(Note: I am reviewing the original short story here, not the extended version. My time has been rather limited this week.)
Daniel Keyes appears to have been a "one hit wonder" -- but he sure did accomplish something great with that one hit.
This work is frequently included in junior high literature anthologies, so I suspect I don't have to describe its plot in too much detail. The basics? Flowers for Algernon is written from the perspective of a mentally retarded man who undergoes an experimental procedure to increase his intelligence. Along the way, he learns some sad truths about human nature.
I loved this story when I was in middle school, so I decided this week to give it another pass to see if it holds up after all these years. My verdict? Yes. Yes, it does.
When I was twelve, I think what struck me the most was Charlie's discovery that his "friends" at the factory had been laughing at him all along. That moment is extremely accessible to middle schoolers, who all must navigate the nasty, backstabbing shoals of the early adolescent social scene. (I often observe, with my tongue only partially in cheek, that kids between the ages of ten and, oh, fourteen should be homeschooled until they get over their "mean" phase.) Now that I'm in my thirties, though, I am most impressed by Keyes' ability to capture the yearning that is inherent in human nature -- a yearning that ultimately cannot be fulfilled by earthly attainment.
When Charlie is slow and unable to read or spell well, he is not satisfied. Though unaware of much of the cruelty around him, he is still realizes that he is missing something. And so he clings to his lucky rabbit's foot and hopes with all his heart that the doctors will select him for their experiment so that he can be smart and therefore have access to all those areas of human endeavor that are currently closed to him. Then Charlie's IQ is tripled. He is able to read the "hard" books -- including books written in other languages. He's able to understand the science behind his incredible advance. And yet he's still not satisfied. While he has the knowledge he's always craved, he somehow still finds himself separated from others. He's smart, but he's given no opportunity to experience true intimacy.
Isn't this the human experience in a nutshell? In virtually every human society on the planet, there exists some notion of a paradise lost. Written on our hearts is a consciousness that we have been separated from something wonderful -- and so we strive daily to recapture Eden in every way we know how. Do we ever succeed? No. That's the tragedy of our broken nature. No matter what it is we happen to glom onto as the secret of genuine bliss - whether it be sex, power, money, "social justice," eco-consciousness, etc. - we always discover that happiness is an asymptote. Sometimes we get close to it, but we can never truly touch it. Not on Earth, at any rate.
As far as the characterization goes, Keyes' decision to use the diary format is a stroke of genius. It allows us to see in the writing itself how Charlie changes throughout the story.
The diary format does have one disadvantage, though: It doesn't provide much opportunity for reflection. At times, the development of the story feels a bit too swift. Still, on the whole, this is a very well-plotted piece.
The purpose of literature, I feel, is to explore what it means to be human. Keyes fulfills this purpose beautifully.