Flowers for Algernon- Daniel Keyes

This week’s book is a thought-provoking one, full of moral, social, and existential questions. So settle in for a serious few minutes. Grab a coffee, turn the ringer off on your phone, check Facebook one last time if you need to….

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Okay, ready? Let’s get talking…

Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie, a developmentally impaired man of very low IQ and his remarkable journey to experimentally increase his intelligence, following the success of the same procedure on an mouse named Algernon. Keyes tells the story through a series of journal entries, termed “progris reports” or “progress reports,” depending on the stage of Charlie’s journey. This novel can be found in almost every secondary school English classroom, as required reading at some point in the curriculum. I read it when I was in high school just as students read it today. Why do you think it is so widely read?

Charlie’s story is pure fiction. The technology to make this kind of progress does not yet exist. But what if it did? It would be hailed as a scientific miracle but is it really? Charlie’s intelligence, and by extension the man himself, is seen as a problem to be fixed. Professor Nemur, Dr. Strauss, and even Miss Kinnian encourage Charlie to participate in the experiment because of his curious nature and kind spirit. But, as readers will see, as Charlie’s intelligence rises, some of the qualities that made him such a good candidate start to diminish. What is the ultimate cost of Charlie’s increased intellectual abilities?

Keyes looks to explore these and other questions. Here are some more to get those neurons firing:

– Why do you think that Keyes chose to tell the story through journal entries? Why not tell it as a running narrative from Charlie?

– Charlie lives most of his life with a very low IQ. How does experiencing the world differently influence his participation in the experiment?

– As his IQ increases, Charlie’s intellectual development moves much faster than his emotional development. What does this say about the different types of intelligence? Is it possible to be smart in one area but not another?

– What is Charlie’s greatest strength? Greatest weakness? Do these change as he becomes smarter?

– Why do you think that Charlie is so attached to Algernon? Do the other characters understand their connection? Why or why not?

– Charlie begins the novel believing that he is deficient in some way and that everyone around him is almost god-like, but as he later learns, each character has some sort of weakness. What does this say about the idea of “perfection?”

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