiment. The directors of the experiment, Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur, ask Charlie to keep a journal.
Charlie works at Donner’s Bakery in New York City as a janitor and delivery boy. The other employees often pick on him, however, Charlie is unable to understand that he is the subject of mockery. He believes that his co-workers are good friends. After a series of tests—including a maze-solving competition with a mouse named Algernon, who has already had the experimental surgery performed on him—Charlie undergoes the operation.
Soon, Charlie is delighted by the realization that he is capable of solving moral dilemmas on his own. His growing IQ threatens his workers in the bakery and soon, he is let off because the other workers are disturbed by the sudden change in him. And within no time, Charlie becomes a star, too-good for himself.
Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur take Charlie and Algernon to a scientific convention in Chicago, where they are the star exhibits. Charlie realizes that he is a lab rat for the scientific community. He feels that Nemur treats him like just another lab animal, even though it is disturbingly clear that Charlie’s scientific knowledge has advanced beyond Nemur’s. He realizes that Nemur’s hypothesis contains an error and that there is a possibility that his intelligence gain will only be temporary.
Overtime, Algernon’s intelligence begins to slip, and his behavior becomes erratic. Charlie worries that whatever happens to Algernon will soon happen to him as well. Algernon eventually dies. Fearing a regression to his previous level of intelligence, Charlie visits his mother and sister in order to try to come to terms with his past.
Charlie succeeds in finding the error in Nemur’s hypothesis, scientifically proving that a flaw in the operation will cause his intelligence to vanish as quickly as it had come. Charlie calls this phenomenon the “Algernon-Gordon Effect.” When Charlie’s regression is complete, he briefly returns to his old job at the bakery, where his coworkers welcome him back with kindness.
Charlie forgets that he is no longer enrolled in Alicia’s school class for special adults. His last request is for the reader of his manuscript to leave fresh flowers on Algernon’s grave.
Thinking: What are the limits of science? Are ethics important? Can there be a coexistence of the development of science and ethical practices? What if Charlie stayed super intelligent? How would the story have been different in that case? Would you rather be intelligent or popular? Kind or brilliant?