by Daniel Keyes
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, this powerful, classic story is about a man who receives an operation that turns him into a genius and introduces him to heartache.
Charlie Gordon is about to embark upon an unprecedented journey. Born with a low IQ, he has been chosen as the perfect subject for an experimental surgery that researchers hope will increase his intelligence, a procedure that has already been highly successful when tested on a lab mouse named Algernon. As the treatment takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment appears to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance, until Algernon suddenly deteriorates. Will the same happen to Charlie?
Before reading the book
Because Flowers for Algernon was published in the mid-20th century, it contains outdated language used to describe intellectual disabilities. A brief lesson on the story’s historical context and the evolution of disability terminology may be appropriate before starting the book.
Discussion questions from SOMN
- Discuss the moral implications of Dr. Nemur’s experiment. What happens when humans manipulate the minds of others? This article provides additional content for consideration.
- Are the doctors who operate on Charlie acting in his best interests? Do you think Charlie would have gone through with the operation if he knew what the ultimate outcome would be?
- How has our understanding of intelligence evolved over time? How do we measure intelligence, and to what extent does intelligence determine quality of life?
- How has Charlie changed from the beginning of the novel? How did the surgery and later regression impact his quality of life and his relationships with friends and co-workers?
- Reflect on Charlie’s flashbacks to his childhood and life before meeting Nemur and Strauss. What do those remembrances suggest about the historical treatment of people with intellectual disabilities? How are things different or the same today?
- What does Algernon represent to Charlie? What are the parallels between their conditions?
- What did you think of the author’s choice to tell the story through progress notes from Charlie’s point of view? What did you think of the writing style and Keyes’ creative choices?
- What is the central message of the novel? Is there more than one moral to the story of Charlie’s treatment?
Classroom activities from SOMN
- Watch the 2000 film adaptation of the novel, “Flowers for Algernon.” NOTE: There is also a 1968 film adaptation titled “Charly.” It contains some problematic and potentially triggering material. Teachers should review it in its entirety before deciding to show it in class. The PG rating is not accurate by today’s standards.
- In small groups, have students research the history of IQ testing and criticism of the tests. Students should share their findings with the class.
- Read this article and discuss as a class. How do the ideas behind these medical practices in Denmark connect with ideas present in Flowers for Algernon?