In the last few weeks, Marshmallow and her English class have been reading a version of the classic novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, first published as a short story in 1959 and then expanded by its author to be published as a full novel in 1966. Sprinkles was excited to see Marshmallow getting into the story because she remembers it fondly from her own time reading the same book in school decades ago. In the blog post below, the two bunnies discuss the full book.
Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with your usual short overview of the book?
Marshmallow: Why not? If you like books about growing up or living through a big change, this might be the book for you.
S: I think that is a good way to describe the book. The main character is originally a mentally challenged adult, so he is not really growing up, but he undergoes an experimental treatment which enhances his mental capabilities immensely, and so he is going through a big change.
M: Yes. The main character is Charlie Gordon, and he is the one narrating the story. The book is written as a series of progress reports, all through his perspective.
S: Yes, the entries are like diary entries, right?
M: Yes, most of them. And at the beginning he is using very simple sentences and basic words and sometimes has very poor spelling. As the treatment takes effect, he begins to write more complex sentences and use bigger words. He also starts to write about more personal and complicated things and has to confront some past emotional trauma. So, for example, I should warn all bunnies that the book does have some explicit descriptions of certain sexual feelings and acts. As Charlie gets more and more mentally capable, he begins to notice his attraction to women.
S: Even before the operation, he might have felt some such feelings, but would perhaps not write about them?
M: I’m not sure. It seems to me that Charlie had the mind of a three year old before the operation, and so he did not have any sexual impulses.
S: Hmm, that sounds somewhat unrealistic to me, given that he has the body of a full-grown man; his hormones and related needs and desires would probably be quite typical.
M: Well, I don’t know, but he seems to become more interested in things like that, and that was quite a bit different from the version we have been reading at school. In that version, we do not see any of this stuff. Which is in some ways easier to read.
S: I can understand that. Perhaps that is why a lot of school districts have had discussions about this book, and apparently some have even removed it from their libraries. The sexual content might be a lot for some younger bunnies to handle, even though I was not bothered by them when I was a young bunny reading the book. Then again, I might have been a little older than you… Or who knows? Maybe I read an abridged version, too, and I do not recall very well.
M: Maybe. I don’t know. But the full book is a bit more adult than my usual reading fare. The only other book I have read that is kind of like this one is 1984 by George Orwell, which also had some explicit scenes.
S: I understand. I’d say that both books have very serious messages, and the sexually explicit scenes in both books play significant roles in clarifying those messages. So for example in 1984, the sexual scenes show us the main character’s difficulties with intimacy and the oppressiveness of the general climate. In this book, I think the sexual scenes are a part of Charlie becoming more aware of his body, his personality, his needs and desires, as well as how the outside world views him.
M: I can see that.
S: So who or what is Algernon? Why is the book titled Flowers for Algernon?
M: Algernon is a mouse. He has gone through the same operation that Charlie has, and in some ways, the changes he goes through are similar to what happens to Charlie. So Charlie begins to really like and care for Algernon, because Algernon is more or less the only other creature in the world who is going through the same thing that Charlie is. And then —
S: Wait, don’t give everything away!
M: Okay, no more spoilers. But things do get pretty sad, and the title of the book is in the very last sentence of the book.
S: Yes, that is true. What did you think of Charlie? Did you like him or sympathize with him?
M: I liked him, more at some times and less at others. He is a childlike and kind person at the beginning, and that I really liked. But then as the operation takes effect and he begins to get more and more intelligent, he becomes more arrogant and he does not even realize that. I did not like him that much then. But eventually he does begin to understand other people better, and he remembers and tries to process some of the emotional trauma from his childhood. He justifiably gets angry at some people who mistreated him when he did not know they were being mean. And there I could of course sympathize with him. And he wants to be accepted most of all.
S: I guess that is a very understandable need. We are social creatures and we want to belong.
M: Yes. I think so. So when he becomes too intelligent, that is also isolating. Certain people used to feel better about themselves by putting him down, but now they feel inferior to him and begin to fear and avoid him. In some ways, those people were not good people to have as friends anyways, but Charlie did not know. In any case, in the end —
S: Wait, remember, we don’t want to be giving away too much…
M: Hmm, okay, I guess I should stop here.
S: Alright. Let us do that. Would you recommend this book to other young bunnies? Or perhaps, you’d recommend the abridged version?
M: I think young bunnies might really like the abridged version. Charlie’s story is a lot simpler in it and it is a lot easier to read. And you get to really like him and feel for him, and and the story is still sad but beautiful.
S: Okay. That makes sense to me. Full-blown people are all pretty complex, and I think the original book captures that really well. Charlie is a complex person with a complex story, and the book does give us a lot more to chew on. But the main message can come through quite clearly in the abridged version, too, without the distractions of the sex dimension and the emotional trauma. So how do you want to end this review?
M: I can say my usual: Stay tuned for more amazing reviews from the book bunnies!