Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York, August 9, 1927, and was educated at Brooklyn College, where he received a B.A. degree in 1950. After graduation, Keyes worked briefly as an associate editor for the magazine Marvel Science Fiction while pursuing his own writing career; he later taught high school English in Brooklyn. In 1952 he married Aurea Georgina Vazquez, with whom he had three children. Keyes returned to Brooklyn College, received an M.A. degree in 1961, and went on to teach English on the university level, first at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and then at Ohio University, where in the 1970s he became Professor of English and director of the university’s creative writing center.
Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man with an IQ of 68. As Keyes’s novel opens, Charlie has volunteered to be the subject of an experimental surgical procedure that would more than triple his IQ. Although Charlie is of subnormal intelligence, he is unusually motivated, taking night school classes at the Beekman University Center for Retarded Adults. At first, he is afraid he won’t be chosen for the project. He doesn’t understand what to do when he is asked to tell what he sees in inkblots, and when he traces through a diagram of a maze in competition with Algernon, a mouse who is running an actual maze, Algernon always wins. Nonetheless, Charlie is chosen by the scientists in charge of the project-Professor Nemur, the psychologist who developed the technique, and Dr. Strauss, the neurosurgeon who performs the actual operation. After the surgery, Charlie returns to his job as a janitor at Donner’s Bakery, where nobody is aware of his operation.
The setting of Flowers for Algernon is New York City, with a brief episode in Chicago, in the present or near future. Although the physical landscape and cultural background is not a major part of the novel, critic Robert Scholes has noted that the very normality and non-distinctiveness of the setting makes the one “different” element of the novel-the surgical procedure that raises Charlie’s IQ-all the more distinctive. And at one point in the novel, when Charlie has taken Algernon and is hiding out from the scientists, the crowded urban landscape of New York City becomes an important part of Charlie’s attempts to come to terms with his situation: “on a hot night when everyone is out walking, or sitting in a theater, there is a rustling, and for a moment I brush against someone and sense the connection between the branch and trunk and the deep root.”
Relating the story of a mentally impaired man whose intelligence is increased through surgery and then lost, Flowers for Algernon touches on a number of literary themes. The most obvious of the novel’s themes is the use and abuse of science and technology. The critic Mark R. Hillegas has identified Flowers for Algernon as the type of science fiction that deals with “problems imagined as resulting from inventions, discoveries, or scientific hypotheses”-in this case, a surgical procedure that can turn a person of subnormal intelligence into a genius. While the novel does not specifically take an anti-technology stance, it clearly identifies the limitations of technology as a “quick fix” to human problems-Charlie’s operation is, ultimately, a failure in that he does not remain a genius. In a reversal of the classic notion of tragedy, the “flaw” which causes Charlie’s downfall is not within him, but in the technology that sought to change him.
Keyes’s remarkable use of first-person (“I”) point of view is perhaps the most important source of Flowers for Algernon’s narrative power. Charlie’s journey from an IQ of 68 to one almost three times as high, and his fall back into subnormal intelligence, is told in the form of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie for the scientists conducting the experiment that raised his IQ. The reports before and soon after the operation are written in nonstandard English, full of the kind of mistakes one would expect from writing by a mentally handicapped adult: Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I don’t no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.
Written during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Flowers for Algernon shows a profound concern with the rights of individuals to be treated as individuals, no matter what their condition in life. The early pages of the novel paint a grim portrait of how the mentally handicapped are treated, as Charlie is continually abused, verbally and physically, by his coworkers at the bakery. And when he becomes a genius, he is subject to a different sort of dehumanization, as the scientists in charge of the experiment regard him “as if I were some kind of newly created thing…. No one … considered me an individual-a human being.” This is perhaps most dramatically expressed when, witnessing a slow-witted boy being ridiculed for breaking dishes in a restaurant, Charlie lashes out at the customers: “Leave him alone! He can’t understand. He can’t help what he is … but for God’s sake, have some respect! He’s a human being!”
1. Research Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychology and discuss how Charlie Gordon’s emotional problems (not his low IQ) can be explained in terms of Freudian analysis.
1. Research the history of public attitudes towards mental retardation in the United States and discuss the problems Charlie Gordon faces in the novel in the context of this history.
The Minds of Billy Milligan is Daniel Keyes’s 1981 nonfiction study of the case of Billy Milligan. When Milligan was arrested and charged with rape in 1977, he was found to have at least 24 distinct personalities. Milligan became the first person in U.S. history to be acquitted of a major felony by reason of multiple personality.