Of American novels that engage with the topic of mental disability, few are more popular than Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. Such popularity seems based on a simplistic reading of the novel where the mentally disabled are objects of good-natured compassion. A more thorough reading of how Charlie Gordon is presented, however, leads to the conclusion that mental disability is the embodiment of death in the novel. Readers are first taught to pity the pre-operative Charlie, but once they come to respond to the ethical voice of the post-operative Charlie, his regression to his original state becomes the rhetorical villain in the novel. At first an object of pity, the mentally disabled Charlie Gordon eventually becomes the metaphorical horror of oblivion that no character has the power to overcome.
In my short career of teaching undergraduates, I have found that their interest in my own scholarly work is often, at best, tepid. When I informed a few classes, however, that I was working on Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon and the role mental disability had in the novel, the emotional attachment students had to the book was clear. They nearly unanimously praised it; a few spoke of how it was the only book that interested them in high school. It was clear that even in the 21st century the Hugo-winning science fiction novel was one of the most widely read that concerns the mentally disabled. 1 Perhaps it is the surface idea of the story that explains its presence in schools: Charlie Gordon is a mentally disabled man who records his thoughts in "progress reports" as he undergoes an operation to improve his intelligence. He reaches the cognitive ability of the greatest of geniuses, ironically surpassing the doctors who operated on him. Initially, this increase in intelligence grants Charlie hope: he revels in his new cognitive abilities and his romantic relationship with Alice, his former adult education teacher. Ultimately, however, his intelligence isolates him from Alice and all those closest to him. Aware how doctors took advantage of him while disabled, and how family and friends abandoned him, Charlie rebels against the idea that he is somehow a product of others' medical creation. His only companion through this isolation is Algernon, the mouse who preceded him in the breakthrough operation. Algernon, however, loses his gained intelligence and dies, and Charlie's operation proves just as temporary; despite his best attempts to remain an intelligent man, Charlie eventually returns to his previous disabled state. The final "progress report" Charlie writes is from the same intellectual level as those he writes at the beginning of the novel.
Based on this plot, the text seemingly brims with advocacy for the mentally disabled. The 1966 review by The New York Times states "The obvious part is the message: We must respect life, respect one another, be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves" (Fremont-Smith 25). In the pages of academic journals of pedagogy, the novel's message is understood to be one of advocacy: one teacher writes "The reading logs of my students reflected the sensitivity and moral indignation I had hoped they would experience while reading the story" (Peterson et al. 38). Even in his memoir Algernon, Charlie and I, Keyes himself states, "I didn't want my readers to laugh at Charlie. Maybe laugh with him, but not at him" (80). Keyes is right: it is impossible to imagine an implied reader meant to laugh at Charlie Gordon. Yet the concept and performance of mental disability in the novel is not the science-fiction-spun golden rule it may seem. Reading the book as a performance of the inherent dignity of the mentally disabled, such as the quotes above attest, only speaks to the initial presentation of Charlie: as a disabled man who deserves others' pity. Such a partial reading places it with such novels as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell state, help...
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