Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” is a story detailing the arc of someone who undergoes intelligence-expanding surgery, but gradually reverts to his earlier, child-like state. While the story is not particularly subtle about what is going to happen – a lab mouse, Algernon, gives away all the twists – it does what it does extremely well. Through masterful use of the journal format and an intense focus on how Charlie judges those around him, the author is able to dissect how much of the human condition is dependent on intelligence in an extremely evocative way. So, the story is written as if it is a journal penned by Charlie himself. This allows the author to do all sort of tricks – like misspellings and increasingly complex vocabulary – to show Charlie’s intelligence without giving us his IQ on every entry. Early on, it’s painfully obvious how childish Charlie is through his writing. But even later on the style is doing work, contrasting Charlie’s childlike ability to understand others with references to high-brow academic papers to show that, while intelligence is certainly very important, it is not everything, and is most certainly not a key to happiness.
The second way the author shows Charlie’s intelligence is how he views those around him. Pre-surgery, Ms. Kinnian is an angelic figure, but when Charlie is at the height of his powers she seems like nothing more than a Romantic heroine. A similar transformation occurs with his coworkers. Even though it is obvious to the reader that they are bullying Charlie, he doesn’t seem to realize it until he gains his intelligence. But more importantly, he forgets that realization by the end, signalling that he has travelled full circle.
The story isn’t perfect – namely in how it foreshadows Charlie’s death with Algernon’s, implying that he really should have died by the end – but that doesn’t invalidate all that it does well. It is amazing at showing, rather than telling, despite its rather technical nature, and delivers a treatise on the nature of human intelligence while also chronicling the personal difficulties of one human who must deal with a fluctuating intelligence – something even the masters of the science fiction genre struggle to do.