Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Flowers for Algernon": Not just for English Classes

When I first started teaching 10 Honors English, one of the books that I could choose to teach was "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.  I had never read it, but knew the premise and had even seen clips from the 1968 Oscar winning movie version of the novel.  Because in many other schools, it was chosen for 8th grade because the reading level is so easy, I opted instead to teach "Hamlet" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"to challenge my intellectual 10th graders.  I finally read the book (and gobbled it up in a little over a day), and I realized that I truly missed out on teaching my students an important work of science fiction.

In his memoir (1999), Keyes wrote about his inspiration behind writing "Flowers for Algernon." He said that he believed that his "education [was] driving a wedge between [him] and the people [he] loved." He then wondered, "What would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence." Hence the creation of Charlie Gordon, a bakery janitor with an I.Q. of 68 who is selected by scientists as the first human subject for an experimental study to increase intelligence.  Before Charlie, the experiment was successfully performed on a mouse named Algernon.  The novel is told in a series of Charlie's diary entries which show how quickly his intelligence increases, but also shows how quickly Algernon's abilities are declining.  Charlie worries if he too will succumb to the same fate.

The biggest irony of the story stems from the truth that Charlie is no better off intellectually superior then he was when he was intellectually inferior to those around him.  As he gets smarter and tries to retain his job and "friends" at the bakery and they reject him, he realizes, "It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron.  I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.  I had betrayed them, and they hated me for it." As his intelligence surpasses even the intellectuals who came up with the experiment in the first place, Charlie feels just as isolated as when he was unable to grasp what others were saying around him with an I.Q. of 68.  He is again alone because no one can grasp how he thinks, and even worse, his intelligence is superseding his ability to connect with other people.

We know from foreshadowing in this book that the inevitable will occur for Charlie, but in the process of gaining and losing intelligence he teaches a great deal about being human in his diary entries.  What does it mean to connect to someone? To love? To be a fool? To be intelligent? To outrun who we once were? To come to grips with the sins of our mothers and fathers? To be aware of our own shortcomings? To strive for superiority?  Keyes lovingly and humanistically explores all of those questions in his simply written story of Charlie Gordon.

The biggest irony for me was that I chose not to teach this book because I thought it wouldn't be enough of a reading challenge for my intellectually superior 10th graders, but maybe what my super smart students needed was a chance to really understand the difference between being smart and being human.  That is the true genius behind "Flowers for Algernon."

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