Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

Many years ago, a correctional officer who cared deeply about his charges formed GED classes, organized other educational opportunities in partnership with the correctional library, and facilitated discussion groups to encourage the detainees to reflect on their current circumstances, sharpen their critical thinking skills and consider alternate possibilities for their lives.

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON is a book this officer frequently recommended for reading, reflection, and discussion.

Presented with both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award, it is a classic science fiction story which was later made into the Academy Award-winning film “Charly”.

Charlie Gordon is a mentally challenged man who desires to “get smart if they let me.”

In diary form, Charlie relates how an experimental surgery is his opportunity to not only get smart but to reach near genius level. This promising result was presaged by a lab mouse named Algernon who, after receiving the surgery also proposed for Charlie, was observed: “whizzing through experimental mazes and solving puzzles lickety-split.”

Through this experiment, the lives of Charlie and Algernon were linked, with Algernon’s journey always a few steps ahead. As Algernon’s intelligence gradually reverted to its original state and resulted in his death, Charlie sadly foresaw his own fate.

Endeavoring to make the most of what life and lucidity he might have left, Charlie wrote last meaningful messages to those who were important in his life, with the poignant last request for the survivors to remember to put flowers on Algernon’s grave.

Themes to generate discussion include, ethics, the treatment of the mentally challenged, the complexity of relationships, mentorship and the role of reading and reflection in fostering intelligence and wisdom.