What makes a person superior? Above-average intellect? Boundless kindness? Wealth and connections? The capacity to love and empathize? Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes suggests it is all of those things, and none by itself.
The story focuses on Charlie, a mentally disabled young man whose IQ is in the 60s. He’s unable to view the world the way normal people do. He is incapable of forming authentic friendships or relationships with others thanks to his lack of intelligence, his inability to appropriately perceive his surroundings, as well as psychological abuse he received in childhood from his mother, which has latent negative effects on his later life. With nothing to lose, Charlie undergoes a surgical procedure to make him smarter, the first of its kind performed on a human. It works, and his intellect rapidly grows beyond bounds, to a level above even those who designed and performed the procedure.
But does the abrupt increase in Charlie’s intellectual ability improve all areas of his life? Does having the ability to suddenly understand all things academic also fill his emotional voids?
Like the allegory of Plato’s cave, illustrated well by Andrew Horton in his essay on Medium, Charlie is like a prisoner trapped in the darkness of the well. He’s unaware of reality because he’s too dumb to comprehend it – and once he breaks free of his mental shackles, realizes everything he’s lived was not the way he thought it was. While some things improve for him, others break down. The struggling relationships he had before find new ways to complicate themselves. He becomes condescending and judgmental and, despite his cognitive expansion, develops limitations in his perceptions.
Still, the experiment gives Charlie the opportunity to experience the world in a different way. Not only the way a normal person would, but beyond – the way a super genius does – at the opposite end of the spectrum from his origin. It makes us wonder – if we were in his shoes, would we make the same choice? Even after we follow his arc, would we elect the same? Socrates said the unexplored life is not worth living, so shouldn’t we take every chance we have to explore? I believe Keyes suggests the answer is yes, but with caution. Intelligence by itself is nothing. A capacity for emotion is equally important.
Granted, I have always wanted to read this book because Chandler Bing mentions it in an episode of Friends. Plus, it won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and I will ready anything that has won those awards for achievement in science fiction.
In with the old? Yes, sir. This is still one to read in 2020.