Literary Commentary

writing || flowers for algernon

What a book.

Not only did Flowers for Algernon make me cry, but it made me think. In an explosion of ways, in all directions, about everything life and death and in between. I loved this book.

I don’t even know where to start, but I know I want to write about it so that it’s “on record” here on the blog before I start to forget things.

What is it about?

Flowers for Algernon is a series of journal entries by a Charlie Gordon – mentally disabled (“retarded”) 30-year-old man who undergoes an experiment that will make him smart. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a coming of age novel about a full-grown man. And, importantly, the author received a bachelor’s of psychology in university, and his writing is clearly researched and built upon a foundation of scientific truth. You learn something – about humanity, about yourself, about the brain – by reading this book.

The plot

It starts off innocent enough, written with grammatical mistakes and a bittersweet optimistic view of the world. It’s like reading about life through a child’s lens. As you flip the pages, you begin to realize that Charlie’s life isn’t as simple as he perceives it. His friends are evidently, to an outsider, manipulative bullies who laugh at him and not with him as he interprets.

But what starts as pity turns to disgust at the injustices Charlie faces on the daily. And it’s a unique form of anger, too – he’s so helpless and unaware that you can’t help but hate many of the characters in the book.

As he begins to change thanks to the experiment (the whole process and idea is very reminiscent of “Heart of a Dog”), Charlie begins to realize these things and sees his life in a new light. But then all the characters you once hated also become sympathetic – they, too, have insecurities and lives that cause them to act the way they act. And gosh, if they aren’t individually so well constructed. I was astonished by the detail injected into this book.

Thematic explorations

Though far from a comprehensive list, the book makes comments about fear – emotional and psychological vs physical, sex and sexuality, Freudian psychology and the impact of childhood/parenting, the concept of Plato’s Cave, education and intellectualism, the meaning of life, insecurities, drugs and alcohol, God and religion, and coping with change.

There are so many things to discuss within each of those themes, but for the purpose of this blog post I’ll just list them and get to them another time.

Favourite quotes

If you want to avoid spoilers, I’d recommend not reading this section. But to finish off, here are four of my favourite moments of the book.

Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.

How different they seem to be now. And how foolish I was ever to have thought that professors were intellectual giants. They’re people – and afraid the rest of the world will find out.

It might be said that Charlie Gordon did not really exist before this experiment.

Who’s to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who’s to say death is better than your darkness? Who am I to say?

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