Charly and Algernon

Charly
Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Algernon and the maze in the film Charly.

Daniel Keyes wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a novella called “Flowers for Algernon” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced and an experiment with a human subject.

I read that story in a high school English class and it sent me to find his 1966 novel-length expansion. Later that year, I saw the movie adaptation titled Charly. A decade later, I taught the shorter story to middle school students. I like all the versions and students usually liked the story and the film.

The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon. He is a janitor with a quite low IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject in an experiment to raise IQ.

I read some biographical info on Keyes. He was pushed to study medicine by his parents and struggled with the coursework. At some point in his studies, he began to wonder if it was possible to someone make someone by an intervention. He left medicine behind and later taught English to a class of special-needs students. The idea for his story was formed through both experiences.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the story into a novel. They also wanted him to write a happier ending to the story. He refused.

The versions of his story have been around long enought that I don’t feel like it is a spoiler to say that the experiment works and Charlie becomes very smart, but the change is not permanent.

The book is written as Charlie’s journal entries and so the writing style, grammar and spelling change as Charlie changes. Algernon is a mouse that was an early test subject in the experiement. In a maze test, the mouse consistentlt beats Charlie in that task at the start of their experiment. But after the treatments, Charlie catches up and eventually is able to beat Algernon.

The story is science-fiction and certainly about experiments in increasing intelligence, but it is also a social commentary on how we treat mentally disadvantaged people in schools, the workplace, and society in general. It always sparked interesting classroom discussions.

The story ends with a poorly spelled note by a regressed Charlie to the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave.

The novel version was published in 1966 and has sold more than five million copies and it has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times. The feature film Charly (1968), won Cliff Robertson the Best Actor Oscar as Charlie. 

I also read Keyes’s book The Minds of Billy Milligan which is non-fiction written in novel form. It is the story of Billy Milligan, the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading multiple-personality disorder. Milligan had 24 distinct personalities battling for control inside him. It’s quite a story.

 

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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