I don’t ordinarily make New Years Resolutions, not at the traditional time anyway. This year I made a silly promise to myself at around the second week of 2014, that I would bulk up my portfolio by writing 50 short stories in 2014. I know. So far, I have a measly two, neither of which I will be sharing with you because they are just too unutterably sad. Not in subject matter. Just really sad. Honestly, they are awful. Anyhoo, while I am failing as a short story writer, I feel I am becoming quite the connoisseur of the short story reading.
My latest short story read is “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. I honestly feel that if someone told me this had been written last Wednesday, I would believe it. It was actually written in 1958 and published as a short story in 1959 (followed by the novel in 1966). Keyes set the story 7 years ahead in 1965. He could have set it 107 years ahead in 2065 and it would have been just as believable. What I’m trying to convolutedly say, is that “Flowers for Algernon” is a timeless classic and everyone should read it. It raises fascinating debates about how we define intelligence and questions how important and useful intelligence really is when it comes to a person’s happiness.
The most obvious feature of this piece is the use of language. Keyes very cleverly manipulates language to mirror Charlie’s progress as his intelligence grows and diminishes. I find this particularly fascinating for the following reasons:
During the day time, I work in Educational Psychology, so this story got my brain ticking from a professional point of view as well as from my own bruce eye view (see what I did there). I’m not a psychologist by the way – I just work with those brain meddlers every day and so I kind of know a little bit about psychology (or lots if my boss is reading this. I know all the things and am really good at stuff. Please don’t sack me). So, from an educational psychology point of view, the use of language to track Charlie’s progress on the IQ ladder (or “progris” as Charlie would say) is a useful tool but not wholly reliable. A person’s ability to spell and to use grammar correctly can, among other writing conventions, give an indication as to the individual’s attainments in literacy, but it does not necessarily reflect their underlying abilities or their “IQ”. Dyslexic people for example, can often be identified as such by their difficulties with using language in the written form, but this does not directly correlate with their intelligence. I wonder what would have happened had Charlie’s progress been measured by some means other than writing – art, singing, algebra, astronomy, team sports, hula hooping. Of course, the story would then have to be told from someone else’s point of view, removing the whole essence of the story and it wouldn’t be half as engaging.
But what is “IQ” and how are we supposed to measure it? In the story, it seems that not even the doctors can agree on this. In progress report 11, Charlie is gaining in confidence; the treatment from the “operashun” and the night time TV seems to be working as can be seen in his improving writing. Additionally, he is starting to question things:
“I’m not sure what an I.Q. is, Dr. Nemur said it was something
that measured how intelligent you were–like a scale in the drug-
store weighs pounds. But Dr. Strauss had a big argument with him
and said an I.Q. didn’t weigh intelligence at all. He said an I.Q.
showed how much intelligence you could get, like the numbers on
the outside of a measuring cup. You still had to fill the cup up with
Then when I asked Burt, who gives me my intelligence tests
and works with Algernon, he said that both of them were wrong
(only I had to promise not to tell them he said so). Burt says that the
I.Q. measures a lot of different things including some of the things
you learned already, and it really isn’t any good at all.”
Ever the underdog enthusiast, I all but loudly applauded Charlie as his intellect overtakes even that of his “creators”. Had Charlie not been so disheartened by the cold reception of the doctors, I would have been thoroughly overjoyed. In the entry titled May’15, Charlie tells us:
“Contrary to my earlier impressions of him, I realize that Dr.
Nemur is not at all a genius. He has a very good mind, but it
struggles tinder the spectre of self-doubt. He wants people to take
him for a genius. Therefore, it is important for him to feel that his
work is accepted by the world….
Dr. Nemur appears to be uncomfortable around me. Sometimes
when I try to talk to him, he just looks at me strangely and turns
away. I was angry at first when Dr. Strauss told me I was giving Dr.
Nemur an inferiority complex. I thought he was mocking me and
I’m oversensitive at being made fun of.”
The way Charlie understands IQ/ intelligence is the most unique of all the characters. He experiences first hand a whole range of IQ levels, from 68 to over 200. While he embraces his growing IQ and learns many things including multiple languages and complex scientific theories, the most illuminating new information is with regards to human relationships. The realisation that his peers see him as a play thing is very hurtful for Charlie. This initial realisation is compounded further in the entry titled “May 20” during the scene in the café where everyone laughs at the “new dishwasher”:
“I felt sick inside as I looked at his dull, vacuous smile, the wide,
bright eyes of a child, uncertain but eager to please. They were
laughing at him because he was mentally retarded.
And I had been laughing at him too.”
This moment marks a painfully important point in Charlie’s journey. He is both versions of himself; the old and the new. One is confused yet blissfully unaware, the other is painfully frustrated and furiously ashamed.
“I’d hidden the picture of the old Charlie Gordon from myself
because now that I was intelligent it was something that had to be
pushed out of my mind. But today in looking at that boy, for the first
time I saw what I had been. I was just like him!”
This scene highlights an important question – is it more important to be happy or to have intelligence? I’m not going to attempt to answer this as I have no idea, wise though I am. That’s one for you to turn over in your brains.
Communication is another key theme in this story. At the opposing ends of the IQ spectrum, Charlie struggles to communicate effectively with people. When his IQ is 68, he is unable to understand what people mean. When his IQ is over 200, people are unable to understand what Charlie means. He can’t win, poor chap. Happily, though briefly, there is a level midpoint somewhere in between. In the entry dated April 28, Charlie has “dinner and a long talk” with Miss Kinnian. This dinner is pivotal for two reasons: Miss Kinnian praises Charlie’s progress and predicts his future success. Charlie realises that he loves Miss Kinnian for the first time.
A very distressing theme from the reader’s point of view, is that even though Charlie has been on this epic intellectual journey, all he has left of it are broken fragments. He knows that he was smart and that now he is “dumb agen” but all the important bits in between are gone. Its as though he has early onset Alzheimers. Throughout, no matter which state of intelligence Charlie is inhabiting, he retains his personality. He is interested in and concerned about Algernon throughout. Even at the end of the story, when his intelligence has all but receded, he is still thoughtful, requesting that flowers be put on Algernon’s grave when he can inevitably no longer perform this task.
I hope someone would have been thoughtful enough to bring flowers for Charlie. Probably Miss Kinnian. She was a good ‘un.
* image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_Algernon