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Kell

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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It is assumed that you have read the book before reading posts in this thread, as the discussion might give away crucial points, and the continuous use of spoiler tags might hinder fluent reading of posts.

 

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Synopsis:

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone's jokes, until and experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

 

Some basic questions to consider:

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

 

Additional questions (from MSU Edu):

* What do you think is the perfect person? What do you think is Charlie’s idea of the perfect person?

* Based on Charlie’s experience, in what ways do we measure intelligence? Is emotional health a part of that measurement? Should it be? Do we have to consider age or just maturity?

* How do you feel about the tests given to Charlie and Algernon? Knowing that the tests done on Algernon can help Charlie, do you think animal testing is ethical / unethical?

* Should Charlie have been allowed to make the decision to have surgery? Do you think he is capable of making that decision? Should Charlie’s sister, Norma, have been allowed to make the decision about Charlie’s operation?

* In Charlie’s case, do you think is it better to enjoy ignorance than to live with the bitter truth?

* Although Charlie’s awakening is bitter and painful, do you think it is better that he could experience it than never at all?

* Knowing the risks of the operation, would you want to take the chance that Charlie did?

* Do you believe Charlie is a better person after the operation because he is experiencing new emotions and learning new information?

* We know that the Charlie’s operation changes his intellect, personality and emotions. However, do you think the operation that Charlie undergoes changes his identity? Self worth?

* Do you think that “retarded” is a disability or part of one’s identity?

* Do you think Professor Nemur and the other scientists have a responsibility to help people like Charlie, in any way they can, because science can make their lives better? (This question can lead into a discussion on medical ethics.)

* Do you believe Charlie’s mother, Rose, cares about Charlie?

* How do you think Charlie’s relationship with his mother has affected his relationship with Alice and Faye? What are the different types of love that Charlie experiences with Rose, Norma, Matt, Alice, Fay and Algernon?

* Based on Charlie’s experiences with women (mother, Faye, Alice), what can Charlie really know of love? Is he better off knowing the bitter parts of love or as one who ignorantly thinks the best of people? Do you think his life has improved by experiencing and understanding those relationships?

* How has Charlie’s operation affected his relationship with the people at the bakery? How you think they feel about Charlie? How do you know?

* What do you think would have happened if Charlie never heard about the operation? What if he opted not to have the operation?

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

Algernon was actually my favourite character! That mouse was given such character and watching him as he degenerated, battering himself against the maze walls as he failed to work them out, was possibly even sadder than Charlie's because it forshadowed what would happen and Algernon had absolutely no understanding of what was happening to him, whereas Charlie did and used the time he had left as best he could.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

I wasn't keen on Alice becoming involved with Charlie. As she had been his teacher and known him before the operation, it felt omehow wrong, a flagrant abuse of position on her part, even though Charlie eventually surpassed her. Her being with him felt, to me, like when you read about school teachers getting involved with their underage pupils.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

I actually read the original short story version of Flowers For Algernon when I was at school and enjoyed it immensely. I cannot recall ever having read any of Keyes' other work though. I did enjoy this full-length novel, but I think I enjoyed the shorter version better, because I cannot recall it having any of the sex stuff in it (not that there was anything particularly graphic in this version) and I think the short story rang more true. I really should look for more of his work though.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

Mostly it was the relationship between Charlie and Alice that had me struggling, because it just felt so wrong. However, I can see it did play an important role in the plot.

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

Yes, I did. However, I think the short story, as I remember it, has its merits and was perhaps better than the novel for bwing more concise. I shall have to see if I can get hold of a copy of the short story so I can re-read it and make a proper comparison, as I read it so long ago that my memory is perhaps rather more hazy than I should like!

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Ooh I'm part way through this now so I can't read your answers Kell in case I read about something I don't know yet (trust me to almost read your answers before reading the great big red writing at the top of the thread ... twit!) I'm enjoying it a lot, it's very easy to read and very compulsive. I find once I've picked it up nobody can get any sense out of me for a couple of hours (that's par for the course though tbh.) I've got my own ideas about the ending, it'll be interesting to see if my guesses are correct. Be back to do the Q & A soon.

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

 

I would have to say Charlie, because I feel he is the only character you get a real insight into during the course of the book (with everyone else being seen through Charlie's eyes, you don't get to hear their side of the story). I like the way he develops as a character (even though he isn't entirely likeable himself) and then regresses again. It's a fascinating idea, becoming more than you were and then knowing that you are going to regress whilst still having the ability to comprehend what is happening to you. If I'm not allowed Charlie, then I'd probably have to say Fay, she might be a nut, (and most likely damaged) but she was a breath of fresh air amongst the more stuffy characters from academia!

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

 

I enjoyed reading the opening section of the book, and following Charlie's progress from "retard" to genius, it was very well written by Keyes. I also liked the flash backs as Charlie began to remember his childhood, and the growing realisation that his mother was slowly losing the plot. Also, Charlie's battle with himself, and the idea that Simple Charlie was waiting for the chance to get out, and the way it hampered his various relationships, was interesting.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

I've read plenty of science fiction down the years, but this is the first Daniel Keyes novel I have read. I have quite a collection of SF Masterworks books sitting on the shelf that I picked up cheap in various sales over the years, this and Pavane, by Keith Roberts, that I read last year, have both encouraged me to read more of them.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

 

I know it's being nit-picky, but no one would have been allowed to try out a medical procedure like this on a human with only one successful [animal] test case. Charlie recounts himself that one of the Doctors says that Algernon is the only mouse to have shown such an improvement whilst also remaining stable for such a prolonged period, but mice only live for what? A couple of years? Surely they should have had to have a whole lab full of Algernon’s before they took a knife to a human? Not very responsible these Doctor types!

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

 

Yes, Algernon is a book that works for me on many different levels. There is the human, emotional side to the story as Charlie grapples with who he is and his awakening to the world around him and there is also the philosophical side of the story; what defines a man? Is he just the sum of his memories, or the ability to perceive and process them properly? This is probably a book that could use a second reading, as I suspect there parts - especially when he is just beginning to remember his past - that you miss the significance of at the time.

Edited by Raven

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2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

I wasn't keen on Alice becoming involved with Charlie. As she had been his teacher and known him before the operation, it felt omehow wrong, a flagrant abuse of position on her part, even though Charlie eventually surpassed her. Her being with him felt, to me, like when you read about school teachers getting involved with their underage pupils.

 

That kind of bothered me for a bit, when it first kicked off, but it as it became apparent that Charlie had become a completely different person from the person he was at the start of the book, it bothered me less. Still, you have to wonder what her motivations were.

 

I have a doozy of a question for this thread, btw, that I will post a little later after others have made some comments.

 

 

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

Charlie, you experience everything with him and because of the way it's written .. in the form of Charlie's own written progress reports .. you get to know him inside out. His very open and honest accounts of his childhood and life at the bakery just made my heart melt, perhaps it was sympathy I don't know but I felt a great affection for him. This helped later on when Charlie became less likeable but by then my opinion of him was fixed and I put all the negatives in his personality down to the effects of the experiment. Everybody else you see through Charlie's eyes and I guess Alice was the only other character that I even remotely liked (along with Algernon, of course.) Alice did try to help Charlie and was obviously extremely fond of him and seemed to be the only person who ever really cared about him and his welfare. Yes, she overstepped the mark when she consented to a relationship with him but by then he was a very different Charlie.

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

 

Not really but the character of Fay jarred a bit with me especially early on, she reminded me of (the film version) of Holly Golightly too much and it got in the way of me being able to place her properly, even down to their introduction (Charlie forgetting his keys and she being his scantily clad, slightly dotty, free spirited neighbour) the liberal use of each other's fire escapes, the way she argued with the man she bought home and then climbed in his window asking for a cigarette and then got into bed with him. I felt like if she had bought her guitar out onto that fire escape and started singing I wouldn't have been surprised. I have read Truman Capote's book but can't remember if Holly was depicted like that in it, I know it differed enormously from the film. I'd be interested to know if Fay was in the original short story by Daniel, if not then the character was introduced about five years after 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' the film was released.

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

 

I rarely read science fiction, it's not a favourite genre but this was a good experience so I'm encouraged to read more. I do want to read some of the old science fiction classics such as Frankenstein and War of the Worlds, I don't know about contemporary science fiction, usually I find the plotlines are beyond my understanding.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

Not really, the only thing that I thought questionable was - given the lifespan of a mouse - the thought that they would consider operating on a human before waiting to see what became of Algernon. But then I realised it was crucial to the plotline for us and Charlie to see Algernon regress.

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

Yes I loved it, although I was blubbing at the end .. as usual. I was pretty sure that the ending would find Charlie back where he started but that didn't make it any less affecting when it came, when his punctuation started to go AWOL .. that's when the tears came.

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

My favourite character was Charlie. His is the only perspective that we get to here from in the book and I felt myself feeling really sorry for him when he realised he would loose his intelligence. He did have a few qualities that I didnt like however. I didnt like when he got really clever he got quite arrogant that he was more intelligent than everyone else.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

I wasnt too keen on his relationship with Fay. I would have much prefered him to have a relationship with Alice. However, as his teacher this could have also been seen as wrong.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

This is probably one of the only science fiction books that I have read and I actually really enjoyed it. I will definitaly be reading more in the future. Also, this was my first Daniel Keyes book. I will definitaly keep a look out for more of his books.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

I found it quite difficult to read at the begining and end where Charlie was writing things down and they were spelt like they were said. It took me a little while longer to read than normal. Also I found when he was at his cleverest point some of the words that he used were almost too techincal.

I also struggled with the idea that only one animal had responded well to the added intelligence, and then it was moved on to humans. I would have thought there would have been more testing on different animals

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

Yes, I really enjoyed this book.I couldnt put it down once I picked it up. It made me cry at the end once he had lost his intelligence too.

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I'd be interested to know if Fay was in the original short story by Daniel, if not then the character was introduced about five years after 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' the film was released.

I't smany, many years since I read the short story (I think I was about 12 or 13 t the time), but I have no recollection of Fay being in it - only Alice. Has anyone else read the original short story more recently that might be able to confirm with us?

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Until you mentioned it above, I didn't know there was a short-story version!

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

My favourite character was Charlie. I guess there isn't much competition really as we only get to see one fully developed character in the book. The rest are all represented in the way that Charlie sees them and of course he doesn't know them very well.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

I found the bakery scenes where Charlie is picked on and also some scenes with his family quite difficult to tolerate. The cruelty that was shown to Charlie was the main thing that bothered me and brought tears to my eyes. He was really treated as worthless and subhuman. However, it is actually these scenes that make the book worthwhile to me as the main theme for me was really about what gives our lives value. I believe that all human life has meaning no matter what our intelligence level is. A disabled person is just as worthwhile as a "normal" person and still has a contribution to make in society and things they can teach others. A newborn baby cannot talk and is completely dependent on it's parents and yet we would never say that their life is not worth anything. Yet often people are quick to make that judgement about an adult who can't talk and needs to be cared for. I have worked with alot of intellectually disabled adults as a caregiver. It's a subject dear to my heart and I have learned so much from the people I cared for. I wish society would value the disabled the same way their families and friends do.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

I'm reasonably sure I have read this book before as the format of Charlie's diary was extremely familiar to me. However, now I wonder if I actually read the short story version as a child. I don't read alot of science fiction but the themes didn't really seem very science fiction-ish.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

Just what I have already written about. The whole experimenting on humans part didn't seem implausible to me as I felt the book was written in an earlier decade where this sort of thing might have been done. Let's face it - the ethics of science have been quite dodgy in the past. There was none of this informed consent business to contend with. There are numerous scandals in New Zealand where doctors did completely awful things without patient's permission and later got in trouble. I can list some if you like that would curl your hairs.

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

Yes, I loved the book. I highly recommend it to others and I think it is a very important book with important things to say about the value of human life and intelligence.

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I read this story only when a very little girl in a British school I attended. I must say Charlie broke my heart and the cruelty of others was truly frightening to me. The teacher I did not like nor trust and I think maybe she had something wrong with her emotionally to even contemplate her relationship with Charlie. And I felt frightened for the poor little Alernon as well, he also had not the freedom to live, but must comply to what was done to him. I remember crying after for weeks and was greatly disturbed. I think we should never have read the story at such a young age and I could never bring myself to read this body of work again, non, not ever! However aside from that I think the author was a brilliant writer.

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I found rather an interesting tidbit on Wikipedia this morning regarding Flowerrs For Algernon:

 

In 1958, Keyes was approached by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine to write a story, at which point the different elements of Flowers for Algernon fell into place. On submitting the finished story to Galaxy, however, the editor suggested changing the ending so that Charlie retained his intelligence, married Alice, and lived happily ever after. Keyes refused to make the change and sold the story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction instead.

I am SO glad Keyes refused to rewrite the ending! I think it would have been terribly wrong to have Charlie and Alice marry for all the reasons I've mentioned previously. To me, someone who has been in a position of authority and trust over someone with Charlie's mental capabilities having such a relationship with one of their students, irrespective of their development, is completely amoral.

 

What do the rest of you think of this proposed ending? Would it have ruined the story for you? Or would it have been a more satisfying conclusion?

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In case anyone's interested in watching a film version of Flowers For Algernon, there are a couple of versions:

 

Charly (1968) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom

Flowers For Algernon (2000) starring Matthew Modine and Kelli Williams

 

A new version is apparently slated for release in 2013, but far I can't see any information regarding who might be attached to it...

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I have to confess that I don't remember thinking the relationship between the student and teacher was amoral. I think because they got together after Charlie had changed.

 

I'm glad Keyes didn't change the ending. A happy ending is nice and all, but this ending was much more powerful. I can't imagine that the book would have had anywhere near the same impact with a happy ending.

 

I'll have to look out for those movies, thanks Kell. :)

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I found the relationship between Alice and Charlie odd as well for all the reasons mentioned already. After one person has been in such a position of influence over another person they cannot then expect to have a healthy sexual relationship with that person. Exactly the reasons that doctors should not have relationships with their patients.

 

What I did find even more disturbing was that Charlie had no sexual feelings before the operation and then afterwards as his intelligence grew he developed sexual attraction. The author explains this by his early experiences of him being punished for being interested in girls / women. However, it all seemed a bit odd to me. Clearly intellectually disabled people are still sexual beings and I wondered if the author thought readers would be uncomfortable if Charlie had a crush on Alice before he became smart. I'm not sure I'm wording this right - I guess it all seemed a bit convenient that Charlie the former was so childlike and asexual. It made him more sympathetic to the reader. However, it was just too neat for me. In reality, young men still have hormones and often those with an intellectual disability are more obvious about showing it as they have less inhibitions or ability to camouflage what they feel.

 

I guess I found the relationship side of the book annoying and concentrated more on Charlie's feelings about his intelligence / place in society.

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What do the rest of you think of this proposed ending? Would it have ruined the story for you? Or would it have been a more satisfying conclusion?

 

If he had become normal, if he had only regressed to the point of us mere-mortals, and had gone on to live with Alice etc, that would have given the book a traditional Hollywood style happy ending, but it would have missed the main component Keyes made good use of which was Charlie realising that he was regressing and his feelings of helplessness as he felt his intellect slipping away.

 

I think the ending is the correct one, to have Charlie remain smart would have gutted the story.

 

Also, another vital component that would have been missed was the consequences that everyone around Charlie has to live with, and the consequence that although Charlie can no longer comprehend what he was, he can still remember that he was something more, something different from what he is come the end and that is as poignant to me as anything else in the book.

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Okay, I have a question for everyone:

 

What colour did you think Charlie was when you started reading the book?

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I don't know why, but I always thought he was white, right from the start, even the first time I read the short story back in school. Gimpy, I always thought was black, and Professer Nemur, I always thought was Asian. Is that odd?

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I just assumed white but I think that may be due to exposure to the movie where he is white. Also I am white so that kind of makes sense.

 

TBH, we have alot of different ethnic groups in new Zealand, particularly Polynesian and Asian but not many people of African heritage so unless a book specifically states a character is black I am unlikely to imagine this.

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I thought Charlie was white. Is that incorrect? It's been a while since I read the book.

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It's been awhile since I have read it, but I always thought he was purple. Am I way off? :D

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LOL @ Pixie. :D

 

I don't recall it actually being specified in the book. Am I wrong there? Does it say anywhere?

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I can't recall it specifically mentioning his colour in the book, but I had always thought of him as white. That is quite possibly just because I am white myself (although with a black OH and mixed race child), but even thinking about it a bit more I didn't pick up anything that would make me think otherwise e.g. speech patterns.

 

What do you think yourself, Raven? An interesting question!

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

 

My favourite character was actually Mr Donner, because although Charlie was not really his responsibility he stuck by his promise to Charlie's father and provided him with a job and helped him in life. I was a bit disappointed when he asked Charlie to move on when his other employees pressured him after Charlie changed so much, but could see the logic in that Charlie did not need that kind of help any more at that time.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

 

I found the parts where people were making fun of Charlie and he was playing up to this very painful to read, even when they wouldn't have thought they were being malicious. His relationship with Miss Kinnian didn't bother me at all, as Charlie was a different person by then - and I liked the way she stuck by him for as long as he allowed it once his intelligence began to fail again.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

 

I can't remember reading anything else by Daniel Keyes, although I had read the short story of Flowers for Algernon when I was young. I would be quite happy to read something else he has written, or another book about scientific attempts to manipulate intelligence.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

 

As has been mentioned before, I thought it was unlikely that Charlie would have had no sexual feelings before his operation, so I found that unconvincing.

 

5. Overall, did you find it an enjoyable experience?

 

I'm not sure I found it enjoyable, exactly, but I thought it was a good book and I will keep it to read again some time.

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