A Short Story And Novel That Ian Likes: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon is the janitor at a local bakery. He also attends evening classes to improve his reading and writing skills. His motivation to better himself inspires his teacher, Alice Kinnian, to submit his name for an experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. Initial results on a lab mouse, named Algernon, have been promising and Nemur and Strauss, the doctors in charge of the program, feel the time is right to move on to a human subject…

Daniel Keyes (1927 – 2014) wrote “Flowers For Algernon” as a short story in 1959. He initially had the idea when he was a writer/editor for Atlas Comics, working under Stan Lee (you may have heard of him), but he didn’t submit it to his boss, feeling that it deserved something more expansive than a comic book to properly explore the idea. Soon after this, he left editing and became a teacher. He revisited the idea after one of his students in a remedial English class wanted to move up into a “standard” class: his statement, “I want to be smart” haunted him and he channelled that back into this story, winning the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.  It was expanded into a novel with the same title (just in italics) in 1966 and promptly won the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Soon after that it was adapted into a movie, Charly, which won an Oscar for Cliff Robertson as Best Actor. There have been countless adaptations or variations on the story in the years since (including a musical starring Michael Crawford), showing just how much the story resonates with and has sunk into our collective unconsciousness.

The story is told by Charlie through his journal entries. It covers his initial assessment, then surgery and the progress he makes following that, and his changing relationships with the people around him whom he had regarded as his friends… and then his decline back into his original state, or possibly further. It’s a heartbreaking work and told beautifully: as Charlie becomes “smarter” you can see the change in his reports/journal entries, and these also foreshadow his reversion as well.

My first exposure to the story was in an anthology that I read when I was 13. I’d picked it up at a flea market because I’d heard of a few of the authors on the cover – it also included Daphne du Maurier’s classic “The Birds” and the wonderful “Of Missing Persons” by Jack Finney – and I was totally hooked: it was the first story I’d read than made me cry for what happened to the characters. It’s a nearly perfect short story, deserving of all the accolades it received, and I returned to it often. It always had the same effect on me. My love of it was further enforced when it used as a set piece in my English class the following year (I know that a lot of people love to rubbish English as taught by teachers in schools but frequently you do find those wonderful souls who know how to teach the subject in a way that generates interest and enthusiasm. I had several of those teachers, although getting me to read books and talk about them was hardly a chore for anyone, so your mileage may definitely vary): to cap off our study of it, our teacher found a copy of Charly that we watched across two lessons. It was one of the few times in my education that somebody promoted a Science Fiction piece as being worthwhile or even worthy of closer examination, so I was profoundly impressed.

I found the novel in the bookshop at my university a few years later. I’d misplaced the anthology by that point, so I was thrilled to have the story again. It was the same tale but expanded considerably: there’s a lot more information about Charlie’s assessment and development, and more conflict with Nemur and Strauss. In a twist, Charlie and Algernon make a run for it after a particularly disastrous conference and get their own place in the city. Charlie embarks on a relationship with a free-spirited neighbour and begins his own program of research into what is happening to him, using the gradual deterioration of Algernon as a starting point. Being a novel, and being a novel written in the 1960s, there’s a lot of discussion about Charlie’s psyche and how his early life and the expectations of his parents (in particular his mother) affected his later life (Keyes was a fan of psychoanalysis and had weekly sessions for much of his own life). Anyway, the ending of this version is just as heartbreaking, simply because Charlie has a lot more awareness of the changes that he is undergoing and Keyes is able to expand those changes so that they creep up on the reader, surprising them by being hidden in plain sight.

But I want to go back to the fact that the novel was expanded from a short story for a little bit, though. It used to be common practice in the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction that if an author had a successful story, they might write sequels to it, then collect them together in an anthology (Asimov’s Foundation novels and I, Robot spring to mind, as do Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series and Frank Herbert’s Dune). Sometimes it was successful and achieved fairly seamlessly (Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man is another that springs to mind) while in other instances you could see where the seams between short story and novel were (David Brin’s The Postman is a fantastic novel but is very clearly a couple of short stories with extensions). The practice fell out of favour for a while but came back with a vengeance in recent years, with a novel being the basis for a series rather than a story – any series named after its first volume (Twilight and The Hunger Games for example) may well have started out as a single novel that was expanded on.

Flowers For Algernon is one of the best: the additions and changes feel natural and add to the themes and intentions of the story, rather than just padding it out to sixty thousand words.

Unfortunately, Keyes was never able to replicate the success of Flowers For Algernon. He wrote several novels and short stories afterwards but none of them ever came close to having that same impact. However, Keyes is the kind of one-hit-wonder that all of us lesser writers can only dream of being.

You can find out more about Daniel Keyes at http://www.danielkeyesauthor.com/algernon.html (this is a site that is “under construction” and may be tricky to navigate)

3 thoughts on “A Short Story And Novel That Ian Likes: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

  1. Yes, I think there’s too much sameness these days. The modern covers don’t represent the story within. When I was young, I used to choose books by what was depicted on the covers. I knew what the characters looked like and had a hint of what the story might involve. I guess the artist was given clues, or may they read part of the book before creating the art.


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