Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Flowers For Algernon

This book will get me up to date and hopefully I'll lose that feeling of being behind and unorganized. Maybe. At least in this area of my life.

This was another book I saw on the most commonly banned book shelf at my library. I may have read it before, because I sort of knew the story already. Although if I did, it was when I was much too young to understand the depths of this novel.

I loved it. I really loved it. I even cried at the end, which is so, so rare these days (unless I read Nicholas Sparks who always seems to get me at the end. Blast him.).

Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two mentally retarded man with an IQ of 70. He works as a janitor and errand boy in a bakery and considers his life good and happy because he has lots and lots of friends. He is aware, however, of not being very smart. He thinks if he can learn to read and write properly, he'll be smart and able to understand and participate in what everyone else is talking about.

When an opportunity to undergo an experimental surgery as part of a neuro-psychological study to artificially increase intelligence arises, he happily signs on. He can't wait to become smart.

Algernon is the name of a mouse who has reached unprecedented levels of intelligence following the same surgical procedure. Charlie, the first human subject, mirrors Algernon's success and reaches levels of intelligence far beyond what the doctors behind the study are capable of understanding. Alongside his increased intelligence are emerging emotional capabilities, such as romantic feelings towards women, and troubling memories he was previously unable to remember or understand with his lower IQ, about his childhood and friends.

The entire story is important and poignant. The author, Daniel Keyes, includes part of Plato's, The Republic, to begin the story. Plato writes:

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderment of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

I don't know if he read Plato's words and then wrote this story, or if he serendipitously found it afterward, but it is the perfect prologue. As Charlie adjusts his sight from living in the den of his limited mind to the brighter light of understanding, the growing pains the rest of us have had years to adjust and become accustomed to, are uncomfortable and awkward.

Likewise, at the peak of Charlie's intelligence, when he viewed the world around him in the brightest light possible, Charlie understands the flaws of the experiment that those who developed it were unable to see. With that understanding, the tragedy of watching him lose his grip on so much knowledge feels overwhelming.

As far as being commonly banned, I have no idea, at all, how this could be. The only thing even mildly questionable, to me, is Charlie's struggle to come to terms with the negative sexual conditioning he received from his mother as a boy. As he begins to express the feelings he has for women in general, and specifically towards Alice, a woman he loves, he struggles to understand, beyond theoretically, the complexities of the male-female relationship. While these situations are included, I actually think it's a critical part of the discussion of light and dark. Perhaps not for middle schoolers, but definitely for those of us who live with our own conditioning and judgment.

I highly recommend reading this. Even if you know you've read it long ago for school, read it again as an adult. And then test your own eyes.

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