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.”
Although originally published as a work of science fiction-the short story won the World Science Fiction Convention’s Hugo Award and the novel won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America-Flowers for Algernon has achieved wide popularity outside the science fiction field. Much of the novel’s power comes from Keyes’s remarkable use of first-person point of view, as Charlie’s entries move from semi-literacy to complex sophistication and back to semi-literacy.
At the heart of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon’s struggle to be recognized and treated as a human being. Prior to his operation, he was regarded as somehow less than fully human because of his subnormal intelligence. After the operation, he is discriminated against in a different way, as ordinary people shun him and the scientists who raised his IQ treat him as little more than another laboratory specimen. It should come as no surprise that this story of a person who manages to be a member of two different minorities-the mentally handicapped and the mentally superior-should have appeared during a time of growing awareness of the problems and the rights of minority groups.