Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seventeen, he briefly joined the US Maritime Service as a ship’s purser before studying psychology and obtaining his BA degree at Brooklyn College in 1950.
He worked as an associate fiction editor, then as a fashion photographer, before earning a license to teach English in New York City schools. At the same time he studied and received an M.A. degree in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College. He left New York to teach Creative Writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, before moving to Ohio University in 1966 to teach English and Creative Writing.
In 1988 Keyes received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal Of Honour from Brooklyn College and in 2000 he was honoured with professor emeritus status at Ohio University. He lives in Boca Raton in Southern Florida.
Daniel Keyes has written eleven books to date and received several awards. He became well known after the publication of his very successful first novel: Flowers For Algernon, published as a short story in 1959 and as a novel in 1966. It won the Hugo Award in 1960 for the short story and in 1967 for the novel. It also won the Nebula Award in 1966 and the Locus Award of 1998 for the fortieth best novel before 1990.
Flowers For Algernon has been translated into many languages, has sold millions of copies all over the world and was made into a film called, Charly in 1968. It was also adapted for the stage and developed as a Broadway musical drama in 1980.
Algernon is a white laboratory mouse who becomes very intelligent after an unprecedented, experimentally successful brain surgery.
Charlie Gordon, whose fate is about to mirror Algernon’s, works for eleven dollars a week – plus bread or cakes, if he wants – as a cleaner at Donners bakery in New York. He is thirty-two years old and was born mentally disabled. Charlie is extremely eager to become intelligent and learn fast in order to fit in and for people to like him. Therefore, he volunteers to undergo the same brain operation as Algernon. Permission is given by his sister, Norma, and supported by Miss Alice Kinnian, his teacher at Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults who recommends him as her best student, to Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur for the experimental surgery.
Dr Strauss asks Charlie to write down all his thoughts and what he remembers, which Charlie does in a semi-literate way, on a regular basis under the title: “progris riports”. In progress report 7 March 11, he writes: “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time.”
The spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and acumen of Charlie’s written progress reports improve gradually at the same pace as his mental condition advances steadily after his brain operation. The experiment is a great scientific achievement. Charlie’s IQ increases to exceed even that of his neurosurgeon, Dr Strauss and his psychologist, Professor Nemur.
Sadly, after becoming a genius, Charlie discovers the hard, cruel and real ugly truth about things around him. When he was mentally handicapped he thought people working at the bakery were his friends and never realised that they were making fun of him and laughing at him and not with him as he imagined. Presently what pains him most is that unknowingly he used to join them in laughing at himself.
When he becomes lucid, Charlie turns bitter and rancorous when he says to Alice Kinnian referring to the workers at Donners bakery: “they played tricks on me, and laughed at me” and although being aware of their cruelty, in his confused mind he still thinks of them as his real friends. He says to Professor Nemur: “ when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one”, albeit knowing “lots and lots of people”. Professor Nemur replies: “You’ve become cynical […] your genius has destroyed your faith in the world and in your fellow men”. Charlie replies, perspicaciously, that intelligence and education alone without “human affection” are worthless.
Charlie becomes shrewd and angrily rebellious against life and people around him. Even Alice Kinnian – his former teacher – admits that after becoming highly intelligent, he has lost “his warm, real smile”, an engaging smile that was meant to attract people and gain their love and affection. Throughout the novel the author accentuates the regrettable fact that a mentally disabled person is just as alienated as an abnormally genius human being, because neither happen to fit with the predominant standard.
Charlie has always been seeking love and affection from his mother, Rosa, his father Matt and his younger sister, Norma. Instead he is rejected as an abnormal child and put in the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults without any of his family ever visiting him. Charlie never recovers from being estranged from his family.
Despite becoming highly intelligent, Charlie remains emotionally handicapped and finds it difficult to become emotionally mature. He is in love with Alice Kinnian who returns his love but with all his knowledge he does not know how to handle the situation. Each time he attempts to physically express his love, the phantoms from his past haunt him. In the end, after making peace with his past as well as using strong will power, he manages to overcome his demons. He then succeeds in making love to his bohemian neighbour, Fay, which encourages him to physically express without inhibition his strong love for Alice, the only woman he ever loved.
Regrettably, the wonderful positive, scientific breakthrough effect of the brain surgery experiment only lasts a few months before Algernon’s cleverness unexpectedly deteriorates followed by his death. After following Algernon’s decline, Charlie witnesses in a panic that his intelligence is also reducing gradually and deduces with horror, that he is going back to his former mental disability.
The heart-wrenching part takes place at the end of the story when the now mentally disabled Charlie reveals he has not forgotten that, not long before, he was a genius. He writes: “I know evrybody feels sorry for me […] I dont want that […] so Im going someplace where they are a lot of other pepul like me and nobody cares that Charlie Gordon was once a genus and now he cant even reed a book or rite good”. The novel ends on a moving note, with Charlie asking Miss Kinnian, in his farewell message if she could put some flowers on Algernon’s grave in the back yard, when she gets a chance.
Flowers For Algernon is narrated by the main character, Charlie Gordon. It is a non typical science fiction novel, written in a diary cum epistolary form. The author brings into focus several subjects: the main one is compassion for mentally handicapped people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Then there are the ethical questions about experimenting on human beings as well as on animals and how the upbringing of a child can severely hinder him psychologically, haunt him and ruin his future. And finally, how great conflicts can arise between mind versus feeling.
Flowers For Algernon is an original, enthralling, thought provoking novel, deeply poignant and beautifully written with a great deal of empathy.