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“Flowers for Algernon”: A journey of intelligence, emotion, and humanity

“How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.” A lack of limbs can be overcome, but a lack of intelligence is considered a lack of humanity itself.

Published in 1966, “Flowers for Algernon ” a fiction, sci-fi novel written by Daniel Keyes aims to show the stark difference between the treatment of the intellectually abled and disabled.

Set in 1960s New York, a mouse named Algernon leads the way to perhaps the most important scientific discovery known to man: genetically engineered increased intelligence. Told through journal entries, the simple-minded man that is Charlie Gordon records his thoughts as he undergoes the change of a lifetime. Will it work? Only time, and a mouse, may tell.

In a world where intelligence is prized, emotion is often disregarded. Post-procedure, Charlie was exploited to make others feel superior, for everyone was a genius compared to him. While he no doubt grew academically smarter, Charlie has no clue how to process his own emotions, but it does not mean he lacks them, a fact that the scientists often forget. Our ability to think on a higher level is what sets humans apart from animals, but is intelligence worth anything if emotion does not go along with it?   

“Flowers for Algernon” was written over 60 years ago, but the message Keyes sends about the dangers of the stigma surrounding the intellectually disabled still applies today. Charlie was the first human subjected to the procedure, yet the scientists that conducted it treated him as if he were just another animal. The scientists thought they created Charlie when they made him smart, they didn’t consider him human until he could read, write, and speak “normally.” 

When the original short story was written in 1959, ”Flowers for Algernon” was released in a world on the brink of a civil rights movement demanding equal opportunities for those with disabilities. Through the efforts of activists, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, followed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the most law protecting the rights of people with disabilities. People are defined by their beliefs, hopes, and dreams, not by a disability. From being objects of ridicule to being able to lead their own independent lives, the problem of inequality has improved, but is far from solved. Laws take years to change, but stigma takes even longer.

For a short time, Charlie held the world in his hands. He had lived his entire life in the dark, ignorant to what he was missing. The procedure gave him the ability to learn the entirety of what the world had to offer with the only catch being that it wouldn’t last. Is the attempt to change nature the limit to scientific advancement? Is what we are born with all that we are ever meant to have?